Trumpeter Bunny Berigan on stage with his band. From The Frank Driggs Collection.
CAN’T GET STARTED WITH VINTAGE JAZZ? HERE’S A MUST-BUY:
BUNNY BERIGAN “SWINGIN’ & JUMPIN’:
BROADCASTS 1937-39,” HEP ( E ) CD 96
Both young fans and longtime collectors of the great dance bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s should be delighted with this new CD and agree that Bunny Berigan was a legendary trumpeter, possessing a full tone, tremendous range, creative ideas, and fine musicianship.
The main attraction here is that 11 of the 19 selections are previously-unreleased broadcast selections by Berigan and his Orchestra, namely Big John Special (5/5/37), Mahogany Hall Stomp (5/8/37), They All Laughed (5/9/37), Mr. Ghost Goes to Town (5/10/37), Downstream and Howdja Like to Love Me? (3/27/38), Peg o’My Heart and Royal Garden Blues (4/2/38), Let ‘er Go (4/8/38), Trees (5/3/38), and Gangbuster’s Holiday (ca. 10/14/38).
The band plays with enthusiasm and complete authenticity; during the entire two-year period covered, these airchecks show that even though his orchestra was still developing, Bunny himself had already reached the peak of his powers as a virtuoso soloist.
Listening to the legendary big bands, such as Berigan’s here, I’m constantly reminded that, even on a routine broadcast which no one could have imagined being released 75 years later on a CD, they sounded truly magical!
This great music may have laid dormant, existing only on fragile acetate discs held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of their Berigan archival collection, were it not for the efforts of Michael P. Zirpolo, author of the widely-praised biography Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, published by Scarecrow Press.
Zirpolo discovered the one-of-a-kind acetates just 16 months ago, auditioned and studied them, and, by special arrangement with the University, convinced Alistair Robertson to release them commercially on his Hep label.
An equally huge plus is that the transfers, sonic cleanup and enhancement has been done by audio restoration specialist Doug Pomeroy, and the resulting sound is very good to excellent. Even on the selections that have some slight surface noise, the music is, nonetheless, sparkling.
“It is impossible to truly appreciate what a master Doug is at his craft,” Zirpolo told me, “unless you have listened to the source recordings before he worked on them, and then after.”
The remaining eight musical selections are little-heard, having been released, sometimes in inferior sound quality and with scant documentation, on collectors’ labels such as Jazz Archives, Meritt, Jazz Hour, Phontastic, Jazz Unlimited, and Mr. Music only once or twice before.
True Berigan scholars will no doubt relish putting these broadcast selections under the aural magnifying glass and comparing them with the same (or, at times, limited or lesser) repertoire done in Victor’s recording studio and released as commercial 78 rpm phonograph discs.
Please allow me to mention a few of my own picks, beginning with the peppy You Can’t Run Away From Love Tonight, from a June 1937 “Magic Key of Radio” NBC aircheck, and sung appealingly by Ruth Bradley (who seems to have been influenced by Helen Ward, then one of the nation’s leading vocalists, with Benny Goodman’s band). This version contrasts with the Victor studio recording, made about two-and-a-half months earlier, that featured Carol McKay’s singing and some tasty piano playing by Joe Lippman, whose work on the broadcast performance is unfortunately not audible at all.
I think that Peg o’My Heart, broadcast in April 1938, showing off Bunny, Georgie Auld’s booting tenor sax and Johnny Blowers’ crisp drums, is slightly faster but more swinging than the Thesaurus transcription it preceded by two months or the Victor 78, not recorded until November 1939 (and with a completely different band personnel).
On another aircheck, the moody Downstream, Bunny’s trumpet oozes more gusto and emotion overall than his Victor record done less than two weeks earlier in March 1938.
Bunny’s studio recording of Trees, made in December 1937, is a passionate tour de force for him and a beloved dance band classic, but I actually prefer this aircheck rendition done five months later – and I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with the Victor record. To my ears, the sound on the Hep CD has more “highs” and I can enjoy everything in all its glory.
I would be remiss not to mention the extremely swinging Howdja Like to Love Me, with Bunny and company, including Gail Reese on the vocal, at their playful best.
As a special treat, Berigan’s own pleasant speaking voice starts everything, taken from a June 12, 1937 program of the “Saturday Night Swing Club” which aired on the CBS radio network.
“Swingin’ & Jumpin’” comes packaged in an attractive, folded jewel case and includes three photographs of Bunny and members of his band from the famed Frank Driggs Collection. In the enclosed booklet, Zirpolo’s lengthy liner notes provide a context for the music, and primarily study Berigan when his group was only a few months old, as it underwent some important personnel changes, and continued on. Zirpolo identifies all band members and their instruments, arrangers, and composers, dates and venues of the performances, and points out who and what to listen for on each selection.
Just like with his Berigan book, Zirpolo’s enthusiasm and research achieve a very high standard, making this CD into a great example for other institutions which hold unreleased material by the big bands that could be offered for sale to the public.
It joins an elite handful of other CDs as among the best places to hear why Bunny was a big band trumpet icon. Among them are Hep’s other fine Berigan title, “Gangbusters” (CD 1036, 1992) which showcased recordings that he made for Victor, including another of my personal favorites, When a Prince of a Fella Meets a Cinderella; “bunny berigan: the pied piper 1934-40,” a compilation of prime Berigan with his own band (with, of course, his undisputed masterpiece, I Can’t Get Started) and others (Bluebird 66615, 1995); and the boxed, 7-CD set “The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions” (Mosaic 219, 2003).
“I am very grateful to Alastair for taking on this project,” Zirpolo noted, “and for all of his patience and guidance. Many of the decisions he made during production have made this a better product. His bestowing the title co-producer upon me was quite unexpected, and is indicative of his generosity. He is truly a hero for those of us who love the music he has made available on the Hep label [ since 1974 ].”
Now, gentlemen, can you do a follow-up with additional, uncollected Berigan airchecks (including Bunny’s great version of Moten Swing)?
Big Band Library rating: BUY IT WITHOUT HESITATION
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