Monday Notes

Bunny Berigan, I Can’t Get Started. The Chet Baker of the 1930s

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[Monday Notes no. 76] Bunny Berigan was one of the greatest trumpet players of the 1930s, esteemed and requested by many musicians including Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. In the song entitled I Can’t Get Started we can appreciate his prowess as a trumpeter, but also his personality and charisma as a singer.

I Can’t Get Started is a song composed by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke. The lyrics tell of a brilliant and successful man who is a friend of great actors and celebrities.

Often in show business there is a big difference between fiction and reality. In fact, the situation in which Bunny Berigan found himself was quite different, the musician was struggling to keep his orchestra going, and it went bankrupt more than once.

In his rendition of I Can’t Get Started we can therefore read a self-deprecating vein, despite his good success as a musician Bunny Berigan was not a happy man. At least, so it seems since he was a victim of alcoholism from a young age and died of it at the age of thirty-three.

The piece opens with a beautiful trumpet introduction in the form of a cadenza, while the orchestra merely plays a few chords. The phrases are built on the arpeggio of the chords, and Benny Berigan’s mastery lies not only in perfect technique but also in great expressiveness.

I Can’t Get Started, intro by Bunny Berigan

Bunny Berigan I Can't Get Started frase discendente

Notice the perfect balance of the melodic lines: the first three have a clear ascending-descending direction. You don’t necessarily need to know how to read music to notice the movement of the melody, which describes an arc first ascending and then descending.

The fourth and last phrase has an opposite development, i.e. descending-ascending. The melody starts on G, descends to C# and then launches into an ascending phrase that culminates on the upper G, in the highest register of the instrument.

After the introduction, Bunny Berigan first plays part of the theme with the trumpet (0’41”) and then sings it in full (1’33”). As a singer, Bunny Berigan is somewhat similar to Billie Holiday; like her, he tends to simplify the melody, avoiding long notes and anything rhetorical and emphatic.

An improvised section with the trumpet follows (3’11”), somewhat recalling the introduction of the piece. The last performance of the theme (3’41”) is played in a very high register and is punctuated by improvised phrases.

The story of Bunny Berigan anticipates that of Chet Baker, both great musicians and troubled men. Apparently, a great talent for music does not always lead to a fortunate and happy life.

Until next Monday!

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