Without a doubt, one of the greatest trumpeters and soloists of the Big Band era was Roland "Bunny" Berigan (1908-42). Bunny's brilliant but short-lived career paralleled that of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke in that alcoholism took him at too early an age. (Bix and Bunny actually worked a few gigs together). Bunny played trumpet with a huge, pure sound, occasionally augmented by growls. He took all kinds of chances on his horn and usually made them. He would go from the lowest points of the horn to the highest in one passage. His lip trills and shakes on high notes were classic trademarks of his style. Bunny idolized Louis (as did Louis, Bunny) and you can hear Louis’ influence, but Bunny also developed a fleet way of running his notes all around the horn without being too busy.
Bunny was born in Fox Lake, Wisconsin and learned violin and trumpet at an early age. He worked with many mid-west bands before making his mark with the Hal Kemp band in 1930. At that time Kemp's band played a mixture of sweet and hot dance music. It didn't take Bunny long to rise to the top of the music world. Besides being a gifted improviser, he could also read and play great lead trumpet. He quickly broke into the studio and record scene of the early 30s. Also he did much free-lancing with top bands such as Fred Rich, The Dorseys, Benny Krueger and Smith Ballew. From 1932-3 he was with Paul Whiteman (another Bix parallel). Following his Whiteman stint, he continued his busy radio and record work.
In 1935 he joined Benny Goodman's new band and helped Benny revolutionize the swing craze. His solos on King Porter Stomp, Sometimes I'm Happy and Blue Skies were important parts of the success of the Goodman band, along with his great lead work. Bunny was so central to the band's success that Goodman put up with his drinking.
Always restless, Bunny left Goodman at the end of 1935 to resume free-lancing. In early 1937 he joined Tommy Dorsey and played a similar role in putting Dorsey's already successful band over in a big way. His solos on Marie and Song of India were two of the greatest improvisations of the era. They became so much a part of the Dorsey book that Tommy had them transcribed for the entire trumpet section. They are still played that way by the current Dorsey band.
With Dorsey's help and backing Bunny started his own band in early 1937. Bunny was not a good businessman or leader, but he could play and always had very musical and swinging bands. He was also a good talent scout. Some of his band graduates included Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, Ray Coniff, Joe Bushkin, Gus Bivona and Buddy Rich. His recording of I can't get Started became an instant classic and still is. This magnificent series of improvisations and a charming Berigan vocal will always be one of the great solos of the era and has transcended time. There are many wonderful Berigan solos with this band including Prisoner's Song, Jelly Roll Blues, Caravan, Wearin' of the Green and Black Bottom.
One of my personal favorites (and many other musicians) is a magnificent Berigan performance on Trees. This melody was added to the famous Joyce Kilmer poem. On the opening chorus Bunny can be heard playing lead in a cup mute (he still played a lot of lead in his own band). The band is in the key of A for a half chorus. Then it switches to D with the saxes taking over the melody. A sax interlude takes us into Aflat for Bunny's solo. He enters in the low register with that beautiful, fat tone paraphrasing the melody. At one point he hits a low F, not a real trumpet note, but Bunny lips his way down to it. Still paraphrasing the melody, he works his way into the middle register and then a sudden leap into the high register with one of his patented shakes over the band landing on high F. The band picks up the melody and Georgie Auld takes a short tenor spot. The band rides the tune out with Bunny restating the melody over them for the coda. The solo is fairly short, but the passion and daring in Bunny's leaps from low to high register are hallmarks of his exciting and brilliant style. A classic solo!
This Berigan band lasted until late 1939. Bunny was in deep debt and Tommy Dorsey got him out of the hole by offering him a job in his band. For the early part of 1940 Bunny sparked the Dorsey band with great solos and lead work. (Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich were also in the band). But Bunny's drinking problems finally got the better of him and he left Tommy in August of 1940. After Dorsey he led a small group for a while and did some soundtrack work on the film Syncopation. But Bunny kept trying with various big bands that were usually good musically, but were primarily made up of young musicians. Like Bix the combination of drink and exhaustion finally took him in June of 1942.
Bunny will always be remembered as one of the greatest trumpet soloists of the Swing era. His solos with Goodman, Dorsey and his own bands will be classics forever. His own swing band had its moments and the output of 1937-9 is highly recommended. Trees can be heard on the Classics CD series. Bunny will always be a welcome artist on this post. The ultimate tribute came from Louis Armstrong who never played I Can't get Started out of respect for Bunny. Apparently he did play it once for a special fan and gave it a magnificent reading.
What better tribute to the one and only Bunny Berigan .