Jazz week: trumpet. Day 5, Bunny Berigan

January 14, 2011 • 6:32 am

This is the wild card, and I’m gonna take it in the neck for writing about this guy.  But hey, it’s my website and I want to put up one of my favorite jazz songs—and trumpet solos.

True, Bunny Berigan wasn’t as important in the history of jazz as some trumpeters I’ve omitted (Chet Baker comes to mind). But he wasn’t a slouch, either!  And ever since I listened to I Can’t Get Started on one of my parents’ “oldies” LPs, I’ve loved that song.  (Bunny is probably the first jazzman I ever heard.)  Don’t get all grumpy because I’ve left off your favorite trumpeter; just tout him in a comment.

Rowland Bernard Berigan, known as “Bunny” (1908-1942), had a short life, for he couldn’t stay off the sauce.  Had he lived, and not been such an alcoholic, I think he’d rank much higher in the trumpet pantheon.  Berigan worked with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman’s bands in the thirties, and then, forming his own band, produced one remarkable—and popular—song.

That song is I Can’t Get Started, recorded in 1937.  It became his theme song for the five remaining years of his life.  You may have heard it, as it’s one of those standards that gets replayed in movies.  And it has some blazing trumpet work by Berigan at the beginning and end (and okay vocals in the middle).  Wikipedia describes it like this:

“I Can’t Get Started” is the plaintive song of a man who has achieved and won everything he could hope for, except the attention of the woman he desires. It is most exceptional in that Gershwin’s lyrics break the mold for ballads: it is topical and totally dated to the headlines of the 1930’s.

The melody, true to the theme of the lyrics, starts out at a low pitch and rarely goes very far up. A moving melody line carries the descriptive lines of text, however, until it comes to the bridge, where the text turns more emotional. There the song, changing to a minor key with long held notes, borders on despondency. This song deserves on its merits to be the success which it eventually, slowly, became. . .

. . . Berigan’s recording on trumpet is a virtuoso work that defines the range of the instrument, starting in the basement and climbing finally to the stratosphere. In addition to his range, Berigan displays here a mastery of expression, of emotional nuance, beyond what most trumpet players can only dream of: he takes the song all the way from despondence to victory.

I love the dated references in the lyrics: “I’ve been consulted by Franklin D.; Greta Garbo has had me to tea. . ” etc.  Here it is:

The Bunster also played solo trumpet solo (beginning at 1:37) on another big-band favorite of mine, Marie, by Tommy Dorsey:

Finally, here is one of the few video clips of Teh Bunneh, Until Today with the Freddie Rich band. Note that Berigan’s name is spelled wrong in the title.  It’s thirties white big-band singing, a bit schlocky, but it’s Bunny in the flesh, with a nice solo beginning at 0:51.

So ends Jazz Trumpet Week. It’s been fun, and some time down the line we’ll take up the sax.  Now that will be a hard one!

18 thoughts on “Jazz week: trumpet. Day 5, Bunny Berigan

  1. I’ve never been all that keen on Big Band jazz, but I’m glad you highlighted someone who might not be in most people’s pantheon, because it shows how good even some of the so-called “lesser” talents were. This reminds me of the stuff I used to hear on Hazen Schumacher’s radio program “Jazz Revisited”, which is archived and available on-line at:


    Can’t wait to hear what instrument and
    musicians you focus on next! In addition to spotlighting instrumentalists, have you considered devoting a week to bandleaders?

    1. Ditto for me re big band: much prefer the smaller combos.

      Hey! The only way to deal with the sax is break it down a bit: 1st week Tenor; 2nd week Tenor; 3rd week Tenor; 4th week alto and bass.

      No, I’m not biased. Why do you ask?

  2. Thanks for this series. I enjoyed it as I did Peregrine week, NY Food week and Cowboy Boot week. Well, maybe a bit more than Cowboy Boot week. As much as I love jazz, I’m not in a hurry for sax week (piano week, vibraphone week, kazoo week, etc). What I can’t wait to see is an entirely different topic on some subject that really arouses your passion, and ignites a whole new round of discussion.

  3. Well I didn’t see this one coming.
    If it’s the pre-bop swing style that floats your boat, then I’ll tout Harry “Sweets” Edison above all others.

  4. I figured my own sentimental favourite, Chet Baker wouldn’t be in this trumpet-week. This was not a bad substitute. And like Baker he both sings and plays the trumpet.
    Thank you for a great Jazz-trumpet week.

  5. Hey! No apologies. He was a wonderful musician and you enjoy listening to the recordings he made. No need for excuses.

    Since this was jazz trumpet week, you (obviously) didn’t mention any classical trumpeters. So permit me to do so:

    * Adolph “Bud” Herseth, principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony for forever. A true force of nature. Anything with Reiner conducting will be worth listening to.

    * Murray Karpilovsky, principal trumpeter in Pittsburg for some time, professor at the Manhattan School of Music, and one of the big names in freelancing. He was my “grand-teacher,” my father’s teacher. I got a chance to take a lesson with him before he died, though I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t as well prepared as I should have been.

    * Harry Glantz, principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic for ages before Bill Vacchiano’s era.

    * Alan Dean, currently the professor at Yale and one of the lone survivors of the New York freelancing era. He’s done lots of chamber recordings over the years with the New York Brass Quintet, the Saint Louis Brass Quintet, Calliope (his own renaissance ensemble), and lots of others. He’s the most laid-back player I’ve ever seen; he slouches. On stage. In concert. And he plays rings around even the younger generation’s legendary players like Ron Romm (the bald guy in the Canadian Brass).

    * Joe Burgstaller, recently resigned from the Canadian Brass. We were at ASU together and didn’t exactly get along…but he’s really become an outstanding musician. He’s got a long and productive career ahead of him.

    That should keep y’all busy for a while….



  6. I’d second the Freddie Hubbard.
    Also Lee Morgan is worth checking out. They are both good writers as well as players.

    Also, I’m glad you didn’t pick Wynton!
    He’s a skilled player but I can’t stand his revisionist and backward looking philosophy.

  7. Beautiful tone, gorgeous lines. Schuller suggests he occupies a space precisely between Pops & Bix, & in fact he was Pops’ favorite trumpeter (so he averred on several occasions). This is a great pick, not a dark horse.

  8. I’m a half-baked trumpet player, so maybe I look at trumpet players a little differently. Berigan was a truely original player with gorgeous tone, great phrasing, and always pushed the envelope with his playing. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was never afraid to go where no one had ever gone before. He is the last in the train of Oliver, Armstrong, Beiderbeck, Berigan.

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