Bunk Johnson: You Are My Sunshine


You Are My Sunshine


Bunk Johnson (trumpet)


1944/45 (American Music 12)

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Bunk Johnson (trumpet), George Lewis (clarinet), Baby Dodds (drums),

Jim Robinson (trombone), Lawrence Marrero (banjo), Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau (bass)


Recorded: San Jacinto Hall, New Orleans, August 4, 1944


Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

Bunk Johnson should be remembered for his music, but instead he will forever be a figure of contention and controversy. When he was rediscovered in the early 1940s, his fans tried to enshrine him as the real deal, the exponent of how jazz once sounded in New Orleans before jazz got corrupted by lindy hoppers, arrangers and—heaven forbid!—the saxophone.

Johnson played along with the game, and even cheated a bit, jiggering his birth date to strengthen his case as the midwife, or at least one of the three wise men, present at the birth of jazz. In those over-heated days of jazz wars (have we outgrown them today?), fans battled like horn players in a cutting contest, and Johnson was not just praised as a musician, but held up as some sort of antidote to everything that was wrong with the jazz world. This provoked a backlash, and inspired a more progressive contingent of fans to debunk Bunk . . . and on and on the battles raged.

Given this history, it's hard to listen to Bunk's revival recordings as just good ol' hot music, but that is precisely how one should approach this track. This band may lack for polish, and the performance is rough around the edges. But the spirit is with these old men playing their hearts out in San Jacinto Hall on that hot midsummer day in 1944. They evoke a type of revelry that only a sourpuss could scorn. Let jazz warriors make war, but I would rather tap my foot to the beat—and there is plenty here to keep me tapping. You won't get any polemics from this corner, but I am ready to scrawl it on the wall: Bunk Lives!

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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