Bix Beiderbecke was white. (This was news to one critic, who made the mistake a couple years ago of including Bix in his Black History Month-inspired list of “Five Black Legends of Jazz You Should Hear.” There’s just so much wrong with that . . . it’s best to move on.) I mention this fact because I know the jazz community well enough to anticipate objections to the suggestion that Louis Armstrong might have wept listening to Bix play. The idea that Bix might have equaled or surpassed Armstrong is even less acceptable.
I, for one, don’t think he did. (He didn’t live long enough.) And anyway it’s apples & oranges. Louis was a virtuosic trumpeter who exploited the limits of his instrument; he played loud; he played high; he was a master showman. By contrast, Bix stared at his shoes when he played. Constrained by lack of technique, he rarely left the middle register. But that gave his solos a rare & startling intimacy—they were always within the range of the human voice, as if being sung. He looked to classical music (Debussy, in particular) for his chords, something his peers hadn’t yet considered doing. This gave his music an equally startling originality in the context of 1920s jazz. And he always kept his emotions firmly in check. Miles be damned: Bix was the first cool jazzman.
Which is all well and good. But the tradition in jazz is to resort to race as a means of dismissing Bix out of hand. LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) was typical when, in Blues People, he wrote that when whites like Bix & Hoagy first heard Louis, “the genuine article,” it
must have been much like tasting real eggs after having been brought up on the powdered variety. (Though, to be sure, there’s no certainty that a person will like the original if he has developed a taste for the other. So it is that Carmichael can write that he still preferred Beiderbecke to Armstrong, saying, “Bix’s breaks were not as wild as Armstrong’s but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care.” . . . )
Of course, that’s from 1963. We’ve moved beyond such crudeness, right? In his 2002 collection of essays Open Mike, Michael Eric Dyson accuses Bix of latching on to black culture and then, ultimately, taking what rightfully belonged to Louis: “What happens is predictable: Bix becomes better known than his mentor in many artistic circles and gets the opportunity to make more money than Armstrong.”
In The Future of Jazz (2002), a conversation between several critics, K. Leander Williams describes the difference between black & white jazz as “like the difference between genius and commerce.” In the same book, Yale professor John F. Szwed regards mention of Richard Sudhalter’s book about white jazzmen, Lost Chords, as “an opportunity to comment on the persistence of efforts to deny African and African American contributions to world culture.”
This kind of thinking then leads to outbursts like this one yesterday on the Bix web forum:
Take off the sheet man, your racism is obvious to anyone who doesn't share your inferiority complex (not so deeply anyway). It shows the most when you so passionately defend all things white. Perish the thought that Lester Young might sound like Frank Trambauer [sic]. I truly think that you value ’20's jazz so exclusively because that's when caucasians (like myself) made their only important contribution.
All of this is just to say that when I first read Marcus on Louis (two posts down), I resolved to write about my two heroes Bix & Louis, their contrasting styles, and how each managed, in a way, to define the other. I just wish I could have done that without so much of this ugliness coming to the surface, too.
[January 18, 2006]