Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Bix Beiderbecke Legend

The creative and innovative music of Bix Beiderbecke will always be a feature of this blog. I thought it would be appropriate to start with an overview of Bix's wonderful music and tragic life. As a young trumpet student getting into jazz, I was intrigued by an RCA album called The Bix Beiderbecke Legend.

I had heard of Bix, but I sensed there was something special about the cartoon of the dapper young man in tuxedo holding a cornet on the album cover. There was something special. The sound of Bix's horn was different from that of Louis Armstrong, who I had just discovered. But it was a nice kind of different. Thus began my life-long love affair and fascination with Bix's music.

We won't dwell on the biographical facts. They are well-covered in Richard Sudhalter and Philip Evans' definitive book, Bix:Man and Legend (Arlington House 1974). Leon Bix Beiderbecke (Bix is a family nickname for Bismark) was born on March 10, 1903 in Davenport, Iowa. He grew up in a comfortable middle class family of German stock who were local coal merchants. He gravitated to music early, first on piano, then on cornet. When his older brother returned from WWI with some phonograph records of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Bix was hooked on jazz and his lot in life was set. Bix was soon sitting in and playing with local bands. He also heard the young Louis Armstrong playing on a riverboat in Davenport with the Fate Marable Band.

When his parents enrolled him at Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, looking for structure and discipline for their son, little did they know that they were sending Bix to finishing school in jazz, courtesy of nearby Chicago. Bix's nightly trips to Chicago introduced him to the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His days at Lake Forest would soon be over and he would become a professional musician against his parent's wishes.

By 1923 Bix had landed with a promising mid-west band called the Wolverine Orchestra where he made his first recordings and made his mark on the jazz world. One of the band's biggest fans was a young law student-pianist/composer named Hoagy Carmichael. He and Bix would become fast friends. The style of Bix's horn that attracted Hoagy, Louis, Paul Whiteman, Red Nichols, Bing Crosby and countless other musicians was a clear, bell-like tone. His ideas were melodic. He could play hot, but there was always a sense of form and grace to his phrasing. Bix opened up the doors to "pretty" players such as Bobby Hackett and Chet Baker along with numerous players and singers. One of Hoagy's earliest compositions was a piece called Riverboat Shuffle, written for Bix and The Wolverines.

Many critics and fans have noticed the Bix-like lines in the verse and chorus of his all-time classic Stardust, written in 1927 at the height of Bix's powers.

In quick succession Bix went from The Wolverines to Jean Goldkette and Frank Trumbauer and finally Paul Whiteman. (The King of Entertainment, not Jazz, that was Louis' title.) Among Whiteman's roster were the Dorsey Bros, Bing, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Henry Busse, Bill Rank, Chester Hazlett and great arrangers such as Bill Challis, Lenny Hayton and Ferde Grofe.

In Trumbauer Bix found a colleague and mentor. He encouraged Bix and helped him with his reading. One of the many "legends" was that Bix couldn't read music and had a wild west magazine on his music stand. He was a slow, but adequate reader. Bix also began his fascination with classical music, especially the works of Ravel, Debussy and an obscure American composer, Eastwood Lane. These elements would crop up in his horn work, but moreso in his piano playing and compositions.

With Trumbauer and his own "gang", Bix made some of the greatest jazz sides of all time including Singin' the Blues, I'm Comin' Virginia, Jazz me Blues, Royal Garden Blues and his fascinating, impressionistic piano solo and composition, In a Mist. In the orchestral settings of Goldkette and Whiteman his contributions ranged from decorative 4 and 8 bar passages to the monumental. He could take over the entire 32-piece Whiteman orchestra and make it swing on From Monday On or Lonely Melody.

Sad to say, at the tender age of 25 in 1928, Bix's best days would soon be behind him. Since his early playing days, Bix had been fighting a losing battle with alcohol. Some of this might have stemmed from the lack of acceptance by his parents. Even though Bix was working with the top orchestra in the land and making $200 a week in 1927, his parents couldn't accept his occupation.

By December 1928 Bix was in and out of the Whiteman band, trying rest and rehab to battle his demons. When Bix returned to Whiteman in early'29, Paul retained Andy Secrest, Bix's sound-alike replacement as insurance. Finally in September 1929 Bix broke down at a Whiteman record session. He returned home to Davenport for more rest and a planned return to Whiteman who kept him on salary. That return never came.

The last two years of his life were spent in New York playing casual dates, radio, some recording and a lot of work on his compositions. Bill Challis helped put his three remaining compositions on paper. (Bix never got to record them, but many pianists and bands did).

The end came on August 6, 1931 when Bix's frail alcohol-ridden body gave out. The cause of death was pneumonia. The years of alcohol and bad habits had caught up with him at 28 years of age.

Fortunately, we have many great Bix moments on record. Even 80 plus years later, his improvisations still sound fresh and creative. They always will.

I'd like to mention two excellent films on Bix. Bix-ain't none of them play like him yet by Bridgette Berman (1981 Playboy Video) is a fascinating documentary with many interviews of colleagues and bandmates. The second is Bix:Interpretation of a Legend (1990 Rhapsody Films, Italy) starring musician/ writer/actor Bryant Weeks as Bix. Some of the chronology is disjointed, but this is a very sincere portrayal of Bix's life with great period music by Bob Wilber and great cornet solos by Tom Pletcher.

Till next time. BIX LIVES!

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