Inside the Wisconsin Roots of Jazz Legends Les Paul & Bunny Berigan

One was a brilliant star who lost it all at a young age. One is a music icon whose jazz career hides in plain sight. They’re two of the Wisconsin jazz legends profiled in the new book ‘Wisconsin Riffs.’

Since the inception of jazz in the early 1900s, Wisconsin has been home to a remarkably rich variety of jazz musicians. Bunny Berigan’s immense talent burst onto the national scene during the Jazz Age before his life was cut short by alcoholism. Les Paul’s lengthy jazz career is underappreciated in light of his innovation in guitar and recording technology. The pair are among dozens of musicians, from legends to lesser-known regional artists, featured in author Kurt Dietrich’s new collection Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland, published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Les Paul: The Wizard of Waukesha

Les Paul, one of the seminal figures in American popular music, is not regarded as a jazz musician by many “jazzers.” And many, if not most, of the people who know of Paul (as the pioneer of the solid body electric guitar, multi-track recording and more) are not aware that he was a jazz musician. But early in his career, and in the last three and a half decades of his life as a performer, he played jazz almost exclusively.

Born as Lester William Polfuss in Waukesha on June 9, 1915, the youngster reportedly first exhibited his deep interest in music by sitting rapt by a harmonica-playing construction worker who was laying sewage pipe on St. Paul Avenue. At the end of the encounter, the worker gave the 8-year-old boy his instrument, and a lifelong career began.

Les Paul (right) as Rhubarb Red, with Sunny Joe Wolverine, mid-1930s; photo courtesy of Waukesha County Museum

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Lester Polfuss became Les Paul and began playing guitar in a jazz duo with organist Harry Zimmerman on WIND, a Gary, Indiana, station that catered to the South Side Chicago jazz crowd. Paul was also making the scene in Chicago, regularly attending the live performances of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and other jazz stars, sitting in wherever he could. He appeared on a series of records with blues singer Georgia White. With guitarist George Barnes, Paul held jam sessions at a club called Barrel of Fun. He also formed a quartet, the Melody Kings, modeled on Django Reinhardt’s famous Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

Shortly after meeting Jimmy Atkins (the older half-brother of Chet), Paul formed a trio with Jimmy and bassist Ernie Newton. In 1937, the trio left town, playing gigs for a touring group on the way to the new center of jazz, New York. The three young musicians joined a legion of other unemployed players in the Big Apple. Apparently, Les had sold the New York trip to his companions in part by pretending that he was close to Paul Whiteman, who led the most successful big music ensemble in the country. They pushed Les into taking them to Whiteman’s office, where of course they were turned away, as Whiteman had no idea who they were. Incredibly, they ran into bandleader Fred Waring in the hallway, and an audition in the elevator led to Waring hiring the trio for his ensemble, the Pennsylvanians.

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Waring’s schedule was demanding, but the pay was good, and the three newcomers thrived. In addition to playing with the big orchestra, the trio was also featured on the Waring shows in its original format – and was a hit. Soon, the trio cut its first jazz records, which were favorably reviewed by Down Beat.

At night, Paul continued the routine he had established in Chicago, hanging out and sitting in at clubs with Art Tatum, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith and Roy Eldridge. Everyone’s idea of jazz guitar changed when Charlie Christian hit town; he played in a new style, influenced by the jazz of the Swing Era and the blues of what was then referred to as the Southwest (Christian grew up in Oklahoma City), which was a step in the direction of bebop. It was around this time that Paul began experimenting with guitars, and his tinkering with instruments, as well as other broadcast and recording technology, would continue for decades.

Paul moved to southern California in 1943 and soon established a new Les Paul Trio that got work at the NBC studios making the transcription discs that were sent to troops overseas. They wrangled their way into a movie that was later released as Sensations of ’45. In late 1943, Paul was drafted into the service. However, when the music director at NBC, Meredith Willson, was designated to head what became the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), he plucked Paul out to be a member of the unit’s orchestra. With the AFRS, Paul formed a new trio and recorded with the likes of Jack Benny, Groucho Marx and Kate Smith. He was discharged in 1944.

Over the next few years, Paul got the opportunity to work with some of the best musicians in the business. A call from Nat Cole in the summer of 1944 led to Paul being a part of the first of Norman Granz’s groundbreaking Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, the most famous and commercially successful “planned” jam sessions in the history of jazz.

In the late 1940s he met the bubbly, talented young country singer Iris Colleen Summers. When she later joined Paul under the stage name Mary Ford, they became one of the great successful duos of the 1950s. But in May 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” and American pop music was changed forever. No longer would the charts be dominated by the likes of Patti Page, Doris Day, Perry Como or Les Paul and Mary Ford. Soon rock and roll took over the airwaves and people stopped buying the music Paul and Ford released.

For a while, Paul was something of a recluse, hanging out in his home studio, occasionally entertaining friends with a jam session or stories from days gone by. An emergency call from jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli in January of 1972 was the spark for Paul’s unlikely comeback. The duo created a stir playing regularly in the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, with such musical celebrities as Count Basie, Doc Severinsen and George Benson dropping by.

In May 1975, Paul went to Nashville to record the album that signaled his full return. Featuring the guitar duo of Paul and Nashville icon Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester was released in 1976 and earned a Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1977. Despite its country “glow,” its tunes are standards largely associated with jazz, and even Down Beat published a rave review. His late-career revival lasted for decades, and Paul put on live performances even into his 90s.

After one of the most celebrated careers in American music, Paul died in White Plains, New York, on Aug. 13, 2009, at the age of 94. While he will probably always be best known for the instruments that bear his name, and secondarily for his innovations in recording technology, Paul’s status as a jazz musician should not be forgotten.

Bunny Berigan: The Miracle Man of Swing

photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Over a hundred years after the great trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s birth, it remains astounding to consider that small-town Wisconsin produced this tall, handsome, charismatic musician. Seemingly simple but surely complex, unschooled but musically brilliant, gentle but troubled, Berigan was undeniably one of the great talents of the Swing Era. He exploded onto the jazz scene in New York seemingly out of nowhere, dazzling audiences and fans with an outsized natural talent; became a legendary drinker; and died young. (As Gunther Schuller said when writing of Berigan, “Jazz loves its legends, especially its alcoholic martyrs.”) Much of Berigan’s story has basis in fact, of course, but legends are rarely as complicated as their real-life counterparts.

Roland Bernard Berigan was born in Hilbert on Nov. 2, 1908. But before Bunny was a year old, the Berigans moved to Fox Lake when his father, William “Cap” Berigan, became a salesman for the Badger Tobacco & Candy Co. His was a musical family, and his grandfather gave Bunny his first instrument – a trumpet or cornet – when he was about 11.

In the fall of 1925, Bunny moved to Madison to live with his uncle, “Big Bob” Berigan. The move was designed to have two benefits: Bunny could play with bands that were more advanced musically, and the change of scenery and schools was intended to improve his attitude toward schoolwork. It is safe to say that the musical goal was met but the academic goal was not. Uncle Bob was a drummer, and he was able to get Bunny involved right away with his own and other bands, and eventually in the pit orchestras of the Orpheum and Capitol theaters. One of Bunny’s favorite hangouts in Madison was the Ward-Brodt music store, where musicians awaited new records by their favorites – in Berigan’s case, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.

Records had been the most common way that people consumed music in the 1920s, but with the onset of the Great Depression, the bottom fell out of the record business and the popularity of free music on the radio grew. When Berigan was hired by CBS in New York City in 1931, he was assured a great deal of good-paying work.

A brief but celebrated association for Berigan began on Feb. 10, 1936, when he joined Red McKenzie, Eddie Condon and Joe Bushkin opening at the Famous Door, one of the hippest jazz clubs on the hippest jazz street in the world – New York’s 52nd Street. The Famous Door band was successful enough and musically rewarding enough that Berigan decided to resign from CBS, his real cash cow, in March of 1936. In April, he cut his first recording as leader of what was to become his signature tune, Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started,” which was named one of the best jazz records of 1936 by Metronome.

By 1937, Berigan was still occasionally making records with his own big band, but he garnered much more attention that year from records he made with Tommy Dorsey. Two Dorsey hits were recorded on Jan. 29, and Berigan made crucial contributions to both. “Song of India” became one of Dorsey’s jazzed-up classics. The arrangement is largely memorable for the introductory tom-tom figure and Dorsey’s statement of the melody in clear-tone mute, with one startling exception – Berigan’s hot solo in the middle. In “Marie,” Berigan’s solo begins with an electric octave jump to high F, inserting jazz into what was an otherwise sweet arrangement.

Berigan (center) as a child; photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

The real Bunny Berigan Orchestra was born on April 1, 1937, when the band recorded four tracks for RCA Victor that would establish its reputation and kick off several years of work. The crowning achievement for the new band was a long-term opening gig at the Pennsylvania Hotel’s Madhattan Room, a prestigious location in New York.

By the end of the year, the band had completed a smash engagement at the Paramount Theater and had cut more successful records, including four excellent tracks from a session on Dec. 23: “In a Little Spanish Town,” “Black Bottom,” “Trees” and “Russian Lullaby.” Now a big-name bandleader, Berigan was arguably at the height of his career.

But Berigan’s lack of business acumen caught up to him, and in 1939 he filed for bankruptcy despite a busy schedule of touring, recording and radio broadcasts. His drinking eventually began affecting his performances, and he was in clear decline until his death on June 2, 1942, in a hospital in New York. Whatever the stated cause, Berigan’s death was almost certainly the result of cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by his alcoholism. It is a tragic part of the Berigan legend.

His presence, though, is still felt in Wisconsin. Almost every year since 1974, his hometown of Fox Lake has hosted what is now known as the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee. This year, the event takes place May 18-20.

Read more in Kurt Dietrich’s new book Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland ($40, Wisconsin Historical Society Press).

Three more for the ages

Woody Herman; photo courtesy of Kurt Dietrich

Woody Herman

Milwaukee-born Herman’s 50-plus-year career as a bandleader and talent scout stands as one of the state’s great contributions to American music. His “Band That Plays the Blues” and later iterations performed through the height of the big band era. His biggest hit was the 1939 blues riff “Woodchopper’s Ball.”

All Jarreau; photo courtesy of Ripon College

Al Jarreau

His vocals crossed over to pop and blues during his heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, but jazz was at the heart of the five-decade career of the “Acrobat of Scat.” The Milwaukee native, who died in February 2017, is the only vocalist to win a Grammy Award in the jazz, pop and R&B categories.

Ben Sidran

A pianist, songwriter, producer and singer, Sidran was a rising star in jazz during the tumultuous 1960s in Madison, and he has not shied away from activism since. He has recorded more than two dozen albums and was a steady performer at local clubs and a radio host both in Madison and around the country.

photo courtesy of Ben Sidran

‘Badger Beats’ appears in the May 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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