"'Cause You're So Supreme"

by Christopher Popa
December 2004
vital stats:
given name   Roland Bernard Berigan
birth   Nov. 2, 1908, Hilbert, WI
death   Jun. 2, 1942, New York City
heritage   German
father   William P. "Cap" Berigan,
b. Dec. 22, 1875, d. Nov. 11, 1941
mother   Mary C. "Mayme" Schlitzberg,
b. Mar. 26, 1875, m. 1904, d. May 26, 1944
musical training   violin and trumpet
education   Univ. of Wisconsin
wife  Donna Madeline McArthur,
m. Berigan May 25, 1931 / m. George Zack /
m. Bernard Burmeister, d. Mar. 15, 1986
daughter   Patricia "Patsy," b. Jul. 23, 1932,
m. Thomas Colburn / m. Slavin, d.1999
daughter   Barbara Ann, b. Nov. 2, 1933,
   d. Nov. 2, 1933 (born prematurely)
daughter   Joyce, b. Apr. 22, 1936,
m. Robert Bryden / m. Robert Davis /
m. Vern "Ken" Hansen, Nov. 2, 1992
Berigan, Matt.  "23rd Annual Bunny Berigan Day," post to
    Yahoo chat group alt.music.big-band, Apr. 21, 1996.
Burm.  "Unit Reviews: Berigan Orch.," Variety, Oct. 20, 1937, p.53.
Dupuis, Robert.  Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz
    (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).
"On the Upbeat," Variety, Oct. 27, 1937, p.46.
Popa, Christopher.  Interview with Joe Aguanno, Nov. 13, 2004.  
---.  Interview with Joyce Berigan Hansen, Nov. 13, 2004.
---.  Interview with Ken Hansen, Nov. 14, 2004.
Shoestring Records advertisement, "The Miracle Man of Swing:
    A Bio/Discography of Trumpet Giant Bunny Berigan,"
    Joslin's Jazz Journal, Feb. 2004, p.3. 

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    "I used to go see all of his performances when I was in New York," Aguanno reminisced.  "The Paramount Theatre, mostly, where he appeared with all the bands."
    But he didn't actually meet Bunny until he tried out for the Berigan crew around October 1939, just before it was to play the New York World's Fair.
    "I only actually met him when I auditioned for him," he said.  "Before that, naturally, I was a fan of his."
    Aguanno had been recommended by a friend and fellow trumpeter, Johnny Fallstitch, who, along with Bunny, Truman Quigley, and Carl Warwick, made up the Berigan trumpet section at that time.
    "I was practicing at my home in Brooklyn, New York at about 2:15 in the afternoon, I'll never forget that, and the phone rang and I answered the phone, "This is Joe."  He called me 'Joe Aguackamo,' and I said, 'No, Joe Aguanno.'  And he said, 'This is Bunny Berigan.'  And I said, 'Oh, hi ya Bun.'  I just said 'Bunny,' 'cause we in music talk that way.  And he said, 'I'm in need of a trumpet player tonight, to add to the band.  We're going to the World's Fair next week, for a week, and I want you to come in and sit in with the band.'"
    Aguanno was to replace Quigley.
    "I sat in with the band, cold, just sat in as a 3rd trumpet player," he recalled.  "We had Johnny Fallstitch on 1st and Carl Bama [sic], a Black young man, excellent 2nd trumpet, jazz, and myself on 3rd."  
    Nowadays, back at home, Joyce [ pictured l., in 2002 ]  occasionally shares with her husband a memory of what her mother, Donna Berigan, had to say about Bunny.
    "Yes, I get little comments and, sometimes, a brief discussion.  She never goes into great lengths about it," Hansen answered.  "You're probably aware that her mother was a worse drinker than Bunny was.  She [Donna] just had a terrible life after Bunny died."
    Every so often, Bunny is the subject of an article in a jazz magazine or the focus of a compact disc collection.
    "He kept alive the music of those times," Joyce told me.  "His music is still being sold in the stores, and that's part of his legacy."
    "Well, it makes both of us feel very proud," her husband, Ken, related.  "Joyce, especially, because it is her father, but me too, because I've been a Bunny Berigan fan since as early as I can remember."
    Likewise, music remains a part of their household.
    "Actually, most nights Joyce goes to sleep listening to Bunny's music," he revealed.  "She puts a CD on, when she goes to bed."
    Perhaps some day in the future, a CD can be made of previously-unreleased Berigan material from Sony/BMG, now that the two companies in charge of Brunswick/Vocalion and Victor material, respectively, have merged.
    "Yes, that's possible," he said.  "You know, it's something I never thought of... and should have thought of."

    Berigan fans were saddened by the murder in 2004 of Bozy White, who spent decades researching Bunny's life and career, and was on the verge of seeing it published.  The status of the book, scheduled to have been printed in two volumes by White's own
so-called Shoestring Records, is unclear.
    "That's interesting," Hansen said.  "Bozy sent us a manuscript, a few chapters at a time . . . and we have that.  I don't know if a manuscript went to the printer or not.  Bozy had told us our manscript would be a backup copy."

    "I feel like I've had an insight into Bunny's persona," he observed. "I've heard so many anecdotal stories about him, that I feel like I almost know him.  I think he would like to be remembered as a good man, a good father, and a good musician.  I think, perhaps... you know, he was so modest about his musical achievements.  He'd come back to Fox Lake and get a bunch of local musicians and play in Casey's Tavern . . . on State Street."
    "Even at my age, I'm 87, I still get emotional when I think of how great a person he was," Aguanno admitted.  "The horn I still have and have played throughout my life, Bunny blew on it.  I can tell you just when he blew my horn.  We were playing at a place in New Jersey called the Mosque Ballroom.  The Mosque Ballroom had music around the clock, all day long, and they had three bands at the time: it was... let's see now...  Duke Ellington's band, Fats Waller's trio, and Bunny Berigan's band.  We used to have
45-minute sets, and we'd hang around all day at that Mosque Ballroom when Duke Ellington would be performing.  We'd have no place to go but hang around in that whole building.  We had our own rooms and stuff.  So one day while Ellington was playing, we went up to hear Fats Waller, in his room, with his trio.  They had a jam session, just playing upstairs, in the different hall . . . So then Bunny came by and he sat down to listen to Fats Waller's trio . . . Bunny happened to sit next to me . . . when Fats Waller finished one of his tunes, he turned around to Bunny and said, 'Hey, Bun . . . Get your horn and sit in with us.' . . . Bunny just touched his moustache once in a while with his fingers, and he said, 'No, man, I'll just sit and listen."  And Fats insisted, 'Bunny, get your horn!' and he says, 'I don't want to go upstairs and get it.'  Fats insisted that he get a horn, so Bunny turns to me, 'Aguackamo... anyway, he knew my room was across, with Buddy Koss and his piano or whatever, and I went to get my horn.  I handed it to Bunny, mouthpiece and all, and Bunny started to play the horn with Fats. And that's how I can say that."
    Though he died at an early age, Bunny Berigan left his mark, whether leading his own band or sparking someone else's.      
    "No one ever played like he played," Joe Aguanno, a trumpeter who worked with the Berigan outfit in 1939-40, told me.  "The sound was so rich and so soulful.  There's something that us trumpet players used to hear in Bunny.  When he would attack a certain note, it would sound . . . it makes you cry.  The sound that came out of Bunny's horn was just like the type of person he was.  He was such a fine, lovable guy... a big man, nice-looking."  
recommended listening - select list:
A Little Bit Later On   Chick Bullock, vocal (Vocalion, Apr. 13, 1936)
Back in Your Own Backyard   (broadcast, Mar. 27, 1938)
Rose Room   (broadcast, Mar. 27, 1938)
'Cause My Baby Says it's So   Bunny Berigan, vocal
    (Victor, Apr. 1, 1937)
You Can't Run Away From Love   Ruth Bradley, vocal
    (broadcast, Jun. 13, 1937)
I Can't Get Started   Bunny Berigan, vocal (Victor, Aug. 7, 1937)
Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm   Bunny Berigan, vocal
    (Victor, Sept. 3, 1937)
I'd Love to Play a Love Scene (Opposite You)  
    Gail Reese, vocal (Victor, Oct. 7, 1937)
Azure   (Victor, Apr. 21, 1938)
Frankie and Johnny   (transcription, Jun. 28, 1938)
Black Bottom   (transcription, Jun. 28, 1938)
Peg o'My Heart   (transcription, Aug. 9, 1938)
Mahogany Hall Stomp   (transcription, Aug. 9, 1938)
When a Prince of a Fella Meets a Cinderella  
    Jayne Dover, vocal (Victor, Sept. 13, 1938)
High Society   (Victor, Sept. 13, 1938)
Livery Stable Blues   (Victor, Sept. 13, 1938)
Sobbin' Blues   (Victor, Nov. 22, 1938)
Davenport Blues   (Victor, Nov. 30, 1938)
There'll Be Some Changes Made   (Victor, Mar. 15, 1939)
Ay Ay Ay   (broadcast, Sept. 26, 1939)
Ain't She Sweet   (Victor, Nov. 28, 1939)
band itinerary - excerpt:
Nov. 5-12?, 1937: Fox Theatre, Detroit, MI
Nov. 13, 1937: Cleveland, OH
Nov. 14, 1937: Columbus, OH
Nov. 17, 1937: Canton, OH
Nov. 18, 1937: Greensburg, PA
Nov. 19, 1937: Scranton, PA
Nov. 20, 1937: Johnson City, NY
Nov. 21?, 1937: Utica, NY
Nov. 24, 1937: opens at Paramount Theatre, New York City
    "During the night, as we played at the World's Fair," Aguanno continued, "Bunny calls out for a tune to be played, where I had a solo in it, on the 3rd trumpet part, you know.  The tune was My PrayerNaturally, I'm in the section playing whatever Bunny's pulling out.  But then later, things were going pretty good, I guess, he called out a tune so that I could stand up and play 8 bars.  It was sort of a slow ballad-type, where he could hear my tone and phrasing or whatever, the roundness of the sound.  I was very happy to play it and from then on, I stayed on."
    What was it about I Can't Get Started that made everybody name it as one of their all-time favorites?      
    "Geez, I don't know," Aguanno said.  "I just know that it is and it was... in fact, I have a good friend of mine that recorded it just like Bunny's and his name is Rusty Dedrick.  I worked with Rusty for many years . . . When you say 'everybody' and I have to say everybody, from Doc Severinsen on down, or Wynton Marsalis, or whoever else.  In fact, they've recorded it with four trumpets and harmony.  I can't tell you why, but I don't think that there's a musician that doesn't love that theme song the way he plays it."
   Aguanno singled out Bunny's solo on I Cried for You, with Kathleen Lane's vocal, as another one of his best.
    "When he makes his entrance, just with one note, after she finishes a chorus, and then he just plays one note as his entrance, just one note [hums the note] and then he goes on . . . Just that one note and I got responses from that same feeling I'm trying to describe," he remarked.
    For Ken Hansen, who married one of Bunny's daughters, Joyce, in 1992, Berigan's finest recorded moment came as a player in Tommy Dorsey's band.
    "I think his solo on Marie was probably the greatest trumpet solo ever," Hansen asserted.  "Of course, he won a [posthumous Hall of Fame] Grammy award in 1975 . . . for his trumpet work on I Can't Get Started, but I really believe his solo on Marie was better, tremendously creative.  I know other Berigan fans would feel the same way."
    In general, Hansen thinks Bunny was at his peak as a sideman.
    "Oh yes, definitely.  I think his best work was in small groups, actually," he said. 
    And the period as a member of Benny Goodman's band had its high points, too.
"His work with Goodman was just outstanding," Hansen agreed.  "You're probably familiar with the 'Bill Dodge' recordings.  I think that was exceptional work."
    Yet, Berigan’s work as a sideman during 1931 to 1936, when many would say that he was at his most potent, were largely neglected by jazz reissue labels, until Mosaic released 151 of them as a 7-CD set, "The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions," in 2003.  Happily, Mosaic made Bunny's daughter, Joyce, aware of the project. 
     "Yeah, they interviewed Joyce by phone, briefly," Hansen confirmed.  "I don't even recall if they used her comments or attributed anything to her.  But they sent us a complimentary set of the CDs.  They were very thoughtful.  A lot of companies don't do that." 
   "Incidentally, I was with the band on his last [Victor] recording date," Aguanno pointed out.  "That was Peg o'My Heart, and Ain't She Sweet, Juan Tizol's Night Song, and... what was the other one... Ay-Ay-Ay [hums the melody]."
    The recordings were made on November 28, 1939 and came out acceptably.
    "Well, he was, sort of, at a weak point, but they were still good," Aguanno said.
    "I never knew Bunny and I never met him.  I was about 10 when he died," Hansen acknowledged.  "Of course, he was long gone from Wisconsin then, although he did get back to Fox Lake whenever he could. People do call me 'Bunny's
son-in-law,' but to me, that's just too awesome.  He was like a supernatural person to me."
    Nonetheless, it is Hansen's opinion that Berigan was not well-suited to be a boss.
    "Not very well at all," he said.  "Being a bandleader entails a lot of business acumen.  It requires business acumen, and he didn't have it." 
   "I don't think so, no," Aguanno agreed.  "His manager, Ed Kirkeby, I believe the manager was at the time . . . was kind of a shyster guy.  I don't know what he was doing with payrolls and stuff like that."
    "He [Bunny] just really didn't care about money," Hansen continued.  "He cared about music and people."
    "Oh, he was the most wonderful, kind guy," Aguanno said.  "I don't think Bunny would ever fire anybody.  He was too good to be a disciplinarian."
    Berigan assembled some great musicians to staff his own band, starting with the '37-'38 group, which included, at various times, trumpeter Steve Lipkins; trombonist Ray Conniff; saxophonists Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, and Gus Bivona; and drummers George Wettling, Dave Tough, Johnny Blowers or Buddy Rich.
    "That was the problem," Aguanno claimed.  "The all-stars Bunny didn't control them, he used to just feature them."
    It really came down to Bunny himself.
    "His weakness was staying up late at night with the women, and drinking was his downfall," he commented.  "In fact, his dad used to travel with the band, when he got pretty bad... his father, Bill.  The old man couldn't stay up at night and Bunny would go out at 3 or 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock in the morning and his dad would be sleeping.  His dad just came on the road with us to try and keep his son on the straight-and-narrow."
    Even though Bunny had a reputation as a drinker, he always remained a kind soul and decent person.
    "He would never hurt a fly," Aguanno stressed.  "He was too nice of a fella . . . He liked everybody."
    But those drinking habits began to affect his livelihood.
    "Bunny just drank and drank and drank a lot of whiskey and stuff," he recalled.  "But he always performed so great.  Sometimes, on his off nights, it wouldn't be that terrible.  Even some of his 'clinkers,' that we used to call, they sounded very good, too."
    Within a few years, work began to taper off.
    "I don't think there were many bookings," Aguanno confided, "and this Ed Kirkeby, I think, did him in, financially.  One of the last dates that we did, Bunny wanted to meet everybody in the hotel.  I was with Bunny when Bunny was in the hospital - I went to see him a couple of times, and he was all strung up and in bad shape.   Bunny wanted to see all of us in the hotel, when he got paid.  He had all the money, in cash, and the guys were in the hotel room.  Bunny came in, opened the door, and he threw all the money that he got from the people that paid him off, or the manager, and he threw all the money on the bed.  He says, 'Here it is, fellas.  Split it up, do whatever you want with it.'  It was a pitiful thing."
review at Hippodrome, Baltimore, MD, Oct. 1937:
    "Recognized in band circles as a hot trumpeter of top rank, and established over the air, Bunny Berigan is now essaying a stage unit and as such has the makings of an entertaining outfit.  With some interpolated specialties, unit as caught here runs 44 minutes.
    Working in his own set, an attractive sunburst background nicely lit, Berigan fronts a 12-piece combo, pitching in on the brass choruses and introducing the various numbers.  Good opening by band with Horace Nichols and Dixie Roberts, 'King and Queen of Shag,' going to town in hotcha style, starts doings nicely and sets spot for Gail Reese band's femme vocalist, who gives out with 'That Old Feeling' and 'Baby.'
    Interpolation here by the theatre of the winner of a recently conducted accordion contest, a stage-scared youth who gives out with 'Dark Eyes' and an unnecessary encore, had tendency to slow matters up, but Berigan takes hold quickly with a version of 'Frankie and Johnny,' showing off the various members of his ensemble in special choruses.  Okay stuff but some of the jamming a bit too drawn out.  Limiting each soloist to a minimum contribution would help the pace considerably.
    Arrangement of 'Caravan' next, very good and audibly greeted by customers.  Femme hoofer than takes hold for an okay interlude preceding Berigan's version of the 'Prison Song' [sic] in which he demonstrates his torrid trumpet giving out with some high ones in the upper register.  Another number, 'I Want To Make Rhythm," [sic] announced as recently recorded, starting with vocal by Berigan and the femme and winding up in more trumpet stuff.
    Three Nonchalants, standard knockabout and hand balancing set, on here a solid sock spotted just right.  Comedy by the smallest member of the trio nicely handled and very legit.  Lad has a good comic sense which could be developed.  Complete rendition of Berigan's theme closes doings to good returns.
    With some cutting down of the band stuff and bunching of Berigan's trumpet contributions into one sock spot, this unit should make an entertaining adjunct to any combo bill.
    Film here is 'Breakfast For Two'(RKO)."    
   "I think Bunny Berigan was a genius on that trumpet," Aguanno said.  "He could do anything he wanted . . . I don't hear anyone that has the soul in whatever he tried to do, whether he was way down in the low register and the second after that, he could be up to a high 'F' or a high 'E' on the trumpet.  And it sounds like it was no effort, but the way he sings it out, it just makes you cry.  I don't mean 'cry' cry, I'm just talking about if you have any ears that detect these things... Even if he should crack a note, it doesn't sound like a mistake!  It doesn't, because there's feeling there, someplace."
    "I would say it's just magnificent," Hansen elaborated.  "Almost like a gift from God... something very eternal, beautiful . . . It's so supreme that it's almost indescribable.  It touches my soul so deeply that I can't describe it."
   "Oh God, I have to go along with what Louis Armstrong said," Aguanno observed.  "Bunny is just a fearsome trumpet player.  He fears nothing, he does anything he can think of doing, and it just comes out.  There's no one that ever played like Bunny Berigan and they never will.  That's what Louis Armstrong said."
    "I loved all bands, I loved all music," Aguanno reminisced.  "Sometimes when I get to talking with musicians I've worked with quite a bit, and I would say, 'Gee, I wish I had played with Benny's band, Benny Goodman... or I wish I had...'  And they all, every one of them that have played with big bands, they always tell me, 'But Joe, you were ... with Bunny Berigan.'  Every one of them!  There isn't a soul that wouldn't have wanted to work with Bunny Berigan, on the same bandstand with him.  That's why I feel very, very lucky that I was with him."
    Years later, Aguanno worked in the house band at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.
    "My last professional engagement was the "Miss America Pageant" in 1963, with Glen Osser," he reported.
    Later on, he became a liquor salesman, but every now and then, plays for himself.
    "I've been blowing at home, just to play some melodies and stuff, just to fool around at home," he explained.
    Interestingly, Aguanno names as the highlight of his own career something which took place along the Adriatic Sea -not his work with Berigan or in the 'big apple.'
    "When I had to play taps when President Roosevelt died," he stated.  "I was with the 15th Air Force Band, the Flying Fortresses, in Italy.  All over the country, every base had a memorial service that day . . . it was thrilling."
    In 1973, a single-day celebration of Bunny's music was begun in Fox Lake, WI, and it's since blossomed into a several-day affair. 
    "We call it 'The Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee,' or the Festival," Hansen said.  "But the official title is the B.B.J.J., 'The Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee.'  We've expanded it... Joyce and I, naturally, became involved in it in . . . 1996.  They couldn't find a band --at a reasonable price-- for 'The Bunny Berigan Day,' and they called me and asked me if I could help 'em find a band for under a thousand dollars, and I did." 
    One of Bunny's relatives, Matt Berigan, posted to the Internet about that same time, "Well, I've gone to these on and off for a number of years 'cause dad [Bunny's cousin] and Grandpa [Bunny's uncle] have always enjoyed this music (my foot always starts a-tappin too).  It can be a pretty good party for jazz lovers.  I find it most interesting to sit in the old hall and watch quite a few old-timers tap their feet in unison and remember the music that was new when they were young.  I also am fascinated by all of the younger jazz fans and the ones that come from afar to this quiet little farm community to celebrate a man and his music that has been gone for so long."
    "They got very small crowds, and the Chamber of Commerce there just didn't want to do it anymore," Hansen said.  "When Joyce and I learned of that, we were just... it was quite a story, actually [chuckles].  We were just sick about it, and I went to the Chamber of Commerce meeting in Fox Lake and asked them, 'Please do it one more year because people just automatically come on the third Sunday in May -  that's when it was always held.  They don't need advertising or mailing, or anything, they just come... Bunny Berigan fans.  Three fellows in Michigan came every year, and even a fellow in Honduras, a Hispanic fellow, he came every year.  And I said, 'These people are gonna come and they won't even know it's been discontinued . . . We don't want any people to have ill feelings toward Fox Lake or toward Bunny Berigan.'"
    He was able to convince them.
    "Well, sort of," he remarked.  "They even voted on it again, in my prescence, while I was in the meeting room.  They voted to have it, but the President of the Chamber asked for an amendment that they would have to have a chairman [for the Festival] by Friday.  It was now Tuesday, and I thought, 'Well, that's a reasonable compromise.  Someone will chair this thing.'  I asked the President to call me on Saturday, to let me know what happened, and I didn't get a call, so on Monday, I called him and he said, 'No, no one volunteered.'  I was just sick about it.  It was the end of April, and the thing was supposed to happen the third Sunday in May.  So Joyce and I were at the Madison Jazz Festival; they have their festival [at] the end of April, about the fourth weekend.  And in walks our friend, Reverend Al Townsend, who had played one of the previous Bunny Berigan days . . . we knew Al just from the time he played there.  Anyway, he sat down with me and Joyce - he spotted us and sat down at our table and he lamented, along with us, that the thing wasn't gonna happen anymore.  Then, just a casual remark, 'When was that supposed to be?'  I said, 'The third Sunday in May.'  He said, 'Gosh, my band is playing at a church in Madison that day.  I'm doing a guest service at the church, and the band will play gospel-type music along with the service . . . We could swing by Fox Lake on our way back to LaCrosse, and do it.'  I said, 'Al, there's only a little over three weeks left.  We can't sell enough tickets and get publicity to pay you guys.'  He said, 'I don't care.  I'll play it for nothing, or I'll play it for two people, if only two people come.'  I said, 'No you won't.  I'm gonna pay you what you would get if you played a LaCrosse engagement,' assuming his travel expenses were already taken care of by the Madison church."
    Still, there was no chairman, so Hansen and his wife stepped in.
    "But we said we wanted money from the Chamber, to send out mailings, because we knew lots of jazz fans from other jazz events, who would come, if it were a two-day event," he went on.  "So we made it a two-day event, at the Community Center and the American Legion, and then, we eventually made it into a three-day event.  Now, it's actually four days, because we entertain friends and people who buy a $100 ticket, we entertain them on Thursday, here at our apartment complex, in the clubhouse, which is a very nice setting, at the poolside."
    Since then, Thompson has been a regular attraction, with his group now billed as 'The Bunny Berigan Memorial Band.'
    "We readily agreed to that," he pointed out.  "We wouldn't let just anybody use Bunny's name for profit, but Reverend Al has become a dear friend . . .  [he] plays quite a bit like Bunny
. . . His tone is so much like Bunny's.  He doesn't quite have all the technique... nobody does, or did, that Bunny had."
    In 1996, eight former members of Berigan's band, including Joe Aguanno, Joe Bushkin, Joe Dixon, Hank Freeman, Steve Lipkins, and Joe Lippman, were guests of the Hansens.
    "We had a, sort of, roundtable discussion by those musicians, that they talked about Bunny, each one with his own individual recollection," Hansen said. 
    Meanwhile, the Jubilee continues to be held annually, with the next one in May 2005.
    "We are keeping it alive," Joyce vowed.
    They've also established a Bunny Berigan Foundation.
    "It's mainly to collect Bunny's music and to raise money to continue the festival honoring Bunny," Hansen explained.  "And it honors a student from the Fox Lake area... Dodge County, actually... who plans to continue somehow in the music field, at least has a lifelong interest in music.  We give 'em a $500 scholarship... the Foundation does."