Today is the birthday of jazz pioneer William Gary “Bunk” Johnson (1879-1949). The origin of the name is possibly due to his capacity for exaggeration (it has often been implied that his reminiscences were spun to enhance his own historical role, for example). Be that as it may, it is generally agreed that he was one of the most important trumpeters in the early New Orleans jazz scene (1905-1915), often playing with the likes of Adam Olivier and Buddy Bolden. During the same years, he also toured with minstrel shows and circuses. He was run out of town when he let his krewe down for the 1915 Mardis Gras parade (he failed to show up) and thereafter he made his home in New Iberia, Louisiana. His luck worsened in 1931 when he lost his trumpet and his front teeth in a brawl at a dance where he was playing. This forced him to retire from the music business for about a decade, until some jazz historians learned of his role in the early jazz scene from folks they were interviewing. His plight was made widely known and money was raised for dentures and a new horn. Bunk Johnson was to record and perform extensively during the 1940s.
Here’s one of his records from 1947, “Sister Kate”
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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