Marcus’s writing reminds me that there is a whole tradition within jazz writing that could fairly be called ecstatic. Louis Armstrong admitted to once having wept openly at a jam session because he “could never play as good as Bix (Beiderbecke),” while the normally measured critic Gary Giddins recalled, in Weather Bird, how he wept at hearing Louis for the first time: “I lifted the platter and noticed a wet spot, a drop of water on the vinyl, and I realized I was crying.”
I have a weakness for thinking of the jazz greats in mythic terms. So I turn to Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology and read: “The world of Greek mythology was not a place of terror for the human spirit. It is true that the gods were disconcertingly incalculable. One could never tell where Zeus’s thunderbolt would strike. Nevertheless, the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancingly beautiful with a human beauty, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying.”
If they were anything, Bix & Louis were beautiful. Explain, then, Hoagy Carmichael’s reaction to hearing Bix for the first time (included in his unpublished manuscript, Jazz Banders: A Rhapsody in Mud):
The notes weren’t blown—they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime, and his tone had a richness that can only come from the heart. I rose violently from the piano bench and fell, exhausted, on to a davenport.* He had completely ruined me. That sounds idiotic, but it is the truth.
Like Marcus, I find Louis’s exuberance irresistible; strong emotions, though, are often complicated. Joy can mingle (all due respect to Hamilton) with terror, violence, exhaustion, and ruin.
Finally: “There is a kind of anguish in listening to certain pieces of music, which is unlike any other sensation,” wrote Ralph Berton in Remembering Bix. “It acts upon some inner sense with a force intangible and penetrating . . . awaken[ing] in us a yearning, profound, inexpressible, for we know not what: it is a question without an answer, leaving us with a subtle sense of mystery and loss.”
* One can’t help but wonder if Hoagy was intentionally alluding to Bix’s birthplace, Davenport, Iowa.
[January 18, 2006]