The meatheads at Modern Drunkard magazine salute those “excellent bedfellows” jazz & alcohol.
Yes, Bix Beiderbecke was a drunkard. One of the best in our lineage. His intoxicatedexploits caused innumerable hassles for bosses and fellow musicians, but his music more than compensated . . . Let that be a lesson for us all. In our endeavors, whatever we choose them to be, let hooch lift us to greater and greater heights of art and beauty. Just make sure someone wakes you up when it’s your time to shine.
For Bix, who died in 1931 at the age of 28, that was easier said than done. Consider this recollection from his landlord, George Kraslow:
During the next few weeks Bix did no outside work of any kind and did not leave the building save to buy gin. He seemed to be struggling with himself and drank almost continuously. [On the evening of his death,] his hysterical shouts brought me to his apartment on the run. 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.
NOW HERE’S A SCENE: At Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa, last summer, in a special ceremony beside Bix’s grave, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band played a couple of sacred numbers, including “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The band’s cofounder & trumpet player, Bill Barnes, then acknowledged the death earlier in the year of Bix’s nephew R. Bix Beiderbecke. The Beiderbecke family, seated to the band’s left, had buried him only the day before.
“Richard didn’t play the cornet, but he sure could drink like his uncle,” Barnes joked. “I can still hear him now, with that voice of his, yelling, ‘Gimme another martini!’”
Recalling the band’s first trip to Davenport more than 30 years ago, Barnes mentioned in particular the transportation that locals had wrangled to pick band members up from the airport. “And let me tell you, there was a bar on that bus,” he said. “You can bet we had a nice ride to the hotel that night!” With that, the boys belted out “Davenport Blues”—a rendition so muddled & unrehearsed, one wondered if the band hadn’t just ridden that bus again for old times’ sake.
NOW HERE’S ANOTHER SCENE: It’s January 26, 1925, at the Gennett Recording Studios in Richmond, Indiana. Bix and friends Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Don Murray on clarinet are committing "Davenport Blues" to wax. They’re clearly drunk, “which is regrettable,” sighs Bix biographer Jean Pierre Lion, “because Bix conceived in the issued take a brilliant and often luminous improvisation, unfortunately marred by an imprecise attack and a tempo dissolved by excessive drinking.”
As it happens, alcohol would play a role in the deaths of all three. Murray went first, in 1929, after falling, drunk, from the running board of a car in Los Angeles. Dorsey died of food poisoning in 1956, but it didn’t help that the heavy drinker had likely mixed liquor and barbiturates that night.
As an antidote to Modern Drunkard, try Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats by Frederick J. Spencer, M.D.
[July 18, 2006]