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Soaring with Bunny Berigan

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Amalgamating Louis and Bix

By the late 1920s a clear dichotomy arose in jazz trumpet and cornet style between the extroverted outlook of Louis Armstrong versus the more introverted, nuanced manner of Bix Beiderbecke.  To the subtle lyricism of Beiderbecke, he welded Armstrong’s vast power, range and dynamics. In fact, his skills were often compared favorably with Satchmo, who himself declared “To me, Bunny can’t do no wrong in music.”

Berigan’s unique achievement was fusing these divergent jazz horn tendencies into his personal vocabulary.  He blended the uninhibited bravura of Louis with the nuanced harmonic tonal perspective of Bix. His masterful 1935 rendition of “I’m Coming Virginia” might be the best example of this synthesis and a summary of Berigan’s best strengths.

I’m Coming Virginia


Parallels with Beiderbecke

There are odd, even spooky parallels between the careers of Bunny Berigan and cornet player Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931).  Both were from the Midwest — Bunny from Wisconsin, Bix from Iowa next door.  Each worked for a while in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra – the two even played together once on a Paul Whiteman gig, though Bix was in pretty bad shape by then.  And both died at a young age from alcohol abuse.

Writing in depth about each, Richard Sudhalter points to musical similarities — some obvious, others subtle.  The use of “ghost” notes. Lengthy concentrations of eighth notes played with a bell-like attack. And melodic lines encompassing more than one contrapuntal part.

Clearly, Berigan felt a strong kinship with Bix.  Six years after his death, Bunny was the first to record Beiderbecke’s original compositions.  In 1938 he waxed a sensitive “Davenport Blues” and several of his obscure impressionist miniatures.  The most successful musically was “Candlelights” which was arranged for a choir of six horns with a rhythm section.

Davenport Blues




The Berigan Orchestra: Triumph and Disaster

It seems that many successful Swing era stars thought they could run an orchestra.  Sometimes they were urged to it by friends and fans – or by promoters and the record companies.  Most failed financially even if they succeeded musically. Bunny was no exception and made several attempts at leading a band.

Berigan’s orchestra at its best had a driving energy and danceability equal to the big-name outfits, thanks in part to a series of very good drummers like George Wettling, Dave Tough and Buddy Rich.  Unfortunately, the performance format that succeeded for him was very taxing. requiring Berigan to simultaneously play trumpet and direct the band on nearly every number.

Band Live Clip – Shanghai Shuffle, Black Bottom Stomp

2 Responses to Soaring with Bunny Berigan

  1. Albert Nicholas told me that Bunny was the most respected trumpeter among the colored musicians.
    They praised him highly. He was a king. What a waste of talent this alcohol was.

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