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 Johnson 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 have been only six years old to have been 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, as well as 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.
This week The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates the traditional New Orleans 'improvised ensemble' style of Bunk Johnson’s playing. 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.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Bunk Johnson. Photo courtesy Iberia Parish Library
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011