Last week’s post profiled Bing Crosby, an entertainer whose name is still widely recognized but whose historical importance and versatility as a performer are rarely appreciated. I like a good story – one with real interest, and the short life of this week’s subject easily fills the bill. So….here goes!
Few of you will recognize the name or the image. Most of you with an interest in music history and early jazz will readily identify the “Young Man With a Horn” as the enigmatic, genius Cornet player from the nineteen-twenties, Bix Beiderbecke. In the early nineteen-twenties, jazz was still in its formative stages as a musical art form. Emanating primarily from New Orleans after the turn of the twentieth century, it was begun and shaped by black musicians who imbued it with deep-south cultural experiences, primarily the blues tradition which echoed the travails and sorrows of the field hands who worked barely beyond what were once slave conditions.
If you follow my blog, you are aware that Louis Armstrong was one of those born into the New Orleans culture which gave jazz its start. The jazz art form was subsequently refined up the Mississippi River in bustling, vibrant Chicago.
Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, to respectable, upper class parents – far from the breeding grounds of jazz clubs and speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago. At two years of age, Bix was already showing signs of musical precociousness. He was playing the piano by three, and soon, he could play by ear after hearing the piece once. By ten years of age, Bix was spending time at the end of town, down by the riverfront dock, waiting for the excursion boats to come in from down south replete with on-board bands playing the new, infant jazz. He reportedly heard the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong who regularly worked these excursion boats early in his career.
Around 1918, Bix’s older brother brought home a Victrola phonograph along with records featuring the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” That seemed to be the seminal event in young Beiderbecke’s life, for he was soon hooked by the hot dixieland jazz sounds like Tiger Rag which poured forth. He sat in front of the Victrola for hours playing along on his cornet.
Beiderbecke floundered in high school as he began to play cornet in local bands at the age of seventeen. His refined, merchant-class parents had always looked down upon the new music and those who played it: For them, the music and those who immersed themselves in it bordered on the degenerate. They saw no good future for their son in such avante-garde activities.
Bix was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois, to get his schooling back on track – an unfortunate choice on the parent’s part due to Lake Forest’s proximity to Chicago where, by the nineteen-twenties, all the real jazz action was happening. Chicago was the welcoming ticket for the many aspiring black musicians who took a chance and traveled up the Mississippi River seeking greater fame and fortune. Chicago filtered out the best from the rest of these.
Beiderbecke was attracted like a moth to the bright lights of Chicago and the aural pleasures it offered. After a few weeks of cutting classes and spending late nights in Chicago’s jazz clubs and speakeasies, Bix was expelled from Lake Forest and sent home. He made it a point while in Chicago to get to the South Side to hear King Oliver and his jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was about that time, in 1922, that Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago from New Orleans to join his boyhood mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver at the Gardens. It was from that point in time and place that Louis Armstrong’s long, storied career in music was launched.
By 1923, Beiderbecke was now living in Chicago after a brief stint back in Iowa with his parents. He had acquired a strong fancy for alcohol (Gin preferred), a taste undoubtedly reinforced during his earlier sojourns to Chicago. His drinking, along with his academic failure, combined to doom his tenure at Lake Forest. After working odds and ends of musical gigs while living in Chicago, Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1923. The group took its name after their signature piece, “Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wolverine Blues.
The Wolverine Orchestra with Bix on cornet: Early 1924
Then as now, “cutting a record” was the ultimate achievement for any performer or musical group. On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines made their first recording at the famous Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.
The Wolverine Orchestra at Gennett Records: Feb. 18, 1924
I love this photo showing a young Bix, second from right! Look carefully at the Gennett “recording studio” where they, and so many other jazz pioneers made their first recordings. Note the “air-conditioning” in the form of two fans on the shelf. Note also the large “horns” which feed a black hole into which the sound travels to a stylus which grooves the master disc. Pictures of the “studio” show few changes during these years – from 1923 on; the same two fans are always present!
In those days, there were no microphones and no electronic amplification of the music being played. The recording process relied on adequate sound-pressure coming from the musician’s instruments to cut record grooves.
An interesting sidebar at Gennett Records: When King Oliver’s group with Louis Armstrong first recorded their classic discs in 1923, Armstrong, with his power-playing on the cornet, was moved back away from the pick-up horn and into the hallway of the studio to prevent his robust sound from drowning out the rest of the group on the recordings!
Bix in the Big-Time: The Making of a Jazz Legend
In October of 1926, Bix Beidebecke joined the Jean Goldkette band out of Detroit. The band which was headquartered at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit was well-known and regarded. Bix and the band opened at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite one of the best jazz ensembles of the time – the all-black Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The resulting “Battle of the Bands,” as it was billed by Roseland, left Goldkette’s group with top honors – quite an upsetting experience for the seasoned Henderson group.
These were the early days of jazz when bands were segregated – either wholly white or black. Black musicians had literally birthed and raised jazz to its adolescence by 1926, and they still largely defined its direction.
The boyish-looking young white man from Davenport, Iowa, playing cornet for Goldkette was, by now, turning heads in the jazz world with his pure tone and his innovative jazz phrasing. White and black musicians alike were very impressed with his fresh style, reminiscent in some ways of the pioneering innovations of Louis Armstrong. By 1926, Louis, himself, had made it a point to see and hear this young white player perform his very own pioneering jazz style.
“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”
Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a legendary black musician whose trumpet playing spanned from the early nineteen-twenties to well into his nineties, and who knew all of the great ones, stated that many cornet/trumpet players back then, white and black, tried hard to imitate Beiderbecke’s unique tone and style of playing: As hard as they tried, they found it impossible, he concluded.
Perhaps the finest tribute to Beiderbecke and his talent came from the great Louis Armstrong himself: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”
Paul Whiteman: No Better Than This!
In October of 1927, Beiderbecke hit the top – an invitation to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra…quickly accepted. When Whiteman came calling, few musicians turned him down. Even Bing Crosby’s young career got its kick-start as vocalist with the Whiteman Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, a violin player, had been billed as the “King of Jazz,” a decided misnomer even though he was a significant influence and his orchestra resided at the summit of the musical mountain. Perhaps you have heard that old tune, Whispering? Whiteman made that into a very big hit in the twenties. In 1924, he also premiered George Gershwin’s famous orchestral jazz composition, Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Unfortunately, Bix’s arrival at music’s summit with the Whiteman Orchestra coincided with the beginning of his precipitous, personal fall.
Life in the Fast Lane – Then Suddenly Gone
Bix’s smooth run with Whiteman was to last no more than a year. By November of 1928, after a year of grueling touring and recording with Whiteman, Beiderbecke suffered a nervous breakdown in Cleveland. His troubles were unquestionably fueled by his love of gin and uncontrolled drinking which by this time had affected his health and his playing. Whiteman sent him home to his parents in Davenport to recover. When Beiderbecke returned after two such attempts at alcoholic recovery, Whiteman finally had to let him go. Beiderbecke spent his last months in a New York apartment in Queens where he died at twenty-eight years of age from failing health and pneumonia on August 6, 1931. Alcohol had literally robbed the cradle of one of music’s most illustrious, inventive musicians.
A Sad and Poignant Sidebar to the Bix Story
Bix’s body died from his flagrant misuse of alcohol, but his heart and soul likely were already dead from the steadfast lack of recognition and approval from his parents. In the euphoria of those occasions when Bix recorded with the Goldkette and Whiteman bands, he proudly sent copies of his records to his parents in Iowa to share with them his success. While he was at home in Davenport recuperating after his breakdown with the Whiteman band, Bix discovered the cache of records he had sent to his parents in celebration of his musical achievement stashed in a closet …the packages were never opened.
Knowing Bix: The Legend and the Cult
The life and career of Bix Beiderbecke holds a special fascination for most early jazz enthusiasts. For someone with so short a musical life, he has captured the imaginations of many fans over the decades – to the point of becoming a music legend.
I have his recordings, and I have listened. His cornet solos do stand apart from other players – I particularly love his rendition of I’m Coming, Virginia recorded with Frank Trumbauer in 1927 – a true classic. The fine jazz cornet player, Bobby Hackett, played that number in tribute to Bix at the memorable Benny Goodman jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, 1938. With respect to Hackett’s tribute, it is interesting for me to reflect upon my current, avid interest in Bix and my very first LP album purchased almost 60 years ago as a teenager – Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood! I still have that album – so many “connections” throughout life.
I had long wondered if the immense adulation heaped on Beiderbecke over all these years was, perhaps, a bit overdone. Was his legend the product of a cult mentality? After all, his short life has always seemed to me a series of shadows, barely glimpsed and recorded.
That all changed a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a two hour DVD documentary on Bix filmed some years ago and released under the auspices of the Playboy Jazz Series. It is a film by Brigitte Berman, exquisitely crafted and featuring live interviews with many of the musicians who actually played with Bix, including Hoagy Carmichael of Stardust fame. I listened and heard the message voiced by so many who were there: Bix was a musical genius living in his own inner world. For him, music was life – there was nothing else…except alcohol. He never could “read” music in the true sense, something that bothered and hindered him, but a shortcoming that he overcame by virtue of his musical ear which allowed him to play anything he heard.
Bix’s improvisation skill was legendary. He often played without music even in Whiteman’s band. When asked to sit down with Beiderbecke and musically notate a piano composition of Bix’s, the poor producer found that whenever they had to run through a section of the piece several times, Bix played it differently each time through. The producer practically went nuts. Until he succeeded in getting some version down on musical staff paper, no one else could play the piece!
Here are the universally acknowledged attributes of his playing that the film highlighted through first-person testimony:
-His gorgeous tone on the instrument: “Each note like a small mallet hitting a chime,” to paraphrase his good friend, Hoagy Carmichael.
-His innate jazz phrasing and style which were so revolutionary coming from a white player in the early nineteen-twenties – and much of it was improvised on the spot! To repeat what Louis Armstrong said about the legions of Bix’s contemporaries, white and black, who tried to imitate his playing: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”
-His social/historical impact. Beiderbecke and Armstrong reportedly met on at least one occasion to jam into the wee morning hours. This was no so-called “cutting” session to see who could outplay the other; by all accounts, it was a friendly, joyful collaboration between two virtuoso musicians wishing to make great music together. Such informal fraternity between black and white players was not at all unusual in those early days, although it was not until the mid-nineteen-thirties that mixed musical groups were seen performing. Bix was one of the first white players whose abilities the black jazz pioneers could relate to and respect. In that historical and human sense, he was a most interesting and important character.
The film by Ms. Berman is titled, simply, Bix and wonderfully reconstructs the aura of the jazz age and what it was like to be a musician during this most exciting and colorful period. The interviews and the many photographs of ballrooms and band ephemera help paint the vibrant picture it so successfully projects. I am a “Bix believer” after listening to his music and viewing the film’s testimonials from musical colleagues who fully support the legend.
The opening photos of this blog show Bix and his Vincent Bach “Stradivarius” model cornet. The Bach “Stradivarius” instrument was a legend in itself among horn players in those early days. Here is the factory production ticket for one of Bix’s horns, dated Feb.,1927. Note the name “Bix” engraved on the cornet bell. The horn is one fine reminder of the life and legend of Bix Beiderbecke.