Leon Bismark "Bix" Beiderbecke (March 10, 1903 – August 6, 1931) was a legendary jazz cornet player, as well as a very gifted pianist.
Bix holds a unique place in the early history of jazz. Among the white musicians of the Chicago scene, he held a position in some ways comparable to that of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, though his career never reached a comparable scope. He is still remembered for his unique lyric tone. His sound was vibrant, yet more subdued and quietly poetic than that of most other trumpet or cornet players, thus anticipating the future development of “cool” jazz. His mythical status is also due to the tragic circumstances of his brief life. The sadness and loneliness that is reflected in his playing, alongside an equally prominent heroic side, became the object of fascination for an entire generation of musicians and beyond.
Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa, to a middle-class family of German origin. As a teenager he would sneak off to the banks of the Mississippi to listen to the bands play on the riverboats that would come up from the south.
Partially because of his frequent absences due to illness, Beiderbecke's grades suffered. He attended Davenport High School briefly, but his parents felt that sending him to the exclusive Lake Forest Academy, just north of Chicago, would provide the attention and discipline needed to improve his schooling. The change of scenery did not improve Beiderbecke's academic record, as the only subjects he showed avid interest in were music and sports. Bix began going into Chicago as often as possible to catch the hot jazz bands of the day at the clubs and speakeasies around Chicago, and too often did not return in time or was found out the next day.
Beiderbecke was soon asked to leave the Academy due to his academic failings and extracurricular activities in Chicago, and he began his musical career in earnest.
Beiderbecke first recorded with his band, the Wolverine Orchestra (usually called just The Wolverines, named for "Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton because they played it so often), in 1924, then became a sought-after musician in Chicago and New York City. Still, he was unable to keep his first engagement with Jean Goldkette’s professional dance orchestra due to his poor sight-reading skills. In 1926, he joined the band of saxophonist Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer, with whom he made many of his most innovative and influential recordings. Trumbauer would remain a life-long friend and a somewhat stabilizing influence. Bix was then able to briefly re-join the Jean Goldkette Orchestra before it disbanded in September 1927. Bix and Trumbauer, a 'C' Melody saxophone player, briefly joined Adrian Rollini's band at the Club New Yorker, New York, before moving on to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular and highest paid band of the day. Bix was the star of the Whiteman band—a position he obviously enjoyed, even though Whiteman, dubbed the “King of Jazz,” mostly played sophisticated dance music. Along with “Tram,” guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti, pianist Frank Signorelli, and a few other outstanding soloists hired by Whiteman, Bix made some excellent recordings with the band. Whiteman’s interest in neo-classic and impressionist music also resonated with Bix’s own musical tastes. Whiteman deserves credit for not only recognizing and using Bix’s talent, but also for remaining supportive of him to the end.
Beiderbecke had suffered health problems from an early age, and the relentless schedule of the road and heavy drinking leading to alcoholism contributed to and exacerbated the decline of his health. Bix suffered from severe pain in his legs and other ill effects of prohibition era alcohol and, with declining work around the New York City area, he took a turn for the worse. In addition, Bix's parents did not approve of his playing music for a living. In spite of this, for most of his short adult life, he sent them copies of his recordings, hoping they would listen and be won over with his playing and fame. When he was sent back to his Davenport, Iowa, home by Paul Whiteman in 1929, to recover from a breakdown, however, he found the recordings stored in a closet; they had never even been unwrapped. Bix was greatly hurt and disappointed that his parents, whom he had always wanted to please, had never heard him play the music he loved so much.
Depressed and disheartened, Bix left Davenport for the last time, and while he would play intermittently over the next two years (whenever he was well enough to travel), neither he nor his playing were ever the same. In late July or early August of 1931, he took up residence in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City. It was there that Bix Beiderbecke died alone on August 6, 1931, at the age of 28. While the official cause of his death is listed as "lobar pneumonia" and "brain edema," Beiderbecke apparently died of an alcoholic seizure during delerium tremens. He is buried in a family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.
Beiderbecke's early influences were mostly New Orleans jazz cornetists. His first big influence was Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (O.D.J.B), the white band credited with making the first jazz recording ever, in 1917. The LaRocca influence is evident in a number of Beiderbecke's recordings (especially the covers of O.D.J.B. songs.) Later influences included Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and clarinetist Leon Roppolo. The influence of older New Orleans players such as Freddie Keppard shows up on Beiderbecke's famous two-note interjection on "Goose Pimples" (1927). According to many contemporaries, Beiderbecke's single biggest influence was Emmett Hardy, a highly regarded New Orleans cornetist of whom there are no extant recordings; several fellow musicians said that Hardy's influence is very evident in Beiderbecke's early recordings with The Wolverines. New Orleans drummer Ray Bauduc heard Hardy playing in the early 1920s, and said that he was even more inspired than Beiderbecke.
If Bix Beiderbecke’ style was based on the tradition of black and white cornetists from New Orleans, his own style was quite unique. His playing was neither stiff not comical, though he could be quite humorous on occasion and also retained some of the proud bravado of his predecessors. His was not a full, triumphant tone like that of Louis Armstrong, but it was nevertheless filled with strength and assurance. Bix remains famous for the pure sound of his horn, which carried the genuine and sincere quality of a genius. His musical phrases often had a touching simplicity combined with great melodic invention. On melodies like “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming, Virginia,” Bix the poet could be heard at his best. On faster pieces, Bix could play prolonged, well-articulated, and dynamic solos filed with authority but retaining the same poetic quality. Especially when playing with the large bands of Paul Whiteman and Jean Goldkette, Bix could also make brief interventions that would immediately attract all the attention and sometimes remain as the only valuable moments of an entire recording. On Hoagy Carmichael’s “Barnacle Bill, The Sailor” (1930), an intentionally comical vocal is suddenly and unforgettably interrupted by the thunderous charge of Bix’s horn. Whatever the context, Bix never failed to be heard. As Louis Armstrong remarked: "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."
Unlike what has often been said, Bix did not play in a musical desert. Though mediocrity was never far remote from him (in the form of commercialism for financial reasons and in the form of poorly developed amateur skills), Bix was able to interact with a number of musicians who shared in his greatness. Whether in small ensembles or in large bands, the core group overall remained the same. It included Frankie Trumbauer, whose smooth and gentle C-Melody saxophone was an ideal complement to Beiderbecke, but also artists like Eddie Lang, Adrian Rollini, Joe Venuti, and many others.
Beiderbecke also played piano, sometimes switching from cornet for a chorus or two during a song (e.g. "For No Reason at All in C," 1927). He wrote several compositions for the piano, and recorded one of them, "In a Mist" (after it was transcribed from his improvisations by the Goldkette/Whiteman arranger Bill Challis). His piano compositions include "In a Mist," "Flashes," "In The Dark," and "Candlelights," all recorded by later musicians. “In a Mist,” recorded by Bix in 1927, is a wonderful piece where Beiderbecke successfully combines the influence of French impressionist composers with his own jazz idiom.
Louis Armstrong once remarked that he never played the tune "Singin' the Blues" because he thought Beiderbecke's classic recording of the song shouldn't be touched. As he later said, "Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain't none of them play like him yet."
The character Rick Martin in the novel Young Man With a Horn (1938), by Dorothy Baker, was a work of fiction partially based on Beiderbecke's life. It was later made into a movie (1950) starring Kirk Douglas as Martin (with horn playing dubbed by Harry James). It was later parodied in the BBC radio series Round The Horne as "Young Horne With a Man," featuring "Bix Spiderthrust."
The most obviously Bix-influenced follower was cornetist Jimmy McPartland, who replaced Bix in the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1924, and continued to pay tribute to Bix throughout his long career (McPartland died in 1991). Bix's influence was most noticeable amongst white musicians, but there were also black players who fell under his spell, notably trumpeters and cornetists John Nesbitt (McKinney's Cotten Pickers), Rex Stewart (Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, Duke Ellington's Orchestra), and Doc Cheatham (Cab Calloway's Orchestra).
In the 1930s, Bobby Hackett was widely billed as the "new Bix," especially after he reprised Bix's "I'm Coming Virginia" solo at Benny Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Later Bix-influenced trumpet/cornet players have included Ruby Braff, Dick Sudhalter, and Warren Vache.
Miles Davis was fascinated by Bix's playing, and sought out people who had known and played with him. Miles's silvery tone and understated, "cool" phrasing clearly hark back to one aspect of Bix's playing.
Beiderbecke's music features heavily in three British comedy-drama television series, all written by Alan Plater: The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987), and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988).
There has been much debate regarding the full name of Bix Beiderbecke: Was he baptized Leon Bix or Leon Bismark (Bix being simply a shortened form of the latter, a name that also his father had)? There are, at any rate, several indications that Bix himself at an early age did not like the name Bismark. The German name may also have been regarded a bit uncomfortable during and after World War I, which might explain the wish of the Beiderbecke family to claim Bix as the real name.
All links retrieved June 10, 2016.
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