BIX BEIDERBECKE (1903–1931)
Bix Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist, jazz pianist, and composer. With Louis Armstrong, Beiderbecke was one of the most influential jazz soloists of the 1920s. His turns on "Singin' the Blues" and "I'm Coming, Virginia" (both 1927), in particular, demonstrated an unusual purity of tone and a gift for improvisation. With these two recordings, especially, he helped to invent the jazz ballad style and hinted at what, in the 1950s, would become cool jazz. "In a Mist" (1927), one of a handful of his piano compositions and one of only two he recorded, mixed classical influences with jazz syncopation.
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke taught himself to play cornet largely by ear, leading him to adopt a non-standard fingering some critics have connected to his original sound. He first recorded with Midwestern jazz ensembles, the Wolverines and the Bucktown Five in 1924, after which he played briefly for the Detroit-based Jean Goldkette Orchestra before joining Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer for an extended gig at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis. Beiderbecke and Trumbauer joined Goldkette in 1926. The band toured widely and famously played a set opposite Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in October 1926. In 1928, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke left Detroit to join the best-known dance orchestra in the country: the New York–based Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Beiderbecke's most influential recordings date from his time with Goldkette and Whiteman, although they were generally recorded under his own name or Trumbauer's. The Whiteman period also marked a precipitous decline in Beiderbecke's health, brought on by the demand of the bandleader's relentless touring and recording schedule in combination with Beiderbecke's persistent alcoholism. A stints in a rehabilitation center, as well as the support of Whiteman and the Beiderbecke family in Davenport, did not check Beiderbecke's decline in health. He left the Whiteman band and died in his Queens apartment in the summer of 1931 at the age of 28.
His death, in turn, gave rise to one of the original legends of jazz. In magazine articles, musicians' memoirs, novels, and Hollywood films, Beiderbecke has been reincarnated as a Romantic hero, the "Young Man with a Horn." His life has been portrayed as a battle against such common obstacles to art as family and commerce, while his death has been seen as a martyrdom for the sake of art. The musician-critic Benny Green sarcastically called Beiderbecke "jazz's Number One Saint," while Ralph Berton compared him to Jesus. Beiderbecke remains the subject of scholarly controversy regarding his true name, the cause of his death, and the importance of his contributions to jazz.
Beiderbecke was born on March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, the son of Bismark Herman and Agatha Jane Hilton Beiderbecke. There is disagreement over whether Beiderbecke was christened Leon Bismark (and nicknamed "Bix") or Leon Bix.
Beiderbecke's father, the son of German immigrants, was a well-to-do coal and lumber merchant, named after the Iron Chancellor of his native Germany. Beiderbecke's mother was the daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain. She played the organ and encouraged young Bix's interest in the piano. Beiderbecke was the youngest of three children. His brother, Burnie, was born in 1895, and his sister, Mary Louise, in 1898. He began playing piano at age two or three. His sister recalls that he stood on the floor and played it with his hands over his head.
When his brother Burnie returned to Davenport at the end of 1918 after serving stateside during World War I, he brought with him a Victrola phonograph and several records, including "Tiger Rag" and "Skeleton Jangle" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. From these records, Bix first learned to love hot jazz; he taught himself to play cornet by listening to Nick LaRocca's horn lines. Beiderbecke also listened to jazz music off the riverboats that docked in downtown Davenport. Louis Armstrong and the drummer Baby Dodds claimed to have met Beiderbecke when their New-Orleans–based excursion boat stopped in Davenport. Historians disagree over whether that is true.
Beiderbecke attended Davenport High School from 1919 to 1921. In the spring of 1920 he performed for the school's Vaudeville Night, singing in a vocal quintet called the Black Jazz Babies and playing his horn. He also performed, at the invitation of his friend Fritz Putzier, in Neal Buckley's Novelty Orchestra. The group was hired for a gig in December 1920, but a complaint was lodged with the American Federation of Musicians, Local 67, that the boys did not have union cards. In an audition before a union executive, Beiderbecke was forced to sight read and failed. He did not earn his card.
On April 22, 1921, a month after he turned eighteen, Beiderbecke was arrested by two Davenport police officers on a charge brought by the father of a young girl. According to biographer Jean Pierre Lion, "Bix was accused of having taken this man's five-year-old daughter into a garage and committing on her an act qualified by the police report as 'lewd and lascivious.'" Although Beiderbecke was briefly taken into custody and held on a $1,500 bond, the charge was dropped after the girl was not made available to testify. According to an affidavit submitted by her father, this was because "of the child's age and the harm that would result to her in going over this case." It is not clear from the father's affidavit whether the girl had identified Beiderbecke. Until recently, biographers have largely ignored this incident in Beiderbecke's life, and Lion was the first biographer, in 2005, to publish the police blotter and affidavit associated with the arrest. He dismissed the seriousness of the charge, but speculated that the arrest nevertheless might have led Beiderbecke to "feel abandoned and ashamed: he saw himself as suspect of perversion."
Beiderbecke's parents enrolled him in the exclusive Lake Forest Academy, north of Chicago in Lake Forest, Illinois. While historians have traditionally suggested that his parents sent him to Lake Forest to discourage his interest in jazz, others have begun to doubt this version of events, believing that he may have been sent away in response to his arrest. Regardless, Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke apparently felt that a boarding school would provide their son with both the necessary faculty attention and discipline to improve his academic performance. His interests, however, remained limited to music and sports. In pursuit of the former, Beiderbecke took the train into Chicago to catch the hot jazz bands at clubs and speakeasies, including the infamous Friar's Inn, where he listened to and sometimes sat in with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. He also traveled to the predominantly African American South Side to listen to what he called "real" jazz musicians.
Beiderbecke often failed to return to his dormitory before curfew, and sometimes stayed off-campus the next day. He was expelled after a single academic year. He returned to Davenport briefly in the summer of 1922, then moved to Chicago.
Beiderbecke joined the Wolverine Orchestra late in 1923, and the seven-man group first played a speakeasy called the Stockton Club near Hamilton, Ohio. Specializing in hot jazz and recoiling from so-called sweet music, the band took its name from one of its most frequent numbers, Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues." During this time, Beiderbecke also took piano lessons from a young woman who introduced him to the works of Eastwood Lane. Lane's piano suites and orchestral arrangements were both self-consciously American and influenced by the French Impressionists, and it is said to have greatly influenced Beiderbecke's style, especially on "In a Mist." A subsequent gig at Doyle's Dance Academy in Cincinnati became the occasion for a series of band and individual photographs that resulted in the most famous image of Beiderbecke—sitting fresh-faced, his hair perfectly combed, his horn resting on his right knee.
On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines first recorded at Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. This was twenty-one months before Armstrong recorded as a leader with the Hot Five. Where Armstrong emphasized showmanship and virtuosity, Beiderbecke emphasized melody, even when improvising, and—different from Armstrong and contrary to how the Bix Beiderbecke of legend would be portrayed—he rarely strayed into the upper reaches of the register.
Paul Mares of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings insisted that Beiderbecke's chief influence was the New Orleans cornetist Emmett Hardy, who died in 1925 at the age of 23. Indeed, Beiderbecke had met Hardy and the clarinetist Leon Roppolo in Davenport in 1921 when the two joined a local band and played in town for three months. Beiderbecke apparently spent time with them, but the degree to which Hardy's style influenced Beiderbecke's is difficult to know because Hardy never recorded.
He also befriended Hoagy Carmichael. A law student and aspiring pianist and songwriter, Carmichael invited the Wolverines to Bloomington, Indiana, late in April 1924. On May 6, 1924, the Wolverines recorded a tune Carmichael had written especially for Beiderbecke and his colleagues: "Riverboat Shuffle."
Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in October 1924 for a spot with Jean Goldkette in Detroit, but the job didn't last long. Goldkette recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company, whose musical director, Eddie King, objected to Beiderbecke's hot-jazz style of soloing; it wasn't copacetic with the commercial obligations that came with the band's recording contract. King also was frustrated by the cornetist's inability to deftly sight read. After a few weeks, Beiderbecke was bounced from the Goldkette band, but soon arranged a recording session back in Richmond with some of its members.
On January 26, 1925, Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers set two tunes to wax: "Toddlin' Blues," another number by LaRocca and Shields, and Beiderbecke's own composition, "Davenport Blues." Beiderbecke biographer Lion has complained that the second number was marred by the alcohol consumed by the musicians. In subsequent years, "Davenport Blues" has been recorded by musicians from Bunny Berigan to Ry Cooder to Geoff Muldaur.
The following month, Beiderbecke enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. His stint in academia was even briefer than his time in Detroit, however. He was expelled after a drunken fight with a football player. That summer, of 1925, he played at a lake resort in Michigan run by Goldkette and there reconnected with another musician he had met before: the C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer. The two hit it off, both personally and musically. They were inseparable for much of the rest of Beiderbecke's career, with Trumbauer acting as a father figure to Beiderbecke. When Trumbauer organized a band for an extended run at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, Beiderbecke joined him.
In the spring of 1926, Trumbauer closed up shop in St. Louis and, with Beiderbecke, moved to Detroit, this time to play with Goldkette's headline ensemble. They played the summer at Hudson Lake, a resort in northern Indiana, and split the next year between touring, recording, and performing at Detroit's Graystone Ballroom. In October 1926, Goldkette's "Famous Fourteen," as they came to be called, opened at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, one of the East Coast's outstanding African American big bands. The Roseland promoted a "Battle of the Bands" in the local press and, on October 12, after a night of furious playing, Goldkette's men were declared the winners. "We […] were amazed, angry, morose, and bewildered," Rex Stewart, Fletcher's lead trumpeter, said of listening to Beiderbecke and his colleagues play. He called the experience "most humiliating."
Although the band recorded numerous sides for Victor during this period, none of them showcases Beiderbecke's most famous solos. Much of Goldkette's money was made through these records, but they were subject—as Eddie King had well understood—to the forces of the commercial market. As a result, their sound was often "sweeter" than what many of the hot jazz musicians would have preferred. In addition to their sessions with Goldkette, Beiderbecke and his friends recorded under their own names for the Okeh label. For instance, on February 4, 1927, Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra recorded "Trumbology," "Clarinet Marmalade," and "Singin' the Blues," all three of which featured some of Beiderbecke's best work. Again with Trumbauer, Beiderbecke re-recorded Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle" in May and delivered two of his best known solos a few days later on "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." Beiderbecke earned co-writing credit with Trumbauer on "For No Reason at All in C," recorded under the name Tram, Bix and Eddie (in their Three Piece Band). Beiderbecke switched between cornet and piano on that number, and then in September played only piano for his recording of "In a Mist." This was perhaps the most fruitful year of his short career.
Under financial pressure, Goldkette folded his premier band in September in New York. Paul Whiteman hoped to snatch up Goldkette's best musicians for his traveling orchestra, but Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, and a few others instead joined the bass saxophone player Adrian Rollini at the Club New Yorker. When that job ended sooner than expected, in October 1927, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer signed on with Whiteman. They joined his orchestra in Indianapolis on October 27.
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was the most popular and highest paid band of the day. In spite of Whiteman's nickname, "The King of Jazz," his was not a jazz ensemble, but a popular music outfit that played bits of jazz and classical music according to the demands of its record-buying and concert-going audience. Whiteman was perhaps best known for having premiered George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in New York in 1924, and the orchestrator of that piece, Ferde Grofé, continued to be an important part of the band in 1928. At 300 pounds, Whiteman was huge both physically and culturally—"a man flabby, virile, quick, coarse, untidy and sleek, with a hard core of shrewdness in an envelope of sentimentalism," according to a 1926 New Yorker profile. And many Beiderbecke partisans have turned Whiteman into a villain in the years since.
Benny Green, in particular, derided Whiteman for being a mere "mediocre vaudeville act," and suggesting that "today we only tolerate the horrors of Whiteman's recordings at all in the hope that here and there a Bixian fragment will redeem the mess." Richard Sudhalter has responded by suggesting that Beiderbecke saw Whiteman as an opportunity to pursue musical ambitions that did not stop at jazz:
Colleagues have testified that, far from feeling bound or stifled by the Whiteman orchestra, as Green and others have suggested, Bix often felt a sense of exhilaration. It was like attending a music school, learning and broadening: formal music, especially the synthesis of the American vernacular idiom with a more classical orientation, so much sought-after in the 1920s, were calling out to him.
The education that Beiderbecke did not receive from the University of Iowa, in other words, he sought through Whiteman. In the meantime, Beiderbecke played on four number-one records in 1928, all under the Whiteman name: "Together," "Ramona," "My Angel," and "Ol' Man River," which featured Bing Crosby on vocals. This accomplishment says less about the jazz excellence of these records than it does about the tastes of the largely white, record-buying public to which Whiteman (and Goldkette before him) catered.
For Beiderbecke, the downside of being with Whiteman was the relentless touring and recording schedule, exacerbated by Beiderbecke's alcoholism. On November 30, 1928, in Cleveland, Beiderbecke suffered what Lion terms "a severe nervous crisis" and Sudhalter and Evans suggest "was in all probability an acute attack of delirium tremens," presumably triggered by Beiderbecke's attempt to curb his alcohol intake. "He cracked up, that's all," trombonist Bill Rank said. "Just went to pieces; broke up a roomful of furniture in the hotel."
In February 1929, Beiderbecke returned home to Davenport to convalesce and was hailed by the local press as "the world's hottest cornetist." He then spent the summer with Whiteman's band in Hollywood in preparation for the shooting of a new talking picture, The King of Jazz. Production delays prevented any real work from being done on the film, leaving Beiderbecke and his pals plenty of time to drink heavily. By September, he was back in Davenport, where his parents helped him to seek treatment. He spent a month, from October 14 until November 18, at the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois.
While he was away, Whiteman famously kept a chair empty in Beiderbecke's honor. But when he returned to New York at the end of January 1930, the renowned soloist did not rejoin Whiteman and performed only sparingly. On his last recording session, in New York, on September 15, 1930, Beiderbecke played on the original recording of Hoagy Carmichael's new song, "Georgia on My Mind," with Carmichael doing the vocal, Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Venuti on violin, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, Jack Teagarden on trombone, and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone. The song would go on to become a jazz and popular music standard. In 2014, the 1930 recording of "Georgia on My Mind" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Two years earlier, Beiderbecke had influenced another Carmichael standard, "Star Dust." A Beiderbecke riff caught in Carmichael's head and became the tune's chorus. Bing Crosby, who sang with Whiteman, also cited Beiderbecke as an important influence.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the once-booming music industry contracted and work became more difficult to find. For a while, Beiderbecke's only income came from a radio show booked by Whiteman, The Camel Pleasure Hour. However, during a live broadcast on October 8, 1930, Beiderbecke's seemingly limitless gift for improvisation finally failed him: "He stood up to take his solo, but his mind went blank and nothing happened," recalled a fellow musician, Frankie Cush. Whiteman finally let Beiderbecke go. The cornetist spent the rest of the year at home in Davenport and then, in February 1931, he returned to New York one last time.
Beiderbecke died in his apartment, No. 1G, 43-30 46th Street, in Sunnyside, Queens, on August 6, 1931. The week had been quite hot, making sleep difficult, and late into the evenings, Beiderbecke had played piano, both to the annoyance and to the delight of his neighbors. On the evening of August 6, at about 9:30 p.m., his rental agent, George Kraslow, heard noises coming from across the hallway. "His hysterical shouts brought me to his apartment on the run," Kraslow told Philip Evans in 1959.
He pulled me in and pointed to the bed. His whole body was trembling violently. He was screaming there were two Mexicans hiding under his bed with long daggers. To humor him, I looked under the bed and when I rose to assure him there was no one hiding there, he staggered and fell, a dead weight, in my arms. I ran across the hall and called in a woman doctor, Dr. Haberski, to examine him. She pronounced him dead.
Historians have disagreed over the identity of the doctor who pronounced Beiderbecke dead. The official cause of death, meanwhile, was lobar pneumonia, with scholars continuing to debate the extent to which his alcoholism was also a factor. Beiderbecke's mother and brother took the train to New York and brought his body home to Davenport. He was buried there on August 11 in the family plot at Oakdale Cemetery.
Legend and Legacy
At the time of his death Beiderbecke was little known except among fellow musicians, and for several years critics paid little attention to his music. As Jean Pierre Lion has pointed out, "The only serious and analytical obituary to have been published in the months" after his death was by a Frenchman, Hugues Panassié. The notice appeared in October 1931 and began with a bit of hyperbole and an incorrect fact, two hallmarks of much of the subsequent writing about Beiderbecke: "The announcement of Bix Beiderbecke's death plunged all jazz musicians into despair. We first believed it was a false alarm, as we had heard so often before about Bix. Unfortunately, precise information has been forthcoming, and we even know the day—August 7—when he passed away."
The New Republic critic Otis Ferguson wrote two short articles for the magazine, "Young Man with a Horn" (July 29, 1936) and "Young Man with a Horn Again" (November 18, 1940), that worked to revive interest not only in Beiderbecke's music but also in his biography. Beiderbecke "lived very briefly […] in what might be called the servants' entrance to art," Ferguson wrote. "His story is a good story, quite humble and right." The Romantic notion of the short-lived, doomed jazz genius can be traced back at least as far as Beiderbecke, and lived on in Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and many more.
Ferguson's sense of what was "right" became the basis for the Beiderbecke Romantic legend, which has traditionally emphasized the musician's Iowa roots, his often careless dress, his difficulty sight reading, the purity of his tone, his drinking, and his early death. These themes were repeated by Beiderbecke's friends in various memoirs, including The Stardust Road (1946) and Sometimes I Wonder (1965) by Hoagy Carmichael, Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow, and We Called It Music (1947) by Eddie Condon. Beiderbecke was portrayed as a tragic genius along the lines of Ludwig van Beethoven. "For his talent there were no conservatories to get stuffy in, no high-trumpet didoes to be learned doggedly, note-perfect as written," Ferguson wrote, "because in his chosen form the only writing of any account was traced in the close shouting air of Royal Gardens, Grand Pavilions, honkeytonks, etc." He was "this big overgrown kid, who looked like he'd been snatched out of a cradle in the cornfields," Mezzrow wrote. "The guy didn't have an enemy in the world," recalled Beiderbecke's friend Russ Morgan, "[b]ut he was out of this world most of the time." According to Ralph Berton, he was "as usual gazing off into his private astronomy," but his cornet, Condon famously quipped, sounded "like a girl saying yes."
In 1938, Dorothy Baker borrowed the titles of her friend Otis Ferguson's two articles and published the novel Young Man with a Horn. Her story of the doomed trumpet player Rick Martin was inspired, she wrote, by "the music, but not the life" of Beiderbecke, but the image of Martin quickly became the image of Beiderbecke. His story is about "the gap between the man's musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life." In 1950, Michael Curtiz directed the film Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. In this version, in which Hoagy Carmichael also plays a role, the Rick Martin character lives.
In Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 film starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, Beiderbecke's music is briefly featured, but as a symbol of cultural conservatism in a nation on the cusp of the rock and roll revolution.
In 1971, on the fortieth anniversary of Beiderbecke's death, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival was founded in Davenport, Iowa, to honor the musician. In 1974, Sudhalter and Evans published their biography, Bix: Man and Legend, which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1977, the Beiderbecke childhood home at 1934 Grand Avenue in Davenport was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Beiderbecke's music was featured in three British comedy drama television series, all written by Alan Plater: The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987), and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988). In 1991, the Italian director Pupi Avati released Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend. Filmed partially in the Beiderbecke home, which Avati had purchased and renovated, Bix was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beiderbecke's music continues to reside mostly out of the mainstream and some of the facts of his life are still debated, but scholars largely agree that he was an important innovator in early jazz; jazz cornetists, including Sudhalter (before his death in 2008), and Tom Pletcher, closely emulate his style. In 2003, to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Greater Astoria Historical Society and other community organizations, spearheaded by Paul Maringelli and the Bix Beiderbecke Sunnyside Memorial Committee, erected a plaque in Beiderbecke's honor at the apartment building in which he died in Queens. That same year, Frederick Turner published his novel 1929, which followed the facts of Beiderbecke's life fairly closely, focusing on his summer in Hollywood and featuring appearances by Al Capone and Clara Bow.