Big bands: A book about Bunny Berigan, his life and times

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Originally this was an “ON THE AVENUES” column from July 25, 2017. It has been lightly updated. 

I was born in 1960, and grew up during the pinnacle of the swing era – the big bands, the great bands, and those wonderful swinging years.

Well, no. Not really.

It only seems that way to me, thanks to my otherwise musically disinclined World War II veteran father’s compulsive Sunday morning habit of reliving his youth with the aural assistance of LP collections filled with the songs he remembered and enjoyed.

His only son usually was within earshot, and the rest is disjointed personal history, though make no mistake: I’m forever grateful for the tuneful area buzz from my youth. Even now, I love big band music. Swing led me backward and sideways, to jazz’s myriad configurations, from Jelly Roll Morton to Kamasi Washington. Rock and pop predictably grabbed me, and so did classical.

The musical mash-up in my brain can get very strange at times, but the overarching point is that for someone born more than two decades after the heyday of the big bands, I carry a disproportionate weight of their epoch with me, every day.

Sadly, it’s all ancient history now. The newscaster Tom Brokaw once coined a clever phrase, and in 2021, when you’d have to be somewhere around 85 years old to have so much as early childhood memories of World War II, Brokaw’s stylized notion of the “Greatest Generation” is tempered by the knowledge that most of them have long since gone.

It’s actually far more nuanced and complicated than all this, though for the sake of the argument, the Greatest Generation shorthand can be accepted. As we’ve been told, these men and women started coming of age in the 1930s, when the Noble Experiment (Prohibition) was just a bad hangover, but the Great Depression ongoing and seemingly intractable.

It took a planetary conflagration to cure the economy, and many of the “greatest” became citizen soldiers, shipped abroad to slay fascism, a job they performed with requisite modesty, not to mention Coca-Cola and Hershey’s chocolate bars for the kids whose elders had sold them down the ideological pike.

When they returned home victorious, the American Dream was made concrete reality, at least for white people during a scant period of time lasting roughly three, maybe four postwar decades. Many veterans hadn’t reached retirement age before neoliberalism became the preferred mechanism for the 1% to begin nostalgically reconnecting those profitable dots interrupted by war.

Obscene capital accumulation by wealthy elites accordingly resumed, and perhaps this is the real, recurring problem in American life – but I digress.

We might look to facets of the Greatest Generation’s upbringing for clues to its distinctive merits. One needn’t be versed in advanced psychology to grasp the importance of early life experiences in what we come to be.

In terms of population, America in the 1920s and 1930s had officially become industrialized and urban. The countryside wasn’t always sure it approved of this. For better or worse, regional differences still mattered, but owing to a number of factors, these were narrowing.

“Big” government was birthed at the time of World War I’s taxation and national security needs (arrest them Reds; do it now), followed by an more intrusive nanny state emanating from Prohibition.

There were no interstate highways, but a national network of roads was emerging, and the automobile brought with it seeming freedom of mobility, not yet illusory, though harboring the seeds of future suburban sprawl.

The emergence of mass media also was a huge factor in shaping perceptions during the Greatest Generation’s youth. Newspapers and magazines remained somewhat localized and were absolutely essential in conveying basic information, but the emerging mediums of film and radio seriously threatened ink-stained hegemony, paving the way for television’s collective national brain-shrinking and -washing.

In short, in the 1930s both news and entertainment were merging together as a mass-market cultural phenomenon, shared by greater numbers in ways not possible before.

Hollywood famously brought escapist motion pictures into theaters; these were new generation circuses to accompany bread lines and soup kitchens. Movies at least were still experienced communally, in a venue, with other humans.

However, one needn’t leave home to listen to the radio. It offered news, scripted comedy, religion, drama … and plenty of music.

Prior to the invention of the phonograph, culminating in “records” as we know them today, music was strictly a live performance art. Embryonic radio stations obviously played recordings, though the musical accompaniment to original entertainment productions overwhelmingly remained the domain of musicians carrying union cards, playing live during live broadcasts.

One bedrock requirement for a musician seeking such a secure and well-paid job was the ability to sight-read sheet music, quickly and accurately. Another was stringent professionalism, as there was no way of correcting mistakes. It was one take, and gone into the irreparable ether.

It was into this dynamic milieu that a young man named Bunny Berigan landed with noticeable fanfare. As with so many others, Berigan at first accepted the corporate paycheck. It brought him to the big city, but he yearned for something more.

The jazz bug had bitten him, and now jazz itself was morphing into something else beyond small groups in dingy speakeasies. The backroom combo became the ballroom big band, fusing the spirit of improvisation with the crowd-pleasing predictability of increasingly sophisticated arrangements, both at the point of origin and for a far wider audience of nightly radio listeners.

Berigan was perfectly suited for the advent of swing, quickly forsaking the remunerative safety of studio employment in the Big Apple to play in constantly touring big bands, first as a featured sideman, and later as leader of his own aggregations.

Berigan’s high water mark as a big band leader came during the late 1930s, when the swing era still was in its ascendancy. By the standards of the day, he had it all: professional respect, personal popularity, a wife, children, house and car.

But by 1942 Berigan was dead, his liver ravaged by cirrhosis, the victim of stunningly heavy drinking. Three-quarters of a century later, very few Americans remember Bunny Berigan, but for a while before most of us were born, he could do no wrong.

Even Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong thought as much.

Long after the big bands provided America’s WWII soundtrack, a Canadian named Neil Young suggested it was better to burn out than fade away. Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan provided a case study in how to do it, with nary an electric guitar in sight.

Berigan began as a fair-haired, corn-fed lad from Wisconsin, preternaturally talented and instinctively musical. He lived the normal Midwestern life of the time, made it through high school and dabbled at college. He was quiet and generally affable, and always regarded warmly by his friends and associates.

Seemingly destined for great musical achievements, his trumpeting skills took him to New York City, where his studio prowess can be heard, usually uncredited, briefly salvaging numerous pop songs with no redeeming qualities whatever, save Berigan’s inspired soloing.

Berigan’s trumpeting style still stands out from the era’s norm. He had the rare technical ability to play well in the instrument’s lowest and highest registers, with an amazingly burnished, broad clarity of tone. His was not the agitated attack of a Harry James. Berigan’s improvised solos were thoughtfully calculated, lyrical and often “risky,” as trumpet players liked to describe them.

In fact, Berigan’s solos were as iconic in their time as the late Eddie Van Halen’s were a half century later, whether for Benny Goodman (King Porter Stomp, Sometimes I’m Happy); Tommy Dorsey (Marie, Song of India); or in the trumpeter’s own bands, as with his greatest hit, I Can’t Get Started.

Earlier in the year, I read a biography of Berigan: Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, by Michael P. Zirpolo. It is one of two major biographies written about the musician; the other is Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz, by Robert Dupuis.

Zirpolo’s book isn’t perfect, but it’s as definitive a survey as any writer is likely to produce at this late date, when none of Berigan’s contemporaries are alive to tell the tale.

Granted, the author is far from a disinterested party, and on occasion seems happy to reprise ancient blood feuds and eager to pick a side in them, as with the big band journalist George T. Simon’s purported indifference, perhaps even antipathy, to Berigan.

Simon began as fanboy swing enthusiast, started young as a writer, and perhaps most unforgivably to his enemies, outlived just about everyone else who’d been there at the time, thereby achieving a cult status through sheer longevity.

Curiously, Zirpolo also isn’t always kind to Berigan’s long-suffering wife, who wasn’t prepared for the jazz lifestyle or her husband’s chronic infidelities (as with singer Lee Wiley). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mrs. Berigan had a drinking problem of her own, and probably deserves greater benefit of the doubt on the part of the author.

Far more informatively, Zirpolo amply describes the entertainment industry milieu in which Berigan and so many other musicians struggled to stay afloat amid the machinations of resident charlatans, piranhas and cutthroats.

Indeed, these are constants throughout showbiz history, and perhaps Zirpolo’s greatest single contribution in writing his biography of Berigan is to settle accounts with those (like Simon) who continued to insist that the trumpeter was an indifferent businessman and a poor bandleader.

At least some of Berigan’s circumstances were extenuating. It’s true that as a bandleader during two separate stints, he was beset by simple bad luck, seemingly unable to catch a break. We know he drank too much. At the same time, he was badly served by monopolistic booking agencies, conniving managers and uncooperative record company executives.

More importantly, far from being detached, Berigan exhibited considerable skill in recruiting and drilling his musicians, constantly receiving positive reviews from the public even when cash-poor and operating at a loss, which seems inevitable given the challenging economics of one-night stands and a paucity of recording opportunities in the latter stages of Berigan’s short career.

Ultimately, the story of Bunny Berigan’s life is inseparable from the tragedy of his early death. Zirpolo cites a former Berigan sideman’s testimony that near the end, his boss was drinking two bottles of rye whiskey per day; his cirrhosis, for which the author posits a genetic predisposition, steadily worsened, and the trumpeter was broke and living out of a suitcase.

Without intervention, it was only a matter of time. Still, numerous accounts confirm that Berigan’s embouchure, chops and ability to perform remained largely intact amid this onslaught, until just before his liver finally disintegrated.

Today we understand that alcoholism is a disease, and while Berigan certainly refrained from treating it, the support mechanism for sobriety had not yet come into its own. Taking time away for treatment subsequently became a rite of passage for rock stars, but societal attitudes hardly supported this approach at the time.

Berigan was left to his own devices, stuck in a moment like a hamster on a treadmill, unable to stop trying to make money even as the pace of his efforts left him increasingly indebted, with a break-even point that arrived only when he died. It’s useless, sad and infuriating, but in the end, it just is.

Zirpolo documents Berigan’s life more than capably, and I recommend the book.

The music of the big band era has survived the departure of its creators and consumers, albeit as tribute rather than preference, according to the half-life that follows the demise of cultural relevance.

In retrospect, the era of peak big band in America was remarkably short-lived – ten, maybe twelve years at most. The music rose out of the Depression, reached a crescendo during World War II, and receded just as quickly at war’s end.

We can listen to Berigan’s recorded output; ponder his many might-have-beens, and imagine the musical scene long since passed. All of it, a society and culture, have been consigned to the history books.

At times it is a melancholy remembrance, though a necessary one, at least for me.

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