OK, we are going to try this again. Yes, it is back to the 1920s. But this time our purpose is not to shine a light on the ordinary done well but to listen to a guy who changed everything in jazz. Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke lived and died during “The Jazz Age”. But during his brief and troubled time on this earth, his star was one of the brightest of the bright.
There are two players whose names are part of any conversation about jazz of the 1920s. Louis Armstrong, whose records with his Hot Five and Hot Seven are some of the best of their era, is one of them. And then there was Bix Beiderbecke. There are even those who claim that all modern jazz can trace itself back to one of these two sources.
Bix was born in 1903 in the Mississippi River town of Davenport, Iowa. His father was a successful coal merchant and his three children were raised in affluence. From the beginning Bix was a musical genius who had an incredible gift – given a chance to noodle around a bit on an instrument, he could play virtually anything after hearing it once. His mother tried to enroll him with a piano teacher, who quickly said that she was wasting her money because there was nothing the boy could learn from him.
Oh yes, his middle name was Bismarck, which likely provided the raw material for his lifelong nickname.
Young Bix was drawn to the riverboats that were still plying the great Mississippi River and which regularly brought jazz players up from New Orleans. There is an apocryphal story that he and Louis Armstrong met in this way. Whether the story is true or not, his love of old-school New Orleans jazz never left him.
After a disastrous stint at his local high school he was sent to a boarding academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he excelled in only two things – sneaking out to listen to jazz wherever it might be found and drinking bootleg liquor in copious quantities. He was soon kicked out of school and returned home where he spent a brief time in the family business, which he found more akin to a prison sentence than a career.
By the age of nineteen in 1922 he would begin his life’s work as an itinerant jazz player. Although he could play piano he got his union card on the cornet (a horn similar to a trumpet, but with a slightly darker, more mellow tone). He faked his way around a complete inability to read music by convincing the union official to play the song once – which was all he needed to play it flawlessly.
He linked up with a group called The Wolverines, a regional band that played the college and speakeasy circuit in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. Jazz was huge then and this group was like so many at the time where players exhibited more enthusiasm than talent.
Bix, though, was not one of those run of the mill players and soon found his way to the top organizations in music including the jazz orchestras of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. If you are wondering how big those groups were, think Beatles or Beach Boys of the 1920s. But there was one problem – Bix was, by then, an out-of-control alcoholic.
He took “the cure” at least once while working for Whiteman in 1928, but it was not long before he finally sunk to the point where Whiteman could no longer justify keeping him around. How bad was it? In the Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz from several years ago, it was noted that the sheet music of another brass player had notes written in the margin to “Wake Up Bix” so that he could do his solo. But in spite of his dependence on the oft-bad liquor that would eventually kill him, Bix’s playing was special.
The 1920’s may have been the height of institutionalized racism in the northern United States, and before Bix came along it was a commonly-held belief that it was only black players who had the ability to play real jazz – something which “real musicians” considered as a kind of gutter music. It was Bix Beiderbecke who put that trope to bed when he showed the ability to play jazz just as well as any black musician could, if not better than most of them.
Beiderbecke could hear stuff in his head that nobody else could hear and it came out of his horn. His playing had a natural swing to it, something uncommon (certainly in white players) in that era of bouncy straight up and down rhythms. Being self-taught, he used odd fingering methods on the cornet’s valves, giving him the abilities to find half-tones that seemed to elude other players. He also had a way of “bending” notes up or down, something that would become common in later decades. His tone (when he was relatively sober, anyhow) was crisp and clear, and notes were played with precision.
He could also play with an emotion that was uncommon for the time, crafting solos with an almost melancholy quality about them. Louis Armstrong’s solos were like a little melody within the melody, while Bix’s were often more impressionistic or exploratory.
It was an agonizing task to pick a Beiderbecke record to feature. The problem is that no individual recording summed up his talent. There were a handful of 1924 records made with The Wolverines, that showed a twenty year old kid who played circles around his none-too-talented bandmates. (1) There are records that range from dull to almost unlistenable (mainly due to awful vocals), but that were saved by some of his sparkling and inspired work in the background. (2)
There are great solos in pieces that do not really appeal to modern ears (3), and catchy pieces in which his solo work was either very short or only very good instead of great (4). Or some of the classic records where he and his ever-present saxophone collaborator Frank Trumbauer briefly chase and riff with each other, showing the way they could almost read each others’ minds. (5)
Even among his best stuff should I pick a record where he got solo time with a big group, the more freewheeling pieces of the small groups with what would today be called Dixieland, or even his rare two or three records where he turned in a better performance on the piano than most of the piano guys on the other records?
I finally decided on two, the first being I’m Coming Virginia. Recorded May 13, 1927 in the months before the Jean Goldkette organization disbanded, this was one of a series of records consisting of various groups but most often under Frank Trumbauer’s name. Yes, I chose this over Singin’ The Blues which is often cited as the pair’s masterwork. I just happen to like Bix’s solo better here.
Ethel Waters had done a vocal version of this song the year before which had become fairly popular, and which may have inspired the unusually slow tempo and wistful mood of this record.
The intro and much of the first minute of the piece features the guitar of Eddie Lang, one of the best of his era and who played on many records with Bix and “Tram”. The opening theme is played by Trumbauer, joined by the alto sax of Doc Ryker.
Trumbauer then takes the first solo stretch. His instrument, the long-obsolete “C Melody” saxophone sounds odd today, particularly when played high in its register as Frank liked to play. Trumbauer is regarded as the best white saxophonest of his era, one in which many gifted black sax players flourished so the asterisk by his name is significant. There are records that better show his agility and others that better show his lyricism, but we are not here today for Trumbauer, so we get what we get.
Bix comes on about halfway through the record and at once we all know why this record is still remembered by jazz fans. This, his longest recorded solo, flows and meanders with bent notes and a tempo that can lag behind and then rejoin the rhythm pieces in a way that is like a kid following his mother on a walk. There is little of his technical skill on display but the gentle tone and soulful melody crafted here are truly memorable and make this record widely considered to be among his best.
Note also the tone. Louis Armstrong played loud and way up high. Bix always stayed in his horn’s middle register, with a tone that was clear and pure. With a little practice I guarantee anyone with half an ear can pick Bix out of a group on one of these old records.
My bonus selection is one that is on almost nobody’s list of “Peak Bix”. Three Blind Mice was another session under Trumbauer’s name, recorded August 25, 1927. I chose it because there is nothing bad in it – not the song, not the solos, and not the vocal (because there isn’t one). And because it shows how Bix could take a fairly ordinary record of the period and make it pass for something recorded five to ten years later than it actually was.
Bix’s cornet is immediately recognizable in the lead of the opening segment. What is notable here is that everywhere Bix is playing, this piece swings like mad, in a way that would not become common among white bands until Benny Goodman hit the big time seven or eight years hence.
Whether riffing in the background or during his solo, his playing transforms the whole record. Keep your ear tuned to the group’s sole coronet and see if you agree with me that every part of the recording where Bix is present is better than every part where he’s not. This is more often than not the case on about any record he ever made.
His solo here lacks the kind of technical proficiency with which Louis Armstrong would dazzle listeners. Instead, Beiderbecke’s thing was all about rhythm and about heading into interesting directions where most jazzmen never thought to go. Both Eddie Lang (guitar) and Adrian Rollini (bass sax) try their best in the solos that follow to grab that same swing rhythm, but try as they might it doesn’t quite happen. Still, the solos are quite solid in the way that was not always the case on other more famous Bix recordings.
In truth, I added this second record after it became a serious earworm after most of this was already written. So perhaps my affliction can add to your appreciation of this singular player.
Beiderbeck recorded sporadically after 1928 due to increasingly serious bouts of debilitation from drink, a habit reported to have been three pints of bootleg whiskey a day. His final session was in 1930, as a sideman on Hoagy Carmichael’s original recording of Georgia On My Mind, where his declining health was apparent. Bix Beiderbecke died on August 6, 1931, at the age of 28.
Guitarist Eddie Lang was another who died quite young, following an operation in 1933. His records (often made with his violinist-friend Joe Venuti) are still great to listen to. We featured the 1930s guitarist Charlie Christian recently. It would be surprising if he had not listened to and absorbed some of Eddie Lang’s playing as part of his musical foundation, such was the influence of these recordings among young musicians of the day.
Frank Trumbauer tired of music and joined the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1940. He continued in the world of flying (with occasional gigs as a studio musician) until his 1956 death at age 55 from a heart attack.
During his life and immediately after his death, Bix Beiderbecke was known more by fellow musicians than by the general public and seemed to be more appreciated by fans in Europe. But virtually every player who recorded jazz during the era of the 78 rpm record (an era which lasted well into the 1950s) was quite familar with him and with his playing. Nobody played like Bix before he came along. Everyone played at least a little bit like him after he was gone.
All photos of Bix Beiderbecke are from the Flickr album Bix maintained by Confetta under an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike-Generic license .
The Wolverine Orchestra from 1924 – Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.
Jean Goldkette Orchestra – From a collection of the Davenport, IA Public Library.
Frank Trumbauer – from a period ad for Holton saxophones.
Okeh Record label photographs were from a sale listing (I’m Coming Virginia) and RateYourMusic.com (Three Blind Mice).
I’m Coming Virginia from the YouTube channel of Warholsoup100. Bix Beiderbecke (cor); Frank Trumbauer (ts-c); Don Murray (cl, bs); Bill Rank (tb); Doc Ryker (as); Irving Riskin (p); Eddie Lang (g); Chauncey Morehouse (dr). New York, May 13, 1927.
Three Blind Mice from the YouTube channel of OnlyJazzHQ. Bix Beiderbecke (c); Frank Trumbauer (Cms); Don Murray (cl/bar); Bill Rank (tb); Doc Ryker (as); Adrian Rollini (bsx); Irving Riskin (p); Eddie Lang (g); Chauncey Morehouse (dm). New York, August 25, 1927.
Music Footnotes – For those who have not yet had enough Bix
(1) Big Boy, The Wolverines, 1924. Recorded acoustically into a horn at the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana, before the availability of the electrical process that made use of microphones. The saxophone solo is probably average for the period but has the misfortune of following Bix. Bix also played the piano solo on this one.
(2) I‘m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover, Jean Goldkette Orchestra, 1927. Notable for a final chorus in which Bix is having a field day riffing behind the band.
(3) Riverboat Shuffle, Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, 1927. This was “traditional” jazz in the 20s, later to be known as “Dixieland” and was a style that Bix favored.
(4) Clarinet Marmalade, Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, 1927. Bix’s solo is good but not great, but the rest of his contribution to the record is fabulous. His precise playing shows Bix at his most proficient, and likely at his most sober.
(5) Borneo, Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, 1928. After a barely tolerable vocal Bix and Trumbauer toss solos back and forth in a musical game of pitch and catch that is quite fun.