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]