Michael P. Zirpolo,
Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations & Triumph of Bunny Berigan
(Scarecrow Press, 2014)

From now on, everyone writing about the great swing and big band trumpeter Bunny Berigan will have to refer to this book. When they do, they just might realize that they should pick out another jazzman to write about: Berigan is covered. Mr. Trumpet is and will be for a long time the definitive biography of this wonderful musician.

Zirpolo is the first biographer to be granted nearly unlimited access to the original "White Material," a collection of details about Berigan's life and music compiled over a 50-year period by Cedric Kingsley "Cozy" White. He has made remarkable use of the material and other available sources. He's listened more than once to all of the Berigan recordings -- and is even able to note which records bear the trumpeter's name even though he didn't actually play on them -- has read all of the original PR material and reviews of concert appearances, and he has interviewed the surviving members of the bands Berigan either lead or played in.

In short, he has done his homework and has created a book that every Bunny Berigan fan will want to keep on their shelves for repeated readings, as well as a book that casual fans of the music of the swing years, the late '20s and '30s, will devour like a slice of lemon meringue pie.

Zirpolo has brought a legendary figure to life not simply by detailing the ups and downs of his life but by putting that life into perspective by creating a picture of the music scene at the time: Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Erskine Hawkins, Gene Krupa and all of the rest fill these pages the way they did concert halls and night clubs. We learn about the day-to-day life of the professional musician during the big band days.

Berigan himself played in a few different CBS radio orchestras at the same time, playing live music on radio broadcasts from 10 in the morning until late at night. Between radio sessions, he recorded as a freelancer for a dozen or so bands, sometimes doing pop novelties, sometimes accompanying singers and every once in a while, getting to play some jazz. While he was still in his 20s, he was a giant in the New York City music world, making better than $25,000 a year without touring. That wasn't bad money in the Depression years. (Multiply it by seven to get an idea of how it translates into current money.)

Of course, to make that kind of money, he worked day and night, often going without sleep, grabbing a nap on a chair at CBS between shows. How did he deal with the constant pressure he put himself under? He drank. And there we have the heart of the book. Berigan was the most gifted musician of his time, the man you called on when you wanted a great jazz solo or when your band was sounding stale and you needed an influx of energy and inspiration. Since he drank away or threw away every penny he made, he was also the man who could never say no, the man who always needed money. How did he get it? By taking on more work, by creating impossible situations for himself, like trying to tour while still playing for the radio or by forming his own bands and going on the road on long and difficult tours. By the time he was 33, he drank himself to death.

Berigan wasn't the first artist to create beautiful art by destroying himself but Zirpolo, by going so deeply into Berigan's story, makes his rise and fall understandable; we see the tragedy in self-destruction.

Mr. Trumpet takes us inside not just a man's life but a whole world that we know only superficially. It's a story worth the telling and a world worth the seeing.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

1 March 2014

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