Even people who know little of jazz or the Swing Era have probably heard trumpeter, singer, bandleader, and mythic figure Bunny Berigan (1908-42) in some context.
His Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is used in film soundtracks and elsewhere as a quick way of summoning up days gone by. Other touchstones are Berigan’s solo on MARIE with Tommy Dorsey and on 1936 Billie Holiday sessions.
Those of us who know that music well have heard Berigan on his own, with Goodman, the Boswell Sisters, Mildred, in jam sessions and airshots. Like Bix Beiderbecke, he became a mythic figure quickly, and people regard him with a mixture of love, admiration, and pity.
Here is a rare film clip of Bunny in summer 1936, singing and playing with the Fred Rich band:
In that performance, one hears Berigan’s astonishing adaptation of Louis — with his own sound and majesty, as well as his charming singing. Bunny remains a monumental figure, someone who threw himself into every solo, leading the section when he wasn’t playing: someone who seems to have given his life to the music.
The other fact of Berigan’s short life is his alcoholism. Other narratives have compressed his existence into two parallel assertions: he played splendidly and he drank himself to death.
But Michael Zirpolo’s new biography of Berigan goes beyond the formulaic. It is a great accomplishment and an addictive pleasure.
And it’s not great merely because it contains new information on every one of its 500-plus pages. Zirpolo had access to the lifework of Bozy White, who had been collecting information about Berigan for more than half a century. MR. TRUMPET makes wise use of that mountain of information. Often biographers are content to arrange their material in chronological order and unload it on the reader, who smothers under the avalanche. This book moves judiciously through Berigan’s life — his personal entanglements, his economic mistakes, his glorious recordings — without getting bogged down in any one aspect. Zirpolo’s book has a powerful predecessor, Robert Dupuis’ 1993 biography of Berigan, which gave us much more insight into Berigan the musician and the husband than we had had before (taking into account the subjectivity of an embittered spouse). But with all respects to Dupuis, this is the Berigan book: I think no one will surpass it.
From the start, this book shows us someone who decided, early on, to broaden the scope of his investigations into Berigan’s life: Zirpolo is curious about not only Berigan but the musical, emotional, and financial world in which he lived. Rather than simply lining facts up one by one, peanuts in a row, Zirpolo loves to ask HOW and WHY and (even better) IS THIS TRUE? Many myths have attached to Berigan, and Zirpolo examines them closely.
Of course, the biography follows Berigan through his brief life as thoroughly as possible. If a reader wants to know where Berigan was on August 8, 1938, (s)he will have a good chance of finding out not only where but what was happening: not only that, but how the events of that day stand in relation to the past and future. One of the greatest assets of this book is the substantial number of first-hand narratives: Bozy White seems to have assiduously interviewed everyone who ever played once in a band where Bunny was present, and these recollections constantly bring human voices into the book.
Thus we have Bunny not only as the superb trumpet player, the bandleader concerned about how his band should sound, the terrible businessman, the man in thrall to alcohol, the playful, childlike individual — serious about very little except his music.
And what music! Here is one of my favorite Berigan solos — fearless and impassioned — with Bud Freeman, Claude Thornhill, Eddie Condon, Grachan Moncur, and Cozy Cole:
Zirpolo’s book is a fine mixture of all the things I’ve mentioned, sustained by his own admiration for his subject. The biography is never idolatrous — when Bunny does something disastrous, Zirpolo presents the facts and their consequences — but it’s always charming to see a biography where the writer, in the best old-fashioned way, loves his subject in particular, is passionate about history, and (as a useful sidelight) is thrilled by New York City, where Berigan spent so much of his life.
Even a reader who knows Berigan well will find surprises (not the least of them being rare photographs) but the novice might use this book as an introduction to the musical life of the United States in this period: endnotes give us brief biographical sketches of everyone whose path crossed Berigan’s.
As an interlude, here is a Disney song from 1938 — with a vocal by Gail Reese, two solos by Bunny (one muted, one open), and drumming by Dave Tough:
Zirpolo began this book through a childhood experience — watching his father in tears listen to Bunny’s music. Later he learned that his father had seen the Berigan band and remembered it clearly. One of the aspects of this book that I find most endearing is Zirpolo’s understanding that we all have deeply complicated inner lives. So rather than decide early on to insert the facts into one conceptual framework — Berigan “the tortured soul,” the “doomed alcoholic,” a man who could never “get started,” he has watched Berigan from angles that change as the chronicle moves on.
Ultimately, the biography chronicles the triumph of Bunny Berigan: cirrhosis ended his life, but his music has its own lasting existence. You can find out much more about Berigan and this remarkable book (including a photo gallery full of marvels) here.