i’m really not too great at writing about jazz, so I’ll leave the words of this post to others. I was introduced to the music of Bix Beiderbecke when I happened upon a copy of Geoff Muldaur’s tribute album ‘Private Astronomy: The Futuristic Music of Bix Beiderbecke’. And it was such a fantastic album, with wild, unique, and dazzling music, I went to my library and got this album.
Biography by Scott Yanow
Bix Beiderbecke was one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920s. His colorful life, quick rise and fall, and eventual status as a martyr made him a legend even before he died, and he has long stood as proof that not all the innovators in jazz history were black. Possessor of a beautiful, distinctive tone and a strikingly original improvising style, Beiderbecke’s only competitor among cornetists in the ’20s was Louis Armstrong but (due to their different sounds and styles) one really could not compare them.
Beiderbecke was a bit of a child prodigy, picking out tunes on the piano when he was three. While he had conventional training on the piano, he taught himself the cornet. Influenced by the original Dixieland Jazz Band, Beiderbecke craved the freedom of jazz but his straight-laced parents felt he was being frivolous. He was sent to Lake Forest Military Academy in 1921 but, by coincidence, it was located fairly close to Chicago, the center of jazz at the time. Beiderbecke was eventually expelled he missed so many classes. After a brief period at home he became a full-time musician. In 1923, Beiderbecke became the star cornetist of the Wolverines and a year later this spirited group made some classic recordings.
In late 1924, Beiderbecke left the Wolverines to join Jean Goldkette’s orchestra but his inability to read music resulted in him losing the job. In 1925, he spent time in Chicago and worked on his reading abilities. The following year he spent time with Frankie Trumbauer’s orchestra in St. Louis. Although already an alcoholic, 1927 would be Beiderbecke’s greatest year. He worked with Jean Goldkette’s orchestra (most of their records are unfortunately quite commercial), recorded his piano masterpiece “In a Mist” (one of his four Debussy-inspired originals), cut many classic sides with a small group headed by Trumbauer (including his greatest solos: “Singin’ the Blues,” “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”), and then signed up with Paul Whiteman’s huge and prosperous orchestra. Although revisionist historians would later claim that Whiteman’s wide mixture of repertoire (much of it outside of jazz) drove Beiderbecke to drink, he actually enjoyed the prestige of being with the most popular band of the decade. Beiderbecke’s favorite personal solo was his written-out part on George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.”
With Whiteman, Beiderbecke’s solos tended to be short moments of magic, sometimes in odd settings; his brilliant chorus on “Sweet Sue” is a perfect example. He was productive throughout 1928, but by the following year his drinking really began to catch up with him. Beiderbecke had a breakdown, made a comeback, and then in September 1929 was reluctantly sent back to Davenport to recover. Unfortunately, Beiderbecke made a few sad records in 1930 before his death at age 28. The bad liquor of the Prohibition era did him in.
For the full story, Bix: Man & Legend is a remarkably detailed book. Beiderbecke’s recordings (even the obscure ones) are continually in print, for his followers believe that every note he played was special.
Bix Beiderbecke, a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma
Even those closest to Davenport, Iowa-born Leon Bix Beiderbecke never really knew just who he was, or the source of the musical genius as cornetist, pianist and composer that brought him lasting worldwide fame.
Many have called him “an enigma.” After all, how probable was it that a mostly self-taught young man from the mid-sized Iowa town on the Mississippi River would ever play and compose such incomparable music.
Bix was born on March 10, 1903, blazed like a jazz comet through the “Roaring ’20’s,’ and died, worn-out and deathly ill, on Aug. 6, 1931, at the age of only 28.
How likely was it that he would be little more than an asterisk to the Jazz Age, if that, or that in more recent years he would be the subject of three films, at least five books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and conversation wherever jazz fans and musicians gather?
He was a wash-out in school, never properly learned to read music, yet astounded his colleagues wherever he played. In his short life, Bix composed just five pieces, work that bear the stamp of genius and further enhanced his reputation.
Music, including the classics, was the one true love of his life, and when he was playing he was immersed and oblivious to anything else. He went from the Wolverines, to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and finally to the very “mountain-top” of the Twenties, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. There were many recordings in between.
Still, he could never get his personal life in order, and those who knew him wondered if musically he ever found what he was looking for, perhaps something dreamed of, but unattainable.
In his autobiography, “Sometimes I Wonder,” friend and fellow musician Hoagy Carmichael wrote, “He was our golden boy, doomed to an untimely end.” Hoagy also said, “In Harlem, in Hollywood, in the Chicago South Side, in Le Jazz Hot joints in Paris where the city folk come to listen to his records, they still talk of Bix Beiderbecke.”
Hoagy told of a time after a gig that he and Bix stopped on a cold night along a lonely country road, took out their horns, and began playing: “Bix was off. Clean, wonderful streams of melody filled the dawn, ruffled the countryside, stirred the still night.
“I bolted along to keep up a rhythmic lead while Bix laid it out. A wind drove autumn leaves around us. Bix finished in one amazing blast of pyrotechnic improvisation. He took his horn away from his mouth, as if in a sleepwalker’s dream.”
One writer wrote of there being “elusive bars that only Bix could hear.”
An unknown jazz musician perhaps summed up the essence of Bix: “Once you hear him blow four notes on that horn, your life will never be the same.”
What places Bix apart from – and above – most jazz musicians? What is therein Bix’s cornet playing that elicits in fans such admiration and devotion? What distinguishes Bix’s style from that of so many other cornet or trumpet players? These are difficult questions to answer. Fortunately, many of Bix’s contemporaries have described Bix’s cornet work and, in particular, music critics and writers have provided insightful analyses that give us an awareness and a good understanding of Bix’s unique musical gift and legacy.
* Comments by Fellow Musicians
The following quotes from jazz musicians are taken from “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It”, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Rinehart and C., Inc., New York, 1955.
Jimmy McPartland: “What beautiful tone, sense of melody, great drive, poise, everything.” “His style, the cleanliness and feeling, was lovely. His technique was excellent, his intonation was great. So was his harmonic sense.”
Hoagy Carmichael: “Bix’s breaks were not as wild as Armstrong’s, but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care. He showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful, as well as hot. He showed me that tempo doesn’t mean fast.”
George Johnson: “Bix was a fountain of ideas that were spontaneous, as unexpected to himself as they were to us.”
Russ Morgan: “Bix would fill out his part with some of the most beautiful notes you ever heard.”
Pee Wee Russell: “The thing about Bix’s music is that he drove a band. If you had any talent at all he made you play better. It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. It had to do with his whole feeling for ensemble playing.” “Bix had a miraculous ear.”
Louis Armstrong: “You take a man with a pure tone like Bix’s and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure cornet or trumpet tone will cut through it all.”
* Analyses by Music Critics and Writers
George Avakian in “The Art of Jazz”, edited by Martin T. Williams, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1959. “Before we get into the life story, let’s consider the big thing: Bix’s horn. It’s something that will never quite fade away, as long as there’s a record around. Once heard, it’s a sound you’ll never forget: the warm, mellow cornet tone, sometimes with almost no vibrato at all; the attack that was sure, with every note brought out as clearly as a padded mallet striking a chime; the flow of ideas, sometimes bursting with spontaneous energy and yet always sounding coolly calculated, as neatly arranged as though a composer had carefully organized each phrase and then plotted all the little inflections and dynamics. He was one of the most exciting musicians who ever lived, but he did it by the individuality of his tone and the imaginativeness of his improvisations.”
Robert Dupuis in “Bunny Berigan, Elusive Legend of Jazz”, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1993. “Throughout his recorded music, Bix exhibits a fluid, legato style, one that Sudhalter likens to a vocal quality. Much of the difference between Bix and his predecessors lies in his harmonic approach to playing. His ear heard, and his horn played, elegant, graceful lines that danced in and out of the melody. In those instances in which he accompanied another soloist or vocalist, Bix displayed a beautiful, almost baroque complementary counterpoint that, instead of repeating a stated melody, spun a harmonic framework for it. Bix’s cornet tone was pure, warm, flannel. It possessed a matte, rather than brass finish. Rarely venturing outside the middle range of the horn, Bix relied on his choice of notes and skillful sense of dynamics, often creating interest within a single measure by varying from loud to soft, or soft to loud. Each solo, however brief, stood on its own as a complete musical statement and offered its own sense of musical logic. Once Bix had played a jazz solo he frequently disowned it, eschewing requests to repeat it as recorded and looking for a new means of expression the next time around. Individual notes were most often attacked in soft, legato manner, rather than percussively. Bix’s solo playing is relaxed, laid-back, unhurried, exuding a sense of control.”
James Lincoln Collier in “The Making of Jazz”, Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1978.”What was it that thrilled them (his friends) and still calls forth our admiration? To begin with, there was the compelling tone. His attack was sharp-edged and firm, his intonation impeccable, and his tone warm, but possessed a certain metallic resonance that can indeed be described as bell-like. On the strength of sound production alone, Bix would have earned a place in the history of jazz. But he had much more than that. His grasp of melodic principle continued to grow through his life. Long before other jazz players, he understood the critical importance in melody of moving from dissonance to consonance. He was also using higher degrees of the scale – elevens, thirteenths, and even the more dissonant raised fourths and fifths suggested by the whole-tone scale – and he was using these notes not experimentally or for occasional color, but as an integral part of his work. All of these things – rhythmic competence, an expressive tone, rich harmonies – are only part of what it takes to be a great jazz player. A man is a master melodist because of the way he sculpts his musical lines, and at this Beiderbecke had few peers. He used as his theory of composition the correlated chorus he thought he had found in Armstrong’s playing: play two measures, play two more related, and follow these four bars with four related, and so on. It was not Armstrong, we should remember, but Beiderbecke who articulated the theory, and in his best work he seems to be following quite explicitly. Bix was, more than any of his contemporaries and indeed most jazz musicians since, a conscious artist. There was no question of his simply standing up and blowing. He knew precisely what he was doing – or attempting, at least. He knew why he was choosing the notes he selected; why he was placing them where he did. His placement of notes was exact and delicate. He is always economical, never playing an unnecessary note; but he is not spare. Less is not more, but enough is just exactly enough. Bix’s influence on his contemporaries was both direct and pervasive. But more important than this direct influence on many players was the fact that Bix showed trumpet players of the day that Armstrong’s road was not the only way to go. Instead of the bravura operatic performance that Armstrong favored, it was possible, as Bix proved, to play within a narrower physical and emotional compass, paying close attention to detail – calligraphy rather than great, sweeping strokes; the sonnet rather than the epic.”
Gunther Schuller in “Early Jazz, Its Roots and Musical Development”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1968. “Though his beautiful golden tone was to become even richer in subsequent years, it already stands out as a unique attribute, not equaled even by Armstrong. Bix’s tone had a lovely, unhurried quality, perfectly centered, with natural breath support and a relaxed vibrato. Here, in fact, Bix showed his independence from Armstrong. Comparing the two, we note the extra daring in Louis’ solos, the almost uncontrollable drive, the rhythmic tension – in short, playing in which all technical maters are subservient to the expansion of an instrumental conception, to the exploration of new musical ideas. By comparison, Bix was a conservative. His ideas and techniques combined into a perfect equation in that the demands of the former never exceeded the potential of the latter. His sense of timing … was almost flawless. He showed a sure attack and a natural feeling for swing. Thus, each tone, apart from its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic relationships, was a thing of beauty: an attack perfectly timed and initiated followed by a pure, mellow cornet timbre. Bix had a quality extremely rare in early jazz: lyricism. His crowning achievements were the superbly timed, relaxed, mellifluous solos on Singin’ the Blues and I’m Coming Virginia. Here is the essential Bix, unspectacular, poignant, with a touch of reserve and sadness shining through.”
Hugues Panassie in “Hot Jazz, The Guide to Swing Music”, M. Witmark and Sons, New York, 1936.”Bix’s personality was filled with subtle nuances which he projected in his playing so sweetly and vehemently. And he projected it by means of his tone, which was strong and exceptionally pure (we may well ask if anyone ever played the cornet with so ravishing a tone); by means of his vibrato, which was restrained but passionate, faster than the usual vibrato but slower than the usual Negro vibrato – a vibrato no one has been able to imitate, so subtle it is; for it seems to come not so much from the lips as from the heart itself; and above all by means of his musical conceptions with the sequence of his full and powerful phrases, so fine as if to be almost transparent, embodied with utmost fidelity. His imagination was extraordinary fertile. He could invent long phrases delicious in line. Among his numerous high qualities, let me note that instinct which taught him how to use the harmonies of a tune as a basis for variations on that tune. Phrases were never thrown together haphazardly; they were organized into a totality as solid as that of the original tune. Bix’s improvisations were constructed in such perfect proportions that I would be quite ready to think he had plotted them out in advance, were they not so obviously spontaneous. He threw his entire being into everyone of his choruses. His style was totally different from that of other famous hot musicians – different in power of melodic invention, in the contrast between those of his phrases which soared up brilliantly and those which subsided slowly to soft tones; different, as well, in its delicate intonations.”
Wilder Hobson in “American Jazz Music”, W. W. Norton and Co. New York, 1939. “Beiderbecke, like Louis Armstrong, dominated the jazz bands with which he played, but with quite different music. Instead of the hot luxuriance of Armstrong’s invention, Beiderbecke’s playing was usually characterized by a graceful economy, a buoyant, jetting, melodic line, and he had perhaps as bodiless and golden a tone, suffused with veilings and demi-tints, as ever came from a brass instrument.”
Otis Ferguson in “Jam Session, An Anthology of Jazz”, edited by Ralph J. Gleason, The Jazz Book Club, 1961. “An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of most of the best elements of jazz. He played a full easy note, no forcing, faking or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch – it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at. You see, this is the sort of thing that is almost wholly improvised, starting from a simple theme, taking off from that into a different and unpredictable melodic line, spontaneous, personal – almost a new tune but still shadowing the old one, anchored in its chord sequence. Obviously, without lyric invention and a perfect instinct for harmony, this is no go for a minute, let alone chorus after chorus, night after night. And yet there is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs – everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself. Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring. Bix had a rhythmic invention that seemed inexhaustible, variety without straining; and in all his cross-rhythms and flights of phrasing, retarding the beat or flying on ahead of it, there was always the insistent implication of the steady one-two-three-four drive that usually has its base in the rhythm section.”
Martin Williams in “The Jazz Tradition”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983.”In its own time, Bix’s work came at the right moment. When jazz was irrevocably becoming a soloist’s art, he made crucial steps away from simple embellishments and arpeggios toward melodic invention. He gave jazz harmonic and linear enrichments , and showed how lyric it might become. He also affirmed from his own perspective, something that many jazz melodies affirm: that melodic completeness need not obey traditional ideas of form, that a melody can be a continuous linear invention, without the mechanical melodic repeats of popular songs, and still be a satisfying esthetic entity. Bix’s personal melodic intervals, his warm tone, his handling of sound, his plaintive bent notes, and his easy phrasing are a part of his contribution too. But they are all only manifestations of the real import of his playing, which was emotional. It suggested that there was a largely neglected kind of lyric feeling which might also find expression in jazz.”
Benny Green in “The Reluctant Art”, MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1962. “When he played Bix was consciously thinking, as all jazz musicians do, no matter what the psychologists may say, only of the movement of the harmonies from resolution to resolution. Whatever emotional or dramatic effects we may care to observe in the result are the product of the intuitive powers of the soloist, not his reasoning intelligence at work. But examples like this do illustrate Bix’s curious individuality as a jazz musician, and his rare ability to evoke in the listener a range of emotions not so common in jazz as one might think. The very nature of the melancholia he conjures is distinctly Bixian, sensitive and reflective, quite devoid of the element of self-pity which obtrudes in so much later jazz aiming consciously at the same effects Bix produced instinctively.”
Before ending this section I wish to quote two cornet players, one contemporaneous with Bix, the other a student of Bix’s style.
In “Jazz Masters of the Thirties”, McMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972, Rex Stewart states:
In my book Bix was a once-in-a-million artist. I doubt if what he played will ever be surpassed on the trumpet. He was one of the all-time giants, and I feel that his gifts remain today as unsullied and strikingly refreshing as when he lived. In his foreword to Phil and Linda Evans’ “Bix, The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story”, Prelike Press, Bakersfield, California, 1998, Tom Pletcher states:
His tone, vibrato and selection of notes could express passion, joy, sadness or humor depending on his feelings or what he thought the song, phrase or moment should evoke. No jazz musician before or since could capture so much emotion in one note.
– from Bix’s Musical Genius
* Final Comments
Finally, I would like to add my own, brief comments. To me, what makes Bix unique among all jazz players is that his instrument was not an end in itself, but rather, it was a means by which he could express his musical ideas. The melody and the underlying harmony, not a display of virtuosity, were the essence of Bix’s cornet work. Bix used the cornet to compose and to lead.
Each and every one of his solos were masterpieces of extemporaneous composition. Bix created his melodic variations with an intuitive feeling for the harmonic progressions, and utilized chord tones extraneous to the written arrangements. With deliberation and a powerful creative imagination, Bix chose each particular note, determined how those notes were to be played individually, and judged how they were to be connected to each other. Certainly, all of the characteristics of Bix’s cornet work that are usually mentioned – the tone, the sentiment, the attack, the lyricism – are additional manifestations of Bix’s amazing gift for music.
Bix had a remarkable ability to lead ensemble performances. When he played with small groups, Bix’s cornet work is easily discerned throughout the recording. His sense of rhythm, his dynamism, and his unsurpassed drive inspire the other performers to attain new heights, and add another dimension to each performance. This special quality was unfortunately lost when Bix played with the larger bands where his unique sound was obscured and sometimes cannot be identified, except during those magnificent gems, the solos bursting forth like musical lightning.
Recording Date: Feb 4, 1927-Sep 30, 1927
Release Date: 1990
Review by Scott Yanow
Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke’s greatest recordings were mostly made in 1927. This definitive CD (reissued in 1990) has most of Beiderbecke’s best-loved work, including “Singin’ the Blues,” “I’m Coming Virginia,” “Ostrich Walk,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” and his solo piano classic “In a Mist.” Most of the recordings were cut with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, although there are also two titles from the Broadway Bellhops, a similar group. The beauty of Beiderbecke’s horn outshone virtually every other brassman in the 1920s other than Louis Armstrong, and he never sounded better than on these records. Beiderbecke is joined by such notables as C-melody saxophonist Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang, clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, trombonist Bill Rank, and clarinetist Don Murray, among others. In addition to the titles mentioned, the renditions of “Clarinet Marmalade,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle,” and “Wringin’ and Twistin'” are among the other highlights. Essential music that in one form or another belongs in every serious jazz collection.
1 Trumbology – Trumbauer – 2:59
2 Clarinet Marmalade – Ragas, Shields – 3:13
3 Singin’ the Blues (Till My Daddy Comes Home) – Conrad, Lewis, Robinson, Young – 3:00
4 Ostrich Walk – Edwards, LaRocca, Ragas Sbarbaro, Shields – 3:05
5 Riverboat Shuffle – Carmichael, Mills, Parish, Voynow – 3:07
6 I’m Coming Virginia – Cook, Heywood – 3:09
7 Way Down Yonder in New Orlean – Creamer, Layton – 2:50
8 For No Reason at All in C – Lewis, Meyer, Young – 3:02
9 Three Blind Mice – Morehouse, Trumbauer – 3:01
10 Blue River – Bryan, Meyer – 3:16
11 There’s a Cradle in Caroline – Ahlert, Young – 3:00
12 In a Mist – Beiderbecke – 2:44
13 Wringin’ an’ Twistin’ – Trumbauer, Waller – 2:53
14 Humpty Dumpty – Livingston – 3:02
15 Krazy Kat – Morehouse, Trumbauer – 3:00
16 The Baltimore – Healy, Kahal, McHugh – 2:59
17 There Ain’t No Land Like Dixi – Donaldson – 3:02
18 There’s a Cradle in Caroline – Ahlert, Young – 2:54
19 Just an Hour of Love – DeRose, Tilzer, Trent – 2:51
20 I’m Wonderin’ Who – DeRose, Tilzer, Trent – 2:49
mp3 vbr >160kbps | w/ cover (small) | 70mb