Bix is Bix Beiderbecke.
I wrote this for Wikipedia back in 2010 and guided the entry through that site's various review processes so that it now has a gold star next to it. That means it's one of a very few so-called featured entries. THIS STORY IN THE LA TIMES WILL ATTEST TO THE FACT THAT MY EXPERIENCE WAS NOT ENTIRELY POSITIVE! The entry currently on Wikipedia is similar but has been edited by the crowd in ways I haven't always liked. This one is more accurate, I think. And a bit slimmer.
Bix played music. In particular ...
THE CORNET. Here he is on "SINGIN' THE BLUES," recorded on February 4, 1927, with Frank Trumbauer (C-melody saxophone), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet/alto-saxophone), Miff Mole (trombone), Paul Mertz (piano), Eddie Lang (guitar), and Chauncey Morehouse (drums).
I ONCE DESCRIBED "SINGIN' THE BLUES" FOR THE NOW-DEFUNCT JAZZ.COM.
HERE'S WHAT I WROTE:
It's easy to forget that Trumbauer's solo, which opens the number with unprecedented lyricism, was as important in its time as Bix's. "Trumbauer always told a little story," Lester Young explained. It was not about dancing, in other words, or virtuosity; it was about feeling. You can't get farther away from "My Pretty Girl" than this, and when Bix chimes in, jazz changed forever. Here was jazz's first balladeer. His solo, though improvised, feels like a finished composition—restrained, precise, and governed by melody instead of chord changes and tempo.
Q: What's your favorite Bix Beiderbecke recording?
A: Easy. "SORRY."
Here's what I wrote for Jazz.com about that:
French biographer Jean Pierre Lion twice uses the word "astonishing" to describe "Sorry." Bix himself boasted, "I have never felt better on any recording date." And who's to argue? Although the tune may not have been Bix's fastest, it still manages to leave one breathless with its propulsive, toe-tapping hummability. An opening, grenade-burst staccato ignites Don Murray’s thirty-two-bar clarinet solo, and from there things only get better. When Bix finally enters, he pushes against the beat, rides above it, and then hangs back with a brilliant five-note off-the-beat run that defies notation.
[Recorded October 25, 1927. Bix Beiderbecke (cornet), Bill Rank (trombone), Don Murray (clarinet), Adrian Rollini (bass saxophone), Frank Signorelli (piano), Chauncey Morehouse (drums).]
Bix also played the piano.
His only recording on the instrument was his own composition, "IN A MIST." It was a remarkable piece of music for its day, owing as much to Impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel as it did to boogie-woogie or ragtime.
[Recorded September 8, 1927. Bix Beiderbecke (piano).]
The timing of "In a Mist" is off. Bix played the first take and it was too short; the second take ran long. It was not until Take 4—when Tram, ever the housemother, helpfully tapped him on the shoulder—that he wrapped up in the allotted time. Unlike Goldilocks, however, he never got it just right. It still seems rushed. Bix had been working on these chords forever, combining the herky-jerky syncopations of jazz with flourishes reminiscent of Monet's Giverny. Still, as progressive as "In a Mist" was, it comes off nowadays as a bit clunky. Bix's true aspirations may not have been Satchmo-hood but a post at the New York Philharmonic; if so, he had a ways to go.
Never really cottoned to "In a Mist," in other words. But "like 'DAVENPORT BLUES,' the only other of his compositions that Bix recorded, it lives more fully in later interpretations than in its original form. (I've come to wonder whether this can't be said about much relating to Bix Beiderbecke.)"*
* This is a quotation from Finding Bix.
To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, I LOVE this 1958 arrangement from the French composer MICHEL LEGRAND:
Or, for something completely different, check out this 2001 version by the jazz vocalist ANDY BEY:
Bix wrote other piano compositions, too. He just never recorded them.
Here's one: "Flashes."
OK. SO THERE'S THE MUSIC. WHAT ELSE?
Bix Beiderbecke was one of the first great legends of jazz. By that I mean his life was important, sure, but so was his AFTERLIFE—the stories people told about him, the way those stories shaped how we remember him, and the way they shape how we understand what it means to be an artist. An American artist.
Here's what I mean. If you had read the biography above, or even just glanced at the life dates, you'd have seen that Leon Bix Beiderbecke lived only twenty-eight years.
... That he died an alcoholic after a career that lasted only six years and produced just a couple hundred recordings.
His short life and pathetic death—juxtaposed against his blazing musical genius—provided the template for what the writer VANCE BOURJAILY called THE STORY:
"a musician of genius, frustrated by the discrepancy between what he can achieve and the crummy life musicians lead ... goes mad, or destroys himself with alcohol and drugs. The Story might be a romance, but it is a valid one. Beiderbecke's was far from the only life that followed that pattern."*
* This is a quotation from "In and Out of Storyville" by Vance Bourjaily (1987)
HMMM, WHO ELSE FOLLOWED THAT PATTERN?
Let's be real, though. Elvis was just playing out his cultural destiny.
It's gotten so that we FEEL BAD if we, you know, outlive
In the words of DAN BERN, who like Bix is an Iowa native ...
IF PETE ROSE HAD EXPLODED LIKE ROBERTO CLEMENTE /
HE'D BE HANGING IN THE HALL OF FAME WITHOUT FAIL *
* Bern, like Bix before him, is a baseball fan.
Not convinced this has anything to do with BIX BEIDERBECKE?
I don't blame you.
- But when Bix's friends idealized him during his life and especially after his death in countless memoirs ...
- When the pioneering critic OTIS FERGUSON turned him into a kind of cultural superhero in two essays, "YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN" (1936) and "YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN AGAIN" (1940) ...
- When the novelist DOROTHY BAKER turned that story—about a romantic, misunderstood, self-destructive musician—into a novel, borrowing her friend's title, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1938) ...
- And when Hollywood took Baker's novel and turned it into a vehicle for Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall ...
... THEN IT'S BOUND TO LEAVE SOME RIPPLES IN THE CULTURE.
Finding Bix, then, tells Bix's life story but it also tries to tell the story of those ripples. And how they're complicated by issues of race, sex, commerce, addiction ...
It also tells MY OWN STORY growing up in Bix's hometown of DAVENPORT, IOWA, surrounded by Bix's name but not his music.
... His name because the Bix 7 Road Race was the biggest deal in town every year. Tens of thousands of runners, many of them world-class. And it traded on Bix's name in sometimes unexpected ways, like in this poster:
IT'S THE STORY, MAN!
Or here's Bix's image on a local parking garage:
BIX WAS EVERYWHERE! BUT I NEVER HEARD HIS MUSIC UNTIL TWO ITALIANS CAME TO TOWN IN 1990, BOUGHT AND REFURBISHED HIS CHILDHOOD HOME, AND FILMED A BIOPIC THERE. IT LATER SCREENED AT CANNES.
And I was in it!
That's not me, though. That's the dude who played Bix, TODD BRYANT WEEKS, who has since authored his own book about jazz.
NO, I'M THE KID WITH THE FIDDLE ...
Appearing in that film got me listening to Bix's music for the first time ...
Got me reading about him for the first time ...
And led me to write something about him for the newspaper ...
All of which led to an ANGRY letter to the editor signed ...
THIS IS WHERE FINDING BIX BEGINS. AND WHERE WE'LL END.
Who's Bix? THAT'S WHO!