The life of the jazz trumpeter Rowland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan resembles nothing less than an ancient Greek tragedy: a heroic figure who rises from obscurity to dizzying heights, touches greatness, becomes ensnared by circumstances, and comes to a disastrous early end.
Berigan was a charismatic performer. His artistry made a deep and lasting impression on everyone who heard him play, while the body of recorded work he left continues to evoke a wide range of emotions. He played a key role in a golden age of American popular music and jazz.
This according to Mr. Trumpet: The trials, tribulations, and triumph of Bunny Berigan by Michael P. Zirpolo (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).
Today is Berigan’s 110th birthday! Below, his classic 1937 recording of I can’t get started, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.
For the opening of a 1976 exhibit on Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the curator, Don Vlack, created an aperitif inspired by Lenya and named in her honor.
Vlack described the drink, which is made with Mandarine Napoléon liqueur and Kritter Brut sparkling wine, as “very much like the great singer in that it is slightly bittersweet, gentle but potent (even volatile), and is, in color, a light orange, the tint of her hair.”
This according to “Lenya: A moment in history (and a drink)” (Kurt Weill newsletter XXIX/2 [fall 2011] p. 9).
Today is Lenya’s 130th birthday! Above, enjoying her namesake aperitif at the opening reception; below, singing Seeräuber-Jenny, one of her signature songs.
Jelly Roll Morton probably wrote Frog-i-More rag in 1908 to accompany a fellow vaudevillian known as Frog-i-More, a contortionist who performed in a frog costume, but he did not deposit the music for copyright until 1918 for fear that any form of public record was an invitation to purloin his ideas.
Morton’s piano style and musical greatness are nowhere better demonstrated. All of the most typical features are abundantly evident: his wealth of melodic invention and skill in variation; the tremendous swing; his feeling for formal design and attention to detail; his effective use of pianistic resources; the contrasts of subtle elegance with hard hitting drive; and the variety of harmony yet freedom from complication and superficial display.
This according to “Jelly Roll Morton and the Frog-i-More rag” by William Russell, an essay included in The art of jazz: Essays on the nature and development of jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 35–36).
Today is Morton’s 135th birthday! Below, a performance of the piece via mediated piano roll.
B.B. King’s guitar technique drew from many sources, both direct and indirect.
At first he functioned primarily as a vocalist, making little idiomatic use of the instrument; in subsequent recordings the influence of T-Bone Walker became quite apparent.
He also adapted embellishments used by earlier blues guitarists (Lonnie Johnson) as well as those of jazz guitarists (Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Bill Jennings). King’s distinctive finger tremolo was inspired by Bukka White’s bottleneck style.
This according to “B.B. King: Analysis of the artist’s evolving guitar technique” by Jerry Richardson (American Music Research Center journal VI  pp. 89–107.
Today would have been King’s 90th birthday! Below, live in 1974.
In an interview, Oscar Peterson discussed his aesthetics and teaching.
“I’m an admirer of the beautiful long line that starts out and then reaches a point of definition. If you reach a point of definition, it validates all the other aspects of the line.”
“One thing I try to convey to my students when I’m teaching is the relativity of notes. From a melodic standpoint there are wrong notes. But from a creative standpoint there are no wrong notes because every note can be related to a chord. Every note can be made part of your line, depending on how fast you can integrate it into your schematic arrangement.”
“It’s not a matter of technique; it’s time….You have an idea, and it’s confined to a certain period in a piece on an overlay of harmonic carpeting. You have to get from here to there in whatever time you’re allotted with whatever ideas you have.”
Quoted in “Oscar Peterson” by Leonard Lyons, an interview included in The great jazz pianists: Speaking of their lives and music (New York: Thomas Morrow, 1983, pp. 130–43).
Today would have been Peterson’s 90th birthday! Below, the pianist as jazz encyclopedia.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Rip, rig, and panic provides a rich example of irony in jazz, not least for its good-natured sendup of Edgard Varèse.
The work’s multipart form is punctuated by breaking glass, a siren, and Kirk’s multi-instrumental imitations of electronic sounds. Flanked by nonmetric improvisations, its two swing sections are counted down by Kirk on castanets.
In the album’s liner notes Kirk explained the title: “Rip means Rip Van Winkle (or Rest in Peace?). It’s the way people, even musicians are. They’re asleep. Rig means like rigor mortis. That’s where a lot of people’s minds are. When they hear me doing things they didn’t think I could do they panic in their minds.”
This according to “Doubleness and jazz improvisation: Irony, parody, and ethnomusicology” by Ingrid Monson (Critical inquiry XX/2 [winter 1994] pp. 283–313).
Today would have been Kirk’s 80th birthday! Above, performing at Ronnie Scott’s ca. 1969 or 70 (photo © Del de la Haye); below, the 1965 recording.
When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a little boy he was, as he described himself, “shy, clumsy, obedient, and uninterested in sport.”
He started piano lessons when he was nine, and these led indirectly to his second great artistic pursuit, drawing and painting. It took many years for him to try his hand at oils, but by the 1970s his two homes were filled with many testimonies to his skill. “It helps to release the tensions and strains of my profession,” he told an interviewer.
This according to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, mastersinger by Kenneth Whitton (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981, pp. 16–17).
Today would have been Fischer-Dieskau’s 90th birthday! Above, a self-portrait from 1985; below, a brief film presenting several of his portraits.
BONUS: Fischer-Dieskau’s much-celebrated recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise with Gerald Moore, from 1962.
Ramsey Lewis’s 1965 album The in crowd was recorded over three days (13–15 May 1965) at the Bohemian Caverns nightclub in Washington, D.C. In an interview earlier this year, the pianist recalled the experience.
“I remember when they said that I was going to play the Bohemian Caverns, I remarked ‘Isn’t this the place where the hard-boppers are playing? And John Coltrane, Roland Kirk and other go-get- ’em guys? They want us?’ And they did.”
“We were at the club trying to come up with one more song. A waitress came over and asked if we’d heard Dobie Gray’s The in crowd. Eldee had heard it, and it was on the jukebox in the club. We listened to it, learned it, and at the end of the first set, Redd whispered to me ‘Don’t forget to play The in crowd.’”
“We started doing the song, and all of a sudden the guys in the club are moving their shoulders, and the women are standing up and clapping and dancing. We just looked at each other—it was such a pleasant surprise. When they put the single out, we got a call from Phil Chess telling us he thought we had a hit record. In those days, did jazzers have hit records? What? Are you kidding? Soon enough, it was a bona fide hit that just kept selling.”
Quoted in “Lewis keeps reaching out” by Thomas Staudter (DownBeat LXXXII/4 [April 2015] p. 15).
Today is Lewis’s 80th birthday! Below, Lewis performs The in crowd in 1990.
BONUS: Here’s the whole album, which turned 50 this year!
In a 1956 interview, Billie Holiday recalled her first recording session, with Benny Goodman’s band in 1933:
“I got there, and I was afraid to sing in the mike…I was scared to death of it.”
The pianist, Buck Washington, leveraged the fact that the two of them were black, while most of the band members were white: “You’re not going to let these people think you’re a square, are you? Come on, sing it!”
When asked what she thinks of that recording now, she replied “I get a big bang out of Your mother’s son-in-law. It sounds like I’m doing comedy—my voice sounds so high and funny!”
This radio interview is transcribed as “The Willis Conover interview” in The Billie Holiday companion: Seven decades of commentary (New York: G. Schirmer. 1997, pp. 62–70).
Today is Holiday’s 100th birthday! Above, Holiday in the studio in 1936; below, that first recording.
In a 1997 interview, Svâtoslav Rihter spoke about his love of unscheduled performing.
“I now know from experience that things planned too far in advance always end up being aborted. Always! Either you fall ill, or you’re prevented from appearing for some other reason, whereas if you improvise—“The day after tomorrow? Of course, why not?” or, if the worst comes to the worst, “Next week?”—everything passes off smoothly. I may be on form today, but who can tell what I’ll feel like on such-and-such a date in the more-or-less distant future?”
“And so, when I arrive in a country I prefer to open a map and show my impresarios the places that have certain associations for me or that excite my curiosity and, if possible, that I’ve not yet had a chance to visit. We then set off by car, followed by the pianos, avoiding motorways like the plague. And then I may play in a theater or chapel or in a school playground at Roanne, Montluçon, or in some remote corner of Provence. All that matters is that people come not out of snobbery but to listen to the music.”
This from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and conversations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 110, 114).
Today is Rihter’s 100th birthday! Above, in Kiev in 1958; below, a 1964 performance of Prokof’ev’s second piano sonata.