I've always been addicted to Bunny Berigan's recording of I Can't Get Started. I can't hear it often enough. Like Teddy Wilson's piano, Berigan's trumpet captures both the resignation and hopeful optimism of the 1930s, and I Can't Get Started remains one of the most vivid musical postcards from the decade. In Berigan's hands, the song to this day shimmers with enormous dramatic tension, complete with a splash of melancholy.
Singular trumpet solos have always heralded the start of new jazz eras. Bix Beiderbecke's solo on Singin' the Blues in February 1927 gave the trumpet permission to kick back. Louis Armstrong's opening cadenza on West End Blues in June 1928 established the trumpet as a virtuoso jazz instrument and marked the horn's liberation from the rest of the band. Nine years later, in August 1937, Bunny Berigan's solo on I Can't Get Started signaled the start of a more individual, personal trumpet style that would be adapted by virtually every big band that followed, including Dizzy Gillespie's.
I Can't Get Started was written by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 starring Fanny Brice, Bob Hope and Josephine Baker. Johnny DeVries, a songwriter, excitedly brought the song to Berigan during one of Bunny's stays at the Famous Door on New York's 52d St.
Berigan loved the tune and began playing it regularly, recording it for the first time on April 3, 1936 with Red McKenzie [pictured] and His Mound City Blowers—with McKenzie delivering the vocal. Ten days later, on April 13, 1936, Berigan recorded it with his Blue Boys (an octet that included Artie Shaw and Joe Bushkin). Like McKenzie, Berigan provided the vocal.
A year and half later, on August 7, 1937, Berigan, with his big band, recorded I Can't Get Started again. This time there was a huge cadenza opener reminiscent of Armstrong's West End Blues and a dramatic high-note reach at the close. Berigan's lighthearted frustration about not being able to get to first base with a love interest offers just the right amount of passion and Depression-era possibility, which is why the rendition was and remains so singular.
Thanks largely to the popularity of Berigan's version, I Can't Get Started is No. 22 on the 100 most recorded songs written between 1890 and 1954—one notch above Jingle Bells. Berigan's 1937 version also was one of the original eight songs inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. To this day Berigan's version of I Can't Started has not been topped.
After the song's release in 1937, I Can't Get Started became something of a velvet millstone around Berigan's neck. During the five remaining years of his life, Berigan was compelled to play it almost nightly, and the song became his theme by default. Writes Robert DuPuis in Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz (1993):
"On [the earlier 1936] session, [Joe] Bushkin insists Eddie Condon set up the chords for Bunny's solo. Some devotees prefer this simpler, more direct treatment to the August 7, 1937, 12-inch Victor recording with Bunny's full band. Although leader Berigan's two versions were recorded nearly a year and half apart, and with vastly different instrumentation, both Bunny's vocal chorus and his horn playing are strikingly similar, probably because of the regularity of his performing it and to his bending to the expectations of listeners.
"Similarities aside, in the 50 years since Bunny ennobled this above-average Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin song, the version that has attached itself to the hearts of casual listeners, jazz fans, dancers, lovers, trumpet players, and other musicians is the August 7, 1937 recording, which became a hit. There is an irony in the fact that Bunny's only true hit, this four minutes and forty-five seconds of magic, became a kind of trap for him. Having once created this masterpiece, Bunny was expected to re-create it nightly, on demand."
For me, I Can't Get Stated remains a fabulous piece of music. I never get tired of listening to it. Maybe it's because the song builds several times, much like New York City architecture of the period time—rising and setting back, only to rise again and set back. Or maybe it's because Berigan plays and sings the song so simply and with just a touch of imperfection and ennui. Or maybe for both reasons.
Berigan's wide-open execution was so powerful and memorable that it wound up influencing many of the major trumpet players who followed—including Roy Eldridge [pictured], Harry James and even Dizzy Gillespie.
Listen to the closing section of Dizzy's version of I Can't Get Started from 1948—or the dramatic opening of his 'Round Midnight from the same year. Dizzy pays tribute to Bunny at the end of his version of I Can't Get Started and uses a similar cadenza to open 'Round Midnight. Talk about a baton hand-off from the 1930s to the 1940s!
In Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie by Alyn Shipton (1999), Dizzy says, "[Our version of I Can't Get Started] was Tadd Dameron's arrangement. I figured that a new idea on it wouldn't take anything away from Bunny Berigan but show there were possibilities for the tune."
Berigan died on June 2, 1942 from the same ailment that claimed Bix's life—alcoholism. Bunny was just 33 years old.
JazzWax tracks: You can download the 1936 and 1937 versions of Berigan's I Can't Get Started at iTunes. They're just 99 cents each, and I guarantee you'll have a fresh appreciation of Bunny. Just type Berigan's name into the iTunes search engine and click on the song menu to alphabetize the titles. Then look under I Can't Get Started—the one that runs 3:25 is the 1936 version. The one that runs 4:46 is the 1937 version. For a kick, also download the 1:13 version, which is a partial recording likely taken from a live Berigan appearance in late 1936.
Put the three songs in chronological order, and you'll have a blast hearing how the song developed.
Dizzy Gillespie's 1948 versions of I Can't Get Started and 'Round Midnight, referred to above, can be found on Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete Bluebird/Musicraft Recordings & The Pleyel Concert here.
JazzWax trivia: In addition to obvious contrasts in arrangement and pacing, there's another hidden difference between the 1936 and 1937 versions of I Can't Get Started. On the 1936 version, Berigan either purposefully or mistakenly transposed a line of the original lyrics.
Listen to the 1936 version and you'll hear Berigan sing, "And I scheme, both day and night of you/dream, just for the sight of you." On the 1937 version, he sings the lyric correctly: "I dream, dream day and night of you/And I scheme, just for the sight of you." In all likelihood, Bunny knew exactly what he was doing.
JazzWax video clips: Go here to listen to the original 78 rpm of the 1937 version of Berigan's I Can't Get Started. To see what all the fuss was about over Berigan, go here to see Bunny play and sing with the Freddie Rich band in 1936. My man Bunny. What a sound!