Tuesday, 6 August 2013

9. Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke - from Red Hot Jazz Archive

We have to be quick to catch Leon Bismark "Bix" Beiderbecke. Born in 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, he comes up through the ranks of dance bands and big bands, and records his first great side in 1927. 4 years later he’s dead.

Although not from Chicago himself, I'm including him here because of the influence he had on the Chicago scene.

Mississippi Riverboats

 Beiderbecke’s father was a coal and timber merchant, and son of German immigrants; his mother the daughter of a Mississippi steam boat captain. And it was the river that first introduced Bix to the sound of jazz, as the riverboats with their bands called at Davenport. Louis Armstrong’s biographer, Terry Teachout, writes that Bix and Louis first met when the SS Sidney stopped in Davenport in 1919, when Bix was a teenager teaching himself the cornet by ear. “He’d come down to hear the bands, and then go home and practice what he’d heard,” remembered Louis (Teachout, “Pops”, p119).

 Bix also loved the records of the ODJB, and went on to record his own versions of several of their tunes. He was, above all, a hot jazz purist, and his first band, the Wolverines, modelled themselves on the New Orleans sound. However, Bix was also interested in “classical” music, and, like Armstrong, was a fan of Debussy and Bartok. These influences will also creep into his writing. We can hear it most clearly in his famous piano piece, In A Mist, but it is also present in his horn solos.

 His career was also plagued by alcoholism, and, we are told, despite his growing reputation, no matter what record sales he clocks up, he was also convinced his stature was ill-deserved, and that his talents were over estimated.

"Famous Fourteen"
 In 1925, when playing a holiday resort in Michigan, he teams up with Frankie Trumbauer, a saxophone player he’d first met while still with the Wolverines. Together they join Jean Goldkette's "Famous Fourteen" big band, but also record a number of small band sides under their own names.

 In February 1927, under the name Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke, they record Singin’ the Blues:

It begins with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody sax, through which you begin to hear the amazing guitar improvising of Eddie Lang. Then at around 1:02, Bix comes in. His sound is lyrical and thoughtful, but at the same time he absolutely swings. The technology of the time doesn’t give us his full sound as heard in life, but his friend Ralf Berton memorably said his notes were like “bullets shot from a bell”.

 Later that year, Bix and Tram join Paul Whiteman’s band. They still record records under their own names, though, and in October they record Jazz Me Blues under the name Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang.

Jamming with Pops
 Louis Armstrong goes to see Bix in the Whiteman orchestra in 1928, when they play Chicago. He invites Bix back to an after-hours jam session in the club he’s playing, and the two hit it off and become friends.

 However, Bix doesn’t cope well with the constant touring in the Whiteman band, and his drinking is getting worse. During performances he’ll pass out from too much alcohol, and just before he is due to take a solo, fellow band members have to shout “Wake up Bix!”. After a breakdown in 1929, he returns home to Davenport to convalesce. His parents send him for the notorious Keeley Cure. He tries to return to the Whiteman band, but his health is clearly deteriorating rapidly, and he is unable to keep dates, and begins forgetting his parts. In 1930 Whiteman finally sacks him. The following year he dies from pneumonia, aged 29.

 Here’s Bix on piano, recorded in 1927:

Bix on CD:

Morton & Cook recommend At the Jazz Band Ball  on Columbia records.

But you might also consider the 4 CD set from JSP, Bix and Tram:

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