Remembering Bunny Berigan on his 100th Birthday

Bunny Berigan
Bunny Berigan

Today, November 2nd, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of trumpet legend Bunny Berigan. If his name doesn’t quite ring a bell the same way hearing Louis Armstrong does, it certainly isn’t due to his lack of talent. Unfortunately, Bunny’s career was relatively short, spanning the better part of the thirties. In fact, it was widely believed that Louis Armstrong was simply competition for Bunny, but never considered better than or equal to. Moreover, it was said that Armstrong refused to perform Berigan’s biggest hit, I Can’t Get Started (still a massive jazz standard today), because “it was Bunny’s Tune”, and no one could play it as well.

Unfortunately, and not unlike Charlie Parker, Berigan died in his early thirties, looking twice his age, accelerated by substance abuse. While Parker’s vice was heroin, Bunny Berigan was a victim of the bottle, and ended up drinking himself to death. While an argument can and has been made that both Berigan and Parker were the best at their instrument during the time of their career, Parker had the opportunity to help define the bebop era. One can only wish to have seen what Berigan might have contributed to bop had he been around.

Bunny Berigan made a name for himself in just about every group he played with, which is why he was in such high demand. Berigan spent a decent chunk of the early 30’s with Fred Rich’s orchestra, cranking out great trumpet solos, and singing, when he had to. Most notably was his time spent with Benny Goodman, where his performances on works like King Porter Stomp and Sometimes I’m Happy helped make them huge hits. Berigan also spent time with Glenn Miller’s band and worked with Billie Holiday and Tommy Dorsey, where he was hugely responsible for the hits Songs of India and Marie.

To this day, Bunny Berigan box sets of recordings are still in demand, and typically receives wonderful reviews. In addition, the tiny town of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, where Berigan was raised, celebrates the musician annually each May with a three day festival.

It is always easy to speculate what role a musician might have played had he or she lived longer, but with Bunny’s great range, tone, and overall ability, one can safely assume that he would have easily made even more contributions to future eras and styles of jazz.

Below is an extremely rare video clip of Bunny Berigan singing and playing Until Today with the Freddie Rich band in 1936.