Fox Lake’s Big Band Legacy

Since 1973, jazz lovers in Fox Lake, Wis., have organized the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee, a community-wide tribute to a local jazz legend.

Berigan—born Roland Bernard Berigan in Hilbert, but raised in Fox Lake—built his reputation as a trumpet playing phenom during the 1930s swing era. At that time Berigan was not only playing with Benny Goodman and other big band greats, but he also recorded a number of albums with his own band. Berigan’s 1937 recording of the Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin-penned “I Can’t Get Started” won him a posthumous spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.

Bunny Berigan Day in 1974 with (left to right) Henry Ballweg; Bunny’s brother Donald; daughter Joyce; grandson James; and nephew Kaye. Photo: Harriet O’Connell Historical Room at Fox Lake Public Library, Fox Lake, WI.

A volunteer-driven effort originally coordinated by Berigan’s daughter Joyce, this year’s Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee takes place May 18-20, 2012. Julie Flemming, who has coordinated the event in recent years, says the Jubilee attracts traditional and Dixieland jazz fans from all over the country. Five bands are slated to perform, including the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee Band, led by California-based Wonewoc native Bob Schulz; and the Kaye Berigan 5 TET, led by Bunny’s nephew Kaye, who now plays trumpet with Milwaukee’s SUPERband.

Bunny Berigan, 1937. Photo: Harriet O’Connell Historical Room, Fox Lake Public Library, Fox Lake, WI.

A graveside jazz tribute will honor both Berigan and Joyce Berigan-Hansen, who died in 2011.  Also, on hand throughout the weekend is Berigan biographer Mike Zirpolo, author of the 2011 book Mr. Trumpet.

Zirpolo’s 550-paged work of jazz scholarship “is the most definitive biography of Bunny ever—a fabulous book,” says Julie Flemming. And she should know. Flemming curated the online image archive, Bunny Berigan: Fox Lake’s Own, part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. While she may not have heard of Berigan when she moved to Fox Lake decades ago, “I  can now identify Bunny’s relatives better than I can my own,” Flemming confesses with a laugh.

“For 33 1/2 years, I ran the Fox Lake Public Library, and ten years into my job as a librarian, the historical society ladies allowed me the key to historical room,” Flemming says. “That’s when I started wondering, ‘Well, who is this Bunny Berigan?’”

Her edification began when she would overhear performances while volunteering in the kitchen at the Jubilee. Soon she would start watching jazz documentaries, reading books on jazz, driving to Madison for monthly Madison Jazz Society performances, and after Joyce Berigan-Hansen grew ill and Flemming retired, taking on more and more of the Jubilee planning. This year, she tells me near the end of our conversation, she accomplished most of the work while recovering from a car accident, which left her with a broken neck.

If the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee is a labor of love, staffed by Fox Lake volunteers and sponsored by local organizations, Julie Flemming seems to embody her community’s collective devotion to preserving its jazz heritage.

By the way, I loved this bit on Bunny Berigan that aired late last year on Wisconsin Public Radio. Over Berigan’s expressive trumpet solo on “I Can’t Get Started,” we hear Wisconsin Life contributor Dean Robbins describe his teen-aged infatuation with the recording: Berigan’s trumpet playing “conveys a melancholy that approaches the sublime,” he says.

You’ll find details about the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee, coming May 18-20 to Fox Lake, at the festival website.

Find information about other Wisconsin jazz events at the links below:

Birch Creek Summer Jazz Series, Egg Harbor

Eau Claire Jazz Festival

Great River Jazz Fest, La Crosse (no link available)

Isthmus Jazz Festival, Madison

Kettle Moraine Jazz Festival, West Bend

Riverfront Jazz Festival, Stevens Point

–Tammy Kempfert

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