The short, sad life of Bix Beiderbecke

In the United States, the 1920s are known as « The Roaring Twenties” but just exactly what was causing people to roar? The end of the first World War? I doubt it. The Americans only participated in the last year of the hostilities. In the 1920s, two things made Americans roar – jazz and booze.

Prohibition in the United States (from 1920 to 1933) banned the manufacture, the transportation, the importation, the exportation and the sale of alcoholic beverages. This led to bootlegging and speakeasies where jazz, illegal alcohol and the latest dance crazes flourished. Prohibition also led to organized crime and gangsters like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz but that’s a story for another day.

La maison Beiderbecke

The Beiderbecke home

Jazz is a totally American institution born in New Orleans in Louisiana. For the most part, jazz artists were Afro-Americans like Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LaMothe), Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Most artists worked in the big urban centres of Chicago and New York but there were exceptions. An exception all his life, Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, was the youngest of three children of a German immigrant. Beiderbecke senior was a rich merchant in wood and coal often absent from home and very authoritarian when he was there. Consequently, Bix was never able to be close to his father and this lack tortured him all his life.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (and their animals!)

While still very young, his mother encouraged his interest in the piano and Bix developed an affinity for the music of French composer Claude Debussy. When he was 7, the Davenport newspapers spoke enthusiastically of his remarkable musical ear, playing at the piano any air he heard, in spite of his lack of formal training. Bix gravitated towards jazz when he heard his brother Burnie’s record collection, especially the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a racially-integrated group which made the first jazz recording in 1917, “Livery Stable Blues.” This magnificent piece, where the instruments imitate the sound of barnyard animals, caused quite a sensation at the time. Bix also heard the jazz played on the riverboats that went down the Mississippi River to Davenport.

Things didn’t go so well at school. Bix had an aversion for teaching in all its forms. At the time, learning disabilities and poor grades at school were considered a deficiency. Things got worse in 1912 when Bix contracted scarlet fever and had to repeat the previous year. Bix felt humiliated and more and more alienated.

In high school, Bix played with a number of bands on an old, dented cornet, a gift from a neighbour. In addition to his passion for jazz, it was the Prohibition era and Bix started drinking but he couldn’t moderate his consumption. He was more and more absent and his grades plummeted. All men abuse alcohol for the same reason – they’re in an intolerable place and they want to be elsewhere at all costs. Alcohol is readily available, inexpensive and very efficient at taking people elsewhere.

Bix indeed found himself in an intolerable situation in 1921 when two men witnessed him taking a five-year-old girl into a garage. By all accounts, nothing untoward happened but Bix was arrested by the police and accusations were filed. Both families involved and the police decided to erase all records of the incident but Bix’s father was furious, as he often was, and shipped his son off to Lake Forest, a military academy near Chicago. This amounted to giving a Zippo to a pyromaniac. Bix quickly found his way to the Chicago clubs, with the jazz, the booze and the gangsters. He smoked constantly, caught up in a crippling anguish.

While in Chicago with his good friend the composer Hoagy Carmichael, author of such masterpieces as “Stardust” and “Georgia On My Mind”, among others, Bix finally heard one of his idols play in King Oliver’s band – Louis Armstrong, who would become one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. While in New York, Bix also met Nick LaRocca, the cornet player from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose recordings had inspired him to take up the cornet. Bix also played in several bands while at Lake Forest but the only class he managed to pass was music, and even there, he wasn’t interested in learning the formalities of that discipline, he just wanted to play. Bix stopped attending classes and was expelled from Lake Forest in 1922.

Les Wolverines en 1924 (Bix est assis au milieu)

The Wolverines in 1924 (Bix is seated in the middle)

Bix next joined a band playing at the Stockton Club in the Cincinnati area. The band was famous for its version of “Wolverine Blues”, a Jelly Roll Morton composition, and became known as the Wolverine Orchestra, the first band made up entirely of white musicians who did not come from New Orleans. On New Year’s Eve, 1923, two gangs crossed paths in a bloody quarrel at the Stockton Club. The police were called in and the Stockton Club had to close its doors. Out of work, Bix played with bands led by Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer and Paul Whiteman. These associations yielded his best recordings.

Enregistrement acoustique

A typical acoustic recording

The original recordings of Bix Beiderbecke are a treasure, a precious part of my collection, a well whose cool water can be revisited at will. Starting with one of his own compositions, here is “Davenport Blues”, written, of course, for his home town and recorded in 1924 under the name of Bix And His Rhythm Jugglers. The acoustic recording process was still in effect at the time, where the sound of the musicians was amplified by a huge horn which caused a needle to vibrate and etch grooves on a wax disc. This method was replaced in 1925 by yet another new invention, the microphone. The joyful melodies of the piece belie the internal strife of the composer.

Davenport Blues, Bix And His Rhythm Jugglers, 1924

Bix’s performance on “Singin’ The Blues”, a composition by J. Russell Robinson, Con Conrad, Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young recorded in 1927 with the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra, is certainly one of his most famous. His tone and his imagination are in full bloom. The guitar part is played by the great Eddie Lang, the father of jazz guitar. In 1977, this recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Singin’ The Blues, Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra, 1927

“In A Mist”, another of Bix’s compositions, is the only piece he published under his own name and the only piano solo he recorded, in 1927. The piece is unique in all of the jazz from this era. Indeed, you have to wait until the arrival of Thelonious Monk, 20 years later, before hearing those dissonant chords and chromatic structures again.

In A Mist, Bix Beiderbecke, 1927

Bix’s style, concise but emotionally charged, made him a celebrity, known even more in Europe than in America. Eddie Condon, a guitarist who played an important part in the development of jazz in New York, said that Bix’s cornet “sounded like a girl saying yes.”

Paul Whiteman’s busy schedule, both in concerts and in recordings, exacerbated Bix’s alcoholism. In 1928, during a tour of Cleveland, he suffered a serious nervous breakdown. He had to return to Davenport to recuperate. A thorough examination at the Keely Institute in Dwight, Illinois, confirmed the terrible consequences of his alcoholism. His liver was swollen and inflammation of the nerves complicated his condition.

1929 came quickly and all musicians found themselves out of work due to the Great Depression. Unfortunately, Bix only lived for music so he lost his only reason to live. On his last recording in New York in 1930, Bix played with his friend Hoagy Carmichael, who sang his new composition, “Georgia On My Mind”, for the first time. In 2014, this recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix found himself in New York and rented a small apartment in Queens. He closed the door and started to drink endlessly. In the evening of August 6, 1931, hysterical cries emanated from Bix’s apartment and his rental agent came in to witness his uncontrollable trembling. He ranted that two Mexicans with long knives were hiding under the bed. Trying to calm him, the rental agent looked under the bed and was standing back up to reassure Bix that nothing was amiss when Bix stumbled and fell in his arms. A doctor from a nearby apartment was summoned but Bix was already dead.. He was 28 years old. His mother and brother took a train to New York and made arrangements to return his body back home, where he rests in Oakdale cemetery.

Little is known of Bix’s love life. Alcoholic musicians with no control were not in demand with young women looking for a stable relationship. Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel “Young Man With A Horn”, is loosely based on Bix’s life. The novel was also the basis for the 1950 film of the same name, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day. A minor planet, the asteroid 23457, is named Beiderbecke in his honor.

The Beiderbecke home is now a Bed and Breakfast for tourists. During the renovations, a pile of 78 rpm records were found in the attic, all addressed to Beiderbecke senior from his son Bix, who sought his father’s approval all his life. The records, some 200 titles, were still in their packages. No one had opened them. No one had listened.

posted by R.A.Seguin in Non classé and have No Comments

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