Is It Bix? Is It French? Or Is It Some Sid-Caesarese Gobbledygook?

On Albert Haim’s Bixography forum, dedicated to all things Bix Beiderbecke, Brad Kay muses on the language of Bix’s music. His comments come in the context of a long-running debate over whether the cornet solo on a particular recording (a tune called “Cradle of Love”) is in fact Bix . . .

As Albert said, “Bix’s style was not just a set of ‘gestures’ or ‘mannerisms.’ There was a cohesiveness, a unity in the different parts of a Bix solo that must be found in a mystery solo for me to accept that indeed it is played by Bix.”

Precisely my point. What we’re talking about is Language. Bix didn’t just play jazz, he created a musical language. It is an eloquent and beautiful language, and Bix, all by himself, invented and perfected it.

What is language, anyway? How do we know a guy is talking French, and not some Sid-Caesarese gobbledygook? Well . . . because there is a consistency to fluent French. It has vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, and syntax. Paragraphs! Novels! It speaks for a whole culture. It is comprehensible down to the tiniest detail, so it can do what a language does best: communicate.

Bix’s music has just such consistencies of grammar, syntax, phrasing and storytelling—and boy, does it communicate! Unfortunately, he never got to the Novel stage, but that’s just our hard luck. Double unfortunately, we have only fragments of this language on record, a pitifully small representation of what was evidently an immense musical vocabulary. (Kind of like the poetry of Sappho, which exists today only in shreds). But just as English has (semi-) consistent details of spelling and usage, so does Bix’s music. There is a unique logic in it that is detectable down to miniscule phrases.

This website is supposed to be dedicated to the appreciation of the music, life and world of Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz genius from Davenport, Iowa. I say, if we are that interested in him, we should at least try to understand his language.

[May 7, 2006]

In Gabriel's Band

Satch on Bix, from the former’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1971:

In 1959 after recovering from a serious illness he reported to Down Beat magazine that “Bix [Beiderbecke] tried to get me up there to play first horn in Gabriel’s band, but I couldn’t make the gig. It hadn’t been cleared with Joe Glaser [his manager], the union or the State Department.”

Bix, the Blitz, and Condoms (Two)

From a story in the Independent of London about the radical theater director Joan Littlewood and her protégé Howard Goorney:

Devoted to Littlewood’s style of work, Goorney remained crucial to her ensemble ideals for over 30 years, while she in turn was like a surrogate mother to him when adolescent. On one occasion [during the Second World War], she and the girls in the company decided that his melancholy appearance (a lifelong trait) was because he had just fallen in love but was likely for immediate call-up; they arranged a love-nest with a gas fire, Guinness, Bix Beiderbecke record and condoms (two) thoughtfully provided. Anxious next day for the result, they were disappointed when Goorney shook his head: “The sirens went just as I was getting down to it. I had to make for the hospital—I was on fire-guard duty.” What Goorney kept from all but Littlewood was that the nurses’ home had been hit and that all night he had been bringing out the dead.

[April 3, 2008]

Bix in the Times (Gracious Sakes!)

It is often said that Bix Beiderbecke was mentioned in print but once or twice in his lifetime. While this isn’t true, it nevertheless took until January 23, 1938—or six and a half years after his death—for the New York Times to take notice of his life. And then it was only in a letter to the editor. The occasion was Benny Goodman’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, which critics today suggest marked the birth of swing but which the Times then only sniffed at. This is the attitude that got Robert B. Tufts of White Plains, New York, all het up.

As to your decision that swing is just a passing fad, due soon to fade, ne’er more to return, you might be interested in knowing that swing (the real article) has been played well on for twenty years now and will continue to be played for many, many years to come. Of course, swing has been lionized by the public at large only within the last three years or so, but, gracious sakes! real musicians such as King Oliver, Louie Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke, to mention only a few, were playing authentic swing years and years before this. The public stage of swing may, as you gloomily predict, soon die out, but there’ll be plenty of musicians who will carry on the torch for years to come.

[March 31, 2008]

Middle-Aged Man with a Horn

I’m guessing that if you gave a magazine article the title “Middle-Aged Man with a Horn” these days, not too many people would get the reference. But back in 1953, the editors of the New Republic trusted their audience to know all about the famous Otis Ferguson articles that appeared in TNR not quite 20 years earlier extolling the dead jazz hero Bix Beiderbecke. And of course there was the novel based on the articles and then the movie based on the novel.

What seems strange is that the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would connect these bits of pop culture to a political theorist like James Burnham, a former Communist who believed that the managerial class—not the workers—were going to take over the world. Which was not a bad insight, but Schlesinger was never impressed. In the March 16, 1953, issue of the New Republic he accused Burnham of being a man “in permanent apocalypse, a catastrophic thinker whose tiresome prophecies of doom can only dazzle once. He is the Bix Beiderbecke of our political journalism, only he has hit that high note once or twice too often.”

As far as strange Bix references, this one ranks right up there. Is it pluriactive? Okay, maybe not. But either way, it got me to wondering whether there is a Bix Beiderbecke of anything anymore. Oh wait. Eminem, for those who haven’t heard, is the Bix Beiderbecke of rap. But who would today’s Bix Beiderbecke of political journalism be?

[March 18, 2008]

Clint Eastwood, Bixophile

Clint Eastwood, who directed the Charlie Parker biopic Bird, on Bix:

As a kid I really liked Bix Beiderbecke. I played cornet when Bix was like the biggest thing around. And then Young Man with a Horn came out and it was just way off, the breathing and the dubbing. It was really bad. I left the theater thinking an opportunity to do something special was really missed. I don’t think the people who made the movie really understood the music or really liked jazz. Jazz, I felt, was a true American art form that had never really been depicted. I just thought with Bird we could do something better.

(From: “Clint Eastwood: An Interview,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 1989)

At War with Himself

A contrarian take on Bix Beiderbecke’s music can be found at Recording Surface:

Almost without exception, his solos are marked by hesitations, errors, and failings. Even on some of his most famous recordings, such as “I’m Comin’, Virginia,” there are missed opportunities and jazz heterodoxies—times where his solo grows so quiet that it becomes indistinguishable from the ensemble playing behind him, moments where skipped and displaced notes create not so much an exaggerated syncopation (as they do in, say, Louis Armstrong’s brilliant “Potato Head Blues”) as a sense of incompleteness and fragmentation. While it’s true Bix’s trumpet did have a clear tone and he did play at a slower, more relaxed pace than most jazz musicians of the ’20s, he also did not really display exuberance and confidence. Instead, almost every note he played sounded like a struggle—against himself.

I recently wrote some notes on “I’m Comin’, Virginia” that conform, according to Recording Surface, to the standard “jazzist take”:

In this, his longest solo, Bix is at the height of his powers. He eschews the gutbucket growls and half-valves that were just becoming popular with Duke Ellington and instead digs deep into the melody. In true Impressionist style, with all the manly restraint of Henry James, he suggests rather than declaims the tune’s dark melancholy, taking Trumbauer’s solo—the handoff is just perfect—and gently refining it. His “correlated” phrases (Bix’s term) build, one on top of the other, until Bix finally leaps up to a (relatively) high register and delivers what Richard Sudhalter rather dramatically described as “Caravaggio-like shafts of light.”

Read the whole post, though. It’s interesting. And Bix would do well, I think, to have more of his listeners challenge, rather than simply worship, his music.

[November 19, 2007]

Bix + Girls = Not So Much

From the musician Brad Kay:

My appreciation of Bix in high school was the last nail in the coffin of my social life for several years (until I dropped out of college). In that era of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” to openly admit that I liked “Mississippi Mud” and “Singin’ the Blues” was as effective (where girls were concerned) as announcing that I had smallpox. But I was never much of a “joiner” in the first place, so maybe I was better off. I just stuck with the 78s until “my people” started coming around.

[October 16, 2007]

'What a wonderful, impossible name!'

From A Green Desire, a 2001 novel by Anton Myrer:

And later still there was a smoke-laden cave of a room where a fat, jovial black woman asked Central in a ringing contralto to give her Doctor Jazz. Behind her on the stand a jazz band thumped and wailed, and a young man with his hair parted neatly in the center, his cherubic face dead white, tilted high a gleaming horn and the melody spilled forth in bursts of pure hilarity, like pealing bells, like heralds in royal fanfare, and she knew she’d never heard anything played with such reckless abandon in all her life.

“Who is he?” she demanded, clapping her hands. “I’ve got to know.”

“Beiderbecke,” said Chapin, who always, distressingly, knew everything. “Bix Beiderbecke.”

“Bix?” she cried, laughing. “What a wonderful, impossible name! Anyone called Bix—”

'I feel alone, even with you'

From “Image of Song Unsounded,” an essay by Alfred Schwaid, published in Chicago Review, September 22, 1995:

In the morning the first thing you see on the lake is the mist. You’re high up enough to think you’re in the clouds anyway; for a while you nearly believe you actually are. He was still asleep. I relit the fire. Then I went down with a canvas bucket to get water for our coffee. When I came back he was up, warming his hands at the fire. It’s chilly in the morning, he said. He was used to a warmer climate. He took the water from me and made the coffee. I made sourdough pancakes that we ate with strawberry jam. In the morning when there are no stars you are left directionless. He and his wife once had traveled through a rain forest, only at night for that reason, to a beach. He knew the stars like you do the face of your watch. Our lives depended on it, he said. I would not mind at all being lost here, I told him. The difference is, in your case, you were traveling through the wilderness with the objective of reaching someplace outside it. I never watched the stars that closely.

I was reminded of Bix Beiderbecke’s composition, “In a Mist,” but never mentioned it to him. If I had I would have had to tell him how often it was in my thoughts. Then, after pouring the coffee he surprised me; he reached into his pack for a flask and laughed while he poured in the rum.


The concise clarity of Charles Demuth + The convoluted brightness of Charles Burchfield = Bix Beiderbecke.

We were supposed to stay at the lake for a week, but on the third day I could see him growing restless. We could start back out as soon as you want, I told him. I’ve never been this long away from my wife, he said. I wanted to stay. I knew that by following the stars he could find his way out alone at night. If I couldn’t, I would have been happily lost. But I had an obligation to go back with him. When we went together into our wilderness we were three, he said; when we came out we were only two. Now, it’s funny but I feel alone, even with you.

He moved in an integument of rags and dirt and smells, and I called him Canned Heat to no one but myself.

Bix: Like a Maggot Through a Corpse

From “Jazz and Poetry,” an essay by Richard Frost, published in The Antioch Review, June 22, 1999:

Musicians, whose most natural and constant language is music, typically resort to musical sounds when talking about music. The jazz trombonist Preston Jackson, telling about Bix Beiderbecke, spoke—sang would be more accurate—the following:

One thing about Bix, he was clean . . . and, his tone—he had a beautiful tone. First thing, a guy has to have a nice tone to sound like him. And the next thing, uh, it was just like, you say, Louie Armstrong—I could tell Louie Armstrong’s playin’, I don’t care if you have a thousand cornet or trumpet players playin’—I don’t mean at the same time, but individually I’m speakin’ about. And I could tell Bix too, because there hasn’t been anybody playin’, uh, if they played in that vein, they didn’t play long. Understand? That was New Orleans style. . . . This is a melody, that Bix was playin’. Da ah-, da-da, la da-da, da-da-da. But he phrases it so, and that beautiful tone, it was outstanding. Da, ah, da-da. When he got, um, dah-de-dot-dot-da. Da, dot-da dot-dot-da. Da da-da da da de-da de-dot-da. A-la-la la-la. De, dah, da-da, a-dada dada de da da-da-da-da-da-da, uh-uh, ulm, ah, la-da, do do da do-do dah-dah, da-da-da da-da. Dah, da-da-da, da-da, dot-dot-da. But only slower, and he’s just playin’ it slow, and that beautiful tone. It was flowin’. I mean, I agree with Hoagy. He was threadin’ . . . like a maggot, through a corpse. He was flowin’, the tone was flowin’, he was singin’.