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In Old New Orleans: The Story of Jazz Legend, Bunk Johnson

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Bunk Johnson was a fine cornet player, a pioneer in the early days of New Orleans jazz. He fell on hard times, and then made a spectacular come-back late in life. While his luck came and went, his fondness for boasting never left him. His friends just shrugged off his outlandish claims. “Bunk!? they said, and the name stuck.

On Riverwalk Jazz this week, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates the “improvised ensemble? style of Bunk Johnson’s playing. We’ll hear his stories, part fact and part fiction, of life in New Orleans, brought to life by our special guest, the award-winning Broadway actor and playwright and Riverwalk Jazz favorite, Vernel Bagneris.

Bunk Johnson had a vivid imagination. He once claimed he toured England with a circus led by a famous Russian strongman and made the sour-faced Queen Victoria laugh with his parlor tricks. He insisted that he’d played in a band led by the mythic New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden in the 1890s.

History tells a different story. No one fitting Bunk’s description ever performed for Queen Victoria, and Bunk would’ve had to have been six years old to be playing with Buddy Bolden in 1895.

Bunk’s biographers write that for Bunk, “history was an oral tradition to be re-told and honed over the years.?

The historical record does show that Bunk played in Frankie Dusen's Eagle Band, The Superior Orchestra and with Clarence Williams. He left New Orleans in 1915 and played in minstrel shows, theater orchestras and circus bands, and with the Black Eagle Band. In 1931 he retired from music.

He worked as a truck driver, laborer, and as a music teacher. In 1938 William Russell and Fredric Ramsey began working on their book, “Jazzmen." In the course of interviewing several jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Bunk's name kept coming up as one of the early New Orleans jazz pioneers.

The authors tracked Bunk down in New Iberia, Louisiana where he was living, and interviewed him for the book. Bunk gave them his birth date as ten years earlier than it really was so that it would appear that he had been one of the first jazz musicians.

But, Bunk's colorful stories contributed to the success of the book, and the authors took up a collection among musicians and jazz history buffs to buy him new dentures and a new trumpet. He made his first recordings in 1942, and became an icon of the traditional jazz revival which continues to the present day.

Bunk Johnson died in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1949.

Based on Riverwalk script ©2004 by Margaret Moos Pick


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