Bix Beiderbecke - Biography

Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke is possibly the most romanticized figure in jazz. Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel, Young Man With A Horn, established the basis of the cult of personality around Bix. The 1950 movie version, starring Kirk Douglas (with Harry James playing the cornet parts), had little to do with the facts of Bix’s life but confirmed his place in the American pantheon of artists doomed to die young. With the exceptions of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, no other figure from the classic period of jazz is likely to be recognized by the average adult today. Those worthies had many decades to establish their reputations. Bix had just six years to make his name as an innovator and one of the first white musicians to make a significant contribution to jazz, influencing black and white musicians alike.

Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa on March 10, 1903, where his father ran a fuel and lumber company. His mother was a gifted amateur pianist, and his father had sung in his own father’s choir. When three-year-old Leon began to pick out tunes on the piano, they encouraged him. By the age of seven, he rated an article in the local paper, proclaiming that “Little Bickie Beiderbecke plays any selection he hears!” At ten, little Bix was skipping dinner to run down to the Mississippi and listen to the music he could hear coming from the riverboats. His path seemed to be set when he heard the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Tiger Rag” on a Victrola brought home by his brother Charles. Transfixed, he played it over and over, “his head almost in the bell,” as Charles later told the story. Soon Bix borrowed a cornet from a neighbor and started the daunting task of learning how to play the tune from the record. It took a while, but the youngster slowly got the hang of it. In 1920, he heard Armstrong playing on a riverboat. Satchmo remembered that Bix would “listen, then go home and practice what he heard.”

The self-taught Beiderbecke played by ear and never bothered to learn to read music very well. That kept him out of the musician’s union. Still, he’d developed as a player well enough to find plenty of work with local aggregations like Buckley’s Novelty Orchestra and the Ten Capitol Harmony Syncopators. In the summer of 1921, he performed with the Plantation Jazz Orchestra on a steamer plying the Mississippi. He was eighteen, and starting to develop a taste for liquor along with the jazz he was playing night and day. This was not the life that his firmly middle-class German parents had in mind for him, and so in the fall of 1921, they packed him off to Lake Forest Academy. The attraction of Chicago’s hot jazz scene, just 35 miles away, however, proved much stronger than any academic pursuit. Within a week of his arrival, he’d managed to talk his way into three different clubs. A combination of his after-hours escapades in Chicago and poor grades contributed to his dismissal from the Academy in May 1922.

Somehow, the expelled Bix convinced his father to let him try to earn a living as a full-time musician. During the remaining part of 1922 and most of 1923, Bix divided his time between playing jazz in and around Chicago, and working with dance bands in Wisconsin and Michigan. He also tried working in his father’s business, which he managed for all of five months. But in July, 1923, Bix had finally had enough and he went back to Chicago to play. That fall, he hooked up with a new septet at a roadhouse outside Hamilton, Ohio. They had a style - hot jazz - and soon they had a name: The Wolverines. Steady work, first in Hamilton and later in Cincinnati, honed the group’s sound, and they attracted enthusiastic crowds whenever they played. Flush with early success, they booked a session for themselves at the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, in the same room where their heroes Armstrong and King Oliver had recorded about a year earlier. In May, 1924, Gennett released “ Fidgety Feet” and “Jazz Me Blues,” and the Bix legacy on record begins. Jazz writer Ralph Berton described his first experience of hearing Bix on record as “tantalizing; somehow simultaneously excitingly hot and quietly cool...a passion veiled in reticence.”

The band traveled to Indiana State at the suggestion of one of Bix’s friends, budding songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. They were a sensation, playing at many of the campus’ sorority and fraternity houses, as well as dances in Indiana and Michigan. The band did two more sessions for Gennett in the spring of 1924 before decamping for New York on Labor Day. Their first gig, at the Cinderella Ballroom on Broadway, would introduce them to the big time in the Big Apple. They were a hit, described as “a torrid unit” by Abel Green in Variety. Maybe too much of a hit, though, because of their fanatical following of dancers doing the Charleston and driving others off the floor with their wild physicality. When The Wolverines contract wasn’t renewed, Bix left the band to join the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in October, recommending Jimmy McPartland to take over his chair. With Goldkette, however, Bix was expected to be a much better sight reader than he really was, and so he left the organization after just a couple of months.

Back in Indiana early in 1925, Bix recorded his first original composition, “Davenport Blues.” That spring he enrolled at the University of Iowa to work on his musical skills, but stuck it out for less than three weeks. He joined the Charlie Straight Orchestra in Chicago, but was fired after four months, again because of his weak reading ability. Bix spent the second half of 1925 in St. Louis, playing in a band led by C-melody saxophonist and frequent future partner Frankie Trumbauer while working on improving his reading. Goldkette had promised to rehire Bix when his sight-reading was better, and true to his word, the cornetist rejoined the orchestra in March 1926. Unfortunately, the band was given only the most commercial music to record, and Bix was seriously underutilized on the orchestra’s recordings.

The next year, 1927, was Bix’s peak as a performer. There were regular recording sessions with pick-up groups featuring Trumbauer, clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey, bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, guitarist Eddie Lang, and violinist Joe Venuti. “Singin’ the Blues,” recorded in February, has Bix’s most famous solo, and is usually considered one of the high points of classic jazz. Other recorded triumphs of the year include “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Ostrich Walk.” This was also the year that Bix composed a series of impressionistic piano pieces, although he only got to record the justly-famous “In A Mist” as a piano solo in September, leaving “Candlelights,” “In the Dark,” and “Flashes” to be discovered and orchestrated after his death.

After the Goldkette Orchestra broke up in 1927, Bix and Tram played with the Adrian Rollini Orchestra for a few months, before signing on with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. This was the most prestigious band of the day, and Bix was proud that his reading had improved to the point where he could play with Whiteman. On record, Bix was limited to very short solos with Whiteman, although he did get a few features, including “San,” “Dardanella,” and “You Took Advantage Of Me,” which also included some interplay with Trumbauer.

Bix’s drinking never stopped. The busy pace of the Whiteman band’s tours, combined with the variable quality of bootleg liquor in the Depression took its toll on the cornetist. He spent time in the hospital in 1928 with pneumonia. When he got back to playing, he began to lost his legendary tone, and his playing became more and more erratic. In January 1929, he had a nervous breakdown, and was eventually sent back to his parents in Iowa to recover. Whiteman kept him on the payroll, but hired Bix soundalike Andy Secrest as a backup. Secrest remained with the band when Bix returned to the band in the spring. Aware of his own decline, Bix stopped making small group recordings, and suggested to Secrest that he take over on upcoming Trumbauer sessions. After Bix collapsed at a session on September 13, 1929, he was sent home to Iowa again to recuperate. But he was never to be the same man, and he never rejoined the band.

After a stay at the Keeley Institute in Illinois to treat his alcoholism, he was back with his family for Thanksgiving 1929. The music still called him, though. A weakened Bix went to New York in 1930, where he made his last records with a small band led by Hoagy Carmichael. A stint in a radio orchestra ended when he blanked out as he got up to take a solo. Another stay in Davenport, and another escape to New York followed. Sometime in 1931, he moved from Manhattan to Queens, where over the hot summer, he contracted pneumonia and died on August 6. He was only twenty-eight.

Beiderbecke had already been on the way to developing his spare style while still a youngster. When accused by a flashy saxophonist of being an overly restrained “note miser,” he retorted by saying “The trouble with you is you play so many notes, but they mean so little.” Banjoist and scene-maker Eddie Condon, who first encountered Bix when they were both with the Royal Harmonists of Indiana in the early Twenties, later described Bix’s sound as “like a girl saying yes.” His youthful infatuation with piano remained with him throughout his career, no doubt contributing to his harmonic inventiveness. Mezz Mezzrow, who got to know Bix in the summer of 1924, said that “Music was the one thing that really brought him to life. Not even whiskey could do it, and he gave it every chance.”

The fascination with Bix has seldom abated over the decades. A number of books have been written about his life, including the extremely detailed Bix-Man and Legend, by Richard Sudhalter, Philip Evans, and William Dean Myatt, The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story by Philip and Linda Evans, and Lost Chords by Richard Sudhalter. There’s also a fine biographical film by Brigette Berman from 1994, Bix-Ain’t None Of Them Play Like Him Yet, described by jazz writer Scott Yanow as “virtually perfect.” And in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society hosts the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival every July.

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