Bunny Berrigan - Elusive Legend Of Jazz

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Louisiana State University Press has released a new (paperback) edition of its 1993 release, BUNNY BERRIGAN--ELUSIVE LEGEND OF JAZZ, written by Robert Dupuis. The first full-length biography of the swing-jazz trumpeter many rate on a par with Louis Armstrong--Satchmo himself called him "the greatest"--the book tells a tragic story. Berrigan came of age in Prohibition times when booze, like drugs today, had an illicit appeal. Berrigan became addicted to alcohol and died in 1942 at 34 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Because his brief, incandescent life fit the concept of the artist as doomed, romantic hero, Berrigan served as the model for Dorothy Baker's popular but lurid jazz novel, Young Man With a Horn. Dupuis' book dispels much of the nonsense Baker wrote about Berrigan flaunting death with his music and going out in a blaze of defiant glory. In truth, Berrigan's life went the opposite way: he started out on a high note (he was playing professionally at 14), kept the flame hot and bright through his 20s, then slowly and painfully sputtered out at the end, still in denial over his drinking and psychological problems.

In all other ways Berrigan was an admirable person: generous, kind, hard-working and honest. Those qualities combined with his horn-playing genius made him much in demand. Just about every top bandleader of the day wanted to employ him: Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, to name but a few. Singers like Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby clamored after him, Hollywood beckoned, CBS and NBC as well.

It was Berrigan's tone and expressiveness on trumpet that made him so special. He also had that elusive quality which musicians call heart or soul, and he sang well, especially on his trademark tune, I Can't Get Started With You, which he recorded three different times. His warmth, assurance and uncanny phrasing still sound good today.

Dupuis' splendid and well-researched book also contains a complete Berrigan genealogy and discography.