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Bunk Johnson This Week on Riverwalk Jazz


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This week, The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band celebrates the traditional New Orleans improvised ensemble style of Bunk Johnson. We'll hear his stories, part fact and part fiction, brought to life by the award-winning Broadway actor and Riverwalk Jazz favorite, Vernel Bagneris.

The weekly hour-long Riverwalk Jazz public radio series is distributed nationwide by Public Radio International and XM/Sirius, and is streamed from their website.

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 comeback 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.

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 it would appear that he had been one of the first jazz musicians. He entertained the authors with his colorful storytelling about life as a jazzman in early 20th-century New Orleans. The authors took up a collection among musicians and jazz history buffs to buy Bunk new dentures and a new trumpet. He made his first recordings in 1942, and became an icon of the traditional jazz revival.

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