Friday, March 12, 2010

Bix Beiderbecke, Early Jazz Giant

Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke (1903-1931) was cornet player, pianist and composer  who ranks along with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and  Sidney  Bechet as one of the great pioneers of pre-big band American Jazz. He died all too soon, at twenty-seven, from pneumonia brought on by an advanced case of physical deterioration caused by the alcoholism  that plagued him all his adult life.  

His parents Bismarck and Agnes were solid middle-class German-Americans and wanted nothing to do with the new jazz music that was slowly seeping into the Middle West from Chicago and St. Louis. There would be no "jazzers" in the Beiderbecke household! They sent Bix away to the Lake Forest Preparatory School where he excelled in team sports and the student band but little else. He was expelled after being caught sneaking out of his dorm room late one night to keep a band date. After that, he was pushed into his father's prosperous lumber and brick import business, but Bix never had any interest in that. Eventually his parents relented and off he went to Chicago with a  second-hand cornet and began to play in any band that would let him sit in.

From the Jazz Encyclopedia Website:    

One of the leading names in 1920s jazz, Beiderbecke's career was cut short by chronic poor health, exacerbated by alcoholism. Critic Scott Yanow describes Beiderbecke as the "[p]ossessor of a beautiful, distinctive tone and a strikingly original improvising style. Beiderbecke's chief 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 one of the great musicians of the 1920s. Beiderbecke first recorded with his band the Wolverine Orchestra in 1924. They were usually called the Wolverines, named for "Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton because they played it so often. He became a sought-after musician in Chicago and New York City. He made innovative and influential recordings with Frankie Trumbauer ("Tram") and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. When the Goldkette Orchestra disbanded after their last recording ("Clementine (From New Orleans)"), in September 1927, Bix and Trumbauer, a 'C' melody and alto saxophone player, briefly joined Adrian Rollini's band at the Club New Yorker, New York. Beiderbecke then moved on to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular and highest paid band of the day.

It was a teenager that he first meet Louis Armstrong who at the time was also a cornet player three years older than Bix and a light years ahead of him as a developing talent.  Armstrong had some up river from New Orleans to Iowa as part of a riverboat band.  Later on they managed to get together in after hours jazz sessions and play improvisation with other members of their respective bands. (Jazz bands remained segregated throughout the twenties so the two men never shared their brilliance together in front of an an audience.)   Armstrong later said of the younger man:   

'Bix was the only name I ever called the dear boy...ain't nobody played like him since!" 

Much of Beiderbecke's life has become the stuff of romantic legends, much of it centering around a "young man with a horn" persona that was more the imaginations of authors and screenwriters trying to capitalize on the backdrop of "The Roaring Twenties" than truth.  The veneer of his life was dramatic fodder for a tale of youth laid low by Prohibition or a single-minded pursuit of a perfect note of music or a dream differed or  whatever.  Beiderbecke's more sober critics have used the record of remarks left behind from those who actually knew him-- as a fellow band member and friend.  They show a relatively happy man who made few if any enemies and was if anything, a polite and genial young man---at least when sober.  

Since the 40th Anniversary of his death, the city of Davenport, Iowa has had a four-day Bix Beiderbecke Annual Celebration which has brought together professional and amateur jazz bands in tribute tot their famous native son.  The house he grew up in is registered as a national landmark.  

Two of his most important non-jazz influences  were the recordings he heard of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  Beiderbecke, after  some prodding from fellow band-members, actually got to meet and chat with the composer of "Bolero".  Legend has it that Mr. Ravel later dropped by Bix's apartment in New York toward the end of his life to hear him play one of his piano compositions, and I can only hope that particular story, never confirmed, is true.

Here's my favorite Bix recording.   It is from his work with the Jean Goldkette Group from 1927.  The work is "Clementine (From New Orleans)":





Bix also performed with such well known jazz personalities as the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, Red Nichols, Jack Teagarden.  Carmichael's great song 'Stardust" is said to have been inspired in great part by the cornet solo Bix plays in the middle of the following recording of 'Singin' the Blues" (1927) in a recording session with his friends Frank Trambauer (saxophone) and Eddie Lang  (guitar).



  1. How I love that sound. At uni I think they referred to it as stomp. I love that exploring of music that is way back in time from the age we live in. How much we miss if we stick in the one and only slot of Rock, or whatever.

    Interesting Doug. Thank you.

  2. How true Cassandra. Every era has its duds of far as music goes, but also so many gems--I'd hate to have to stay stuck in one little era of music.

    It's also intersting the chart the progression of popular music---how one era's controversial music becomes tomorrow's "old school" by a couple generations. And then to let time and popular trends go by the boards and hunt up the best an era has to offer is really a treat.

    Jazz music in the early 1920's was so forward and new and poular with young people out looking for fun that for a time the city authorities made it illegal for live bands to perform in New York's clubs after midnight(!) Of course, this was also the era of the Volstead Act (Prohibition against alcohol) which, conversely, did more than any national law to encourage people to drink on the sly and often very health-detrimental home-made "bathtub gin".

    Still, somehow this music thrived and evolved anyway. :-) Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Very interesting read Doug. I came to really enjoy Jazz during my 30's. I never knew the where and how it all began yet I literally love to listen to some of the old jazz songs even now while tuning in to a station while driving somewhere.

    "It's also interesting the chart the progression of popular music---how one era's controversial music becomes tomorrow's "old school" by a couple generations. And then to let time and popular trends go by the boards and hunt up the best an era has to offer is really a treat."

    So true. How music does evolve and yet some of the oldies do come back. Not all but there are a few that when you listen to the remakes of some of the current jazz artists, there are a few songs that do come back on the chats. Doug I think you know me rather well and I literally love all kinds of music. I am not sure if the old song, "Gone Fishing" fits within jazz, as it was one song I truly enjoyed yet this was not typical of the type of jazz of the era that you are mentioning here. But this music does still thrive and as well evolve. One can just picture this era as it was during and time in which was very conservative during the prohibition years - yet how people during this time found that time to enjoy it. Very interesting to listen while reading this Doug. The second song/utube you can just feel that era from that time.

  4. I git to start really loving jazz when I was in an Explorer Scout Post at WNOG in Naples, Florida, while in high school and I was assisting a radio announcer who had a Sunday Night Big Band Program. Also a lot of older fillms also have great music from that era.

    And, yes, Jack, I think part of the attaction of these older tunes is you get a sense of the time they were composed and the "hot" (back then) tempo that made jazz so popular. I try to remain open to allkinds of music, which becomes easier the more people post their own favorites to enjoy here on Multiply.

  5. Interesting post Doug I didn't know much about Bix Beiderbecke before. I first came across him when the Beiderbecke Trilogy serials that were written by Alan Plater began on Yorkshire Television for the ITV network in the UK and were screened between 1984 and 1987.

    These were Jazz themed dramas about the lives of school teachers in the north of England who were in involved in various 'adventures' with a soundtrack by Bix.

    This was one of several Jazz themed dramas that were on television around that time including the wonderful Dennis Potter TV series 'The Singing Detective' and 'Pennies From Heaven'.

    Maybe it was because of the sometimes meteoric lives of people like Bix and Robert Johnson that underlies Jazz and Blues these soundtracks were popular in British drama and cinema from the 60s and through the 80s from 'Clockwork Orange' and 'Sleuth' for example to the 'Beiderbecke Trilogy' which suddenly made Bix a household name here in the Thatcherite era.

    Thanks for posting these interesting details of his life Doug and the video clips. The one showing the 78 being played reminded me of my childhood when gramophones were still around, I remember 78s well my parents and my elder brother had them in their collections and of course my first record players also had a 78 setting and heavy duty 'needle' to play them.

    Great music and a forerunner of the alchemy that brought us rock 'n' roll and other forms of popular music when it was legal to drink but illegal to consume hallucinogens and narcotics.

    There appears to be a direct correlation between great innovations in music and illegal activities of one sort or another, I wonder if any musicologists have studied that dynamic?

    Great blog Doug.

  6. I haven't seen "The Beiderbecke Trilogy" myself, but someone has posted a couple clips from the series on "You Tube" that has whet my interest in finding this on DVD, especially from the postive comments many leave on the comments section.

    Also, the "Beiderbecke" series is set in Leeds I'm led to believe. I'm been called a real "Leeds-fellow" as friends and acquaintances will attest, although I never visited there and just spotting it on a blank map of England might take a minute or so. "Could you shut up about this Leeds place already before I'm forced to poleax you!" was a favorite phrase of my former wife.

    I did see both Dennis Potter shows over here, and especially enjoyed "The Singing Detective" with Michael Gambon as the hospital patient, writer and, in his imagination, "The Warbler". Great series.

    There have been American feature films made of both these shows (one with Steve Martin, the other with Robert Downey, Jr) and neither of those were worth seeing more than once.

    I think you're on to something there as far as Bix and Robert Johnson. Any popular artistic movement needs its legends and these men, both struck down too early, provide this mystery and awe we need for a legend. We are somewhat luckier in Bix's case to have over 200 recordings he made with various jazz clubs including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which , while not really a jazz band as much as a pop group pretending at times to dabble in jazz, gave us some great recordings of Bix cornet solos captured on the best audio transcription available back then. White man was not the "King of Jazz" as he falsely billed himself, but he did recognize talent and did a good job I gather standing by Beiderbecke and keeping a chair in his band open for him in case he could recover.

    Life on the road and in a heavy recording schedule was as grueling as it was decades later for successful rock performers and this frenetic lifestyle took its toll on many performers. How easy it must have been for performers needing to "come down" after a show to indulge in drink and marijuana or whatever else was handy. (Heroin would later cut a swath through many musicians lives.) I think there must someone who has written directly on this correlation you bring up.

    I love those old record consoles. My parents had one from the late 40's or so that also had the 78 setting. I remember sitting in the dark of a late night in the living room from time to time as a youth listening to ballgames or music turned down low. A special memory for me was sitting with my dad and listening to the round by round reports of the first "Muhammad Ali--Joe Frazier" boxing match back in '71. (We rooted for Ali to reclaim the title stripped from him by politics over the Vietnam War, although he came up short that night and had to reclaim the title later against the formidable George Foreman.) For the record, Ali did NOT knock out George Formby in seven rounds in Zaire in '74, as some sports almanacs misleadingly state.)

    A good friend of mine is in the process of restoring an old gramophone-console from the 1930's he picked up at a flea market. Pat fashioned a substitute needle out of a pine needle just to see if it would play a record---and the "green needle" worked. I would hope he's tracked down a real needle though they are naturally hard to find.

    Anyway, those old music systems are also great furniture so worth preserving if you has the chance. I wonder what musicians of the past like Bix and Johnson would make of our digital music delivery systems, those little Ipod thiingies with ear buds especially?

    Thanks for bringing up so many good points AA. Glad to hear Bix was a household name so recently, beyond the immediate jazz scene of course.