“I Can’t Get Started” (1937) Bunny Berigan
Music composed by Vernon Duke, lyric by Ira Gershwin.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on August 7, 1937 in New York.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet, Irving Goodman, trumpet; Thomas “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Robert “Mike” Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone; Clyde Rounds and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan(elli), guitar; Frederick “Hank” Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums. Arrangement by Bunny Berigan, adapted for this band by Joe Lippman.
Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan (1908-1942), was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of his time, and a giant of the swing era. The fact that he died when he was thirty-three years old (from cirrhosis of the liver), only five years after he began to lead his own band, is the largest reason why he is not better known to the general public today. There are many other smaller reasons. Nevertheless, among those who have some knowledge of the history of jazz, his name is well-known. His reputation for most of the last seventy-five years has been based largely on a few commercial recordings, most notably his bravura performance of the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin song “I Can’t Get Started,” which he used as his theme, and a handful of the other records he made with his band for RCA Victor. In the more recent past, other commercial recordings he made as a bandleader have provided some additional evidence of what a great jazz trumpeter he was, and what very good bands he usually led. Still other studio recordings he made, either as a featured soloist (as with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey), or as an anonymous sideman (the dozens of commercial records he made in the early to mid-1930s where he functioned as a member of ad hoc bands, usually backing a vocalist), provide still more proof of his stature as an inspired jazz soloist and flexible session player.
We know that the basic outlines for Berigan’s classic performance of “I Can’t Get Started” had been created by him in early 1936 when he first began to perform it at a small jazz club, the Famous Door on Manhattan’s fabled “Swing Street,” West 52nd, between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. The Vocalion recording he made of the song on April 13, 1936 provides an early snapshot in the evolution of his treatment of it. But over time, Berigan made subtle changes in the arrangement. By the time he was ready to record it with his own band, his conception of how it should be presented had been carefully refined, and now included an extended rubato (out of tempo) opening cadenza to display his virtuosity on trumpet, and fill space on a twelve-inch record (see below). Soon thereafter, he became the featured trumpet soloist on the CBS network radio show Saturday Night Swing Club, and continued on that show into 1937, when his duties leading his own band took all of his time and attention.
The Berigan band’s recordings of “I Can’t Get Started” and “The Prisoner’s Song” were issued back-to-back on the twelve-inch Victor record 36208, and were a part of an album of four such records entitled A Symposium of Swing, Victor C-28. “RCA Victor has given the wax cult something to really shout about. Spreading their stuff on 12 inches of wax and packeted in an album dressed up with concert notes by swing critic Warren Scholl, candid camera shots of the wand-wavers and personnel of the tooters, Victor Hall of Fame’s A Symposium of Swing (C-28) features Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman & Bunny Berigan.” (Billboard: September 18, 1937) Benny Goodman’s contribution to this collection was the two-sided blockbuster “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Tommy Dorsey’s was “Stop, Look and Listen,” backed by “Beale Street Blues.” Fats Waller’s disc in this set had “Honeysuckle Rose” on side A, and “Blue Turning Gray over You” on side B. Both of these performances were by Fats Waller and His Rhythm.[i]
[i] The information concerning the Waller disc in the album A Symposium of Swing came from big band historian Christopher Popa, who operates the Big Band Library website.
The late jazz trumpeter Richard M. Sudhalter, a most sensitive and perceptive critic of Berigan’s music, analyzed this classic recording as follows:
“An introduction—an extended cadenza over four different sustained chords in the key of C—had been added by this time, but otherwise Berigan’s routine had not changed since the Vocalion recording. But whereas the Vocalion comes across as a virtuoso performance of a great song, the Victor version presents itself as a kind of concerto, a tour de force for a trumpeter of imagination and daring having impeccable command of his instrument. A younger player, raised on the finger-snarling complexities of bebop, might listen to this recording and wonder what all the fuss was about—until he tried to play it and learned the killing difficulty of executing this kind of top-to-bottom endurance contest with polish, power, and Berigan’s broad tone. It is both an athletic feat and a supreme test of musicianship and emotional strength.
The introduction itself is no small feat, ranging from the lowest note on the trumpet to more than two octaves above that, with every note struck square, full, and fat. Berigan follows with eight bars of straight melody, as he did on the Vocalion record. But there is a different feeling here: something tighter, grander in scope, more aware, perhaps, of the importance of this performance. His tone is especially broad and lustrous, his phrasing generous.
The saxes take eight more while Berigan moves to the microphone for his vocal. He sings the Ira Gershwin lyric again in that curiously appealing voice. His phrasing constantly recalls his trumpet playing: Note the snap he gives to ‘still I can’t get no place with you’ and his note-for-trumpet-note rendering of ‘…cause I can’t get started with you’ at the end of the chorus.
There is no tenor solo after the vocal on this one—just the full band sustaining big, fat chords and drummer George Wettling laying down a solid beat as Berigan takes to his horn for the climax. (At left are the Berigan band rhythm section in the spring of 1937: L-R Tommy Morgan, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass; Geroge Wettling, drums; and Joe Lippman, piano. By the time the Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started” was made, Hank Wayland had replaced Fishkind on bass.) Again, there are four little episodes of two bars each: two in the upper middle register, two lower down, then a final clarion call, a series of strong, singing high Cs, balanced on perfectly controlled lip trills, to push off his half-chorus assault on the summit. It is all done in that punishing high register, and all with no loss of power, tone size, or melodic shape. There is a magnificent lunge to a high F in bar three, the chimelike E flats at the end of bar four, the same descent with its echo of Louis Armstrong. There is no longer the thrill of discovery in this performance. Berigan is retracing familiar steps by now, but because of that this performance radiated a greater assurance. At the end, rather than going straight to the high E flat as he had a year and a half earlier, Berigan spins things out a bit for the sake of drama. He plays first his B flat, drops to a G for a moment to build tension, and then, after an artful pause, vaults to the high E flat and finds it waiting there for him as the band chimes in underneath to finish the performance.”[i]
[i] Time-Life Records Giants of Jazz-Bunny Berigan (1982), by Richard M. Sudhalter, page 43.
Numerous trumpeters have pointed out to me that the contrasting low-register and high-register playing for which Bunny Berigan was renowned, and which is on full display in this classic performance of “I Can’t Get Started,” is something that was facilitated by his uncommon control of the trumpet’s lowest range. Berigan’s frequent vaults into the highest register of the trumpet were very often “set-up,” both technically and musically, by his playing in the lowest range of the horn immediately before. This allowed his chops to receive maximum blood circulation so that when he went upstairs, his sound would remain full and rich, not pinched or piercing.
Another interesting sidelight to both this recording and its predecessor is how much Bunny Berigan had altered the original Ira Gershwin lyric. Most of this retooling had been done by the time the Vocalion recording was made. But the process of evolution had nevertheless continued after that recording. Here is a comparison between the original lyric as written by Ira Gershwin and what Berigan sang on the Victor recording:
IG: I’ve flown around the world in a plane;
BB: I’ve flown around the world in a plane;
IG: I’ve settled revolutions in Spain;
BB: I’ve settled revolutions in Spain;
IG: The North Pole I have charted, but I can’t get started with you.
BB: And the North Pole I have charted, still I can’t get started with you.
IG: Around a golf course, I’m under par;
BB: On the golf course, I’m under par;
IG: And all the movies want me to star;
BB: Metro-Goldwyn have asked me to star;
IG: I’ve got a house, a showplace, but I get no place with you.
BB: I’ve got a house, a showplace, still I can’t get no place with you.
IG: You’re so supreme, lyrics I write of you;
BB: ‘Cause you’re so supreme, lyrics I write of you;
IG: Scheme, just for the sight of you;
BB: I dream, dream day and night of you:
IG: Dream, both day and night of you,
BB: And I scheme, just for the sight of you,
IG: And what good does it do?
BB: Baby, what good does it do?
IG: In nineteen twenty-nine I sold short;
BB: I’ve been consulted by Franklin D.;
IG: In England I’m presented at court;
BB: Greta Garbo has had me to tea;
IG: But you’ve got me downhearted,
BB: Still I’m broken hearted,
IG: ‘Cause I can’t get started with you.
BB: ’Cause I can’t get started with you.[i]
I’ll leave it to you to judge which lyric works best.
[i] This comparison was first made by Vince Danca in his self-published booklet entitled Bunny (1978), 18–19.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.