Born: November 2, 1908 | Died: June 2, 1942 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Bernard Bunny Berigan left his mark, whether leading his own band or sparking someone else's. Berigan was one of the top three trumpet soloists during the Big Band era and one of the few who had an original style not in the mold of Louis Armstrong. No one ever played like he played, Joe Aguanno, a trumpeter who worked with the Berigan outfit in 1939-40, remembers. The sound was so rich and so soulful. There's something that us trumpet players used to hear in Bunny. When he would attack a certain note, it would sound . . . it makes you cry. The sound that came out of Bunny's horn was just like the type of person he was. He was such a fine,lovable guy... a big man, nice-looking.
He didn't actually meet Bunny until he tried out for the Berigan crew around October 1939, just before it was to play the New York World's Fair. I only actually met him when I auditioned for him, he said. Before that, naturally, I was a fan of his.
Aguanno had been recommended by a friend and fellow trumpeter, Johnny Fallstitch, who, along with Bunny, Truman Quigley, and Carl Warwick, made up the Berigan trumpet section at that time.
I was practicing at my home in Brooklyn, New York at about 2:15 in the afternoon, I'll never forget that, and the phone rang and I answered the phone, This is Joe. He called me 'Joe Aguackamo,' and I said, 'No, Joe Aguanno.' And he said, 'This is Bunny Berigan.' And I said, 'Oh, hi ya Bun.' I just said 'Bunny,' 'cause we in music talk that way. And he said, 'I'm in need of a trumpet player tonight, to add to the band. We're going to the World's Fair next week, for a week, and I want you to come in and sit in with the band.'
No one ever played like he played, Joe Aguanno, a trumpeter who worked with the Berigan outfit in 1939-40, The sound was so rich and so soulful. There's something that us trumpet players used to hear in Bunny. When he would attack a certain note, it would sound . . . it makes you cry. The sound that came out of Bunny's horn was just like the type of person he was. He was such a fine, lovable guy... a big man, nice-looking.
During the night, as we played at the World's Fair, Aguanno continued, Bunny calls out for a tune to be played, where I had a solo in it, on the 3rd trumpet part, you know. The tune was My Prayer. Naturally, I'm in the section playing whatever Bunny's pulling out. But then later, things were going pretty good, I guess, he called out a tune so that I could stand up and play 8 bars. It was sort of a slow ballad-type, where he could hear my tone and phrasing or whatever, the roundness of the sound. I was very happy to play it and from then on, I stayed on.
Geez, I don't know, Aguanno said. I just know that it is and it was... in fact, I have a good friend of mine that recorded it just like Bunny's and his name is Rusty Dedrick. I worked with Rusty for many years . . . When you say 'everybody' and I have to say everybody, from Doc Severinsen on down, or Wynton Marsalis, or whoever else. In fact, they've recorded it with four trumpets and harmony. I can't tell you why, but I don't think that there's a musician that doesn't love that theme song the way heplays it.
Aguanno singled out Bunny's solo on I Cried for You, with Kathleen Lane's vocal, as another one of his best. When he makes his entrance, just with one note, after she finishes a chorus, and then he just plays one note as his entrance, just one note [hums the note] and then he goes on . . . Just that one note and I got responses from that same feeling I'm trying to describe, he remarked.
For Ken Hansen, who married one of Bunny's daughters, Joyce, in 1992, Berigan's finest recorded moment came as a player in Tommy Dorsey's band. I think his solo on Marie was probably the greatest trumpet solo ever, Hansen asserted. Of course, he won a [posthumous Hall of Fame] Grammy award in 1975 . . . for his trumpet work on I Can't Get Started, but I really believe his solo on Marie was better, tremendously creative. I know other Berigan fans would feel the same way.
In general, Hansen thinks Bunny was at his peak as a sideman. Oh yes, definitely. I think his best work was in small groups, actually, he said.
And the period as a member of Benny Goodman's band had its high points, too. His work with Goodman was just outstanding, Hansen agreed. You're probably familiar with the 'Bill Dodge' recordings. I think that was exceptional work.
Yet, Berigan’s work as a sideman during 1931 to 1936, when many would say that he was at his most potent, were largely neglected by jazz reissue labels, until Mosaic released 151 of them as a 7-CD set, The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions, in 2003.
Berigan assembled some great musicians to staff his own band, starting with the '37-'38 group, which included, at various times, trumpeter Steve Lipkins; trombonist Ray Conniff; saxophonists Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, and Gus Bivona; and drummers George Wettling, Dave Tough, Johnny Blowers, Buddy Rich and Jack Sperling. That was the problem, Aguanno claimed. The all-stars Bunny didn't control them, he used to just feature them.
Berigan have secured his place in the annals of American musical history. In his short lifetime, Berigan performed on more than six hundred recordings and achieved national as well as international success. He served as a direct link between Louis Armstrong and those who developed from his roots -Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis, and others.
Berigan and his soaring trumpet catapulted the Benny Goodman band, along with the rest of the country, into the swing era and assured Goodman's coronation as the King of Swing. Berigan's uninhibited jazz style inspired and dominated every group with which be played, including the bands of Hal Kemp, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey. His great technical skills and instant reading ability made him a coveted studio player for such vocalists as Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby.
Berigan's agent was concerned about his habit of being drunk on the stand, and just about everywhere else while the band was on tour. He hired Berigan's father to travel with the band and to discipline the young man and keep his drinking under control. The move was not a success. Berigan father and son drank each other under the table every night. Berigan just loved staying up to all hours of the night with the ladies and drinking.
Drummer Jack Sperling joined the band in July 1941 and the job lasted until he was called into the US Navy in the spring of 1942. Berigan, who was 33, completed the business of drinking himself to death a couple of weeks later.