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).