Singin' the Blues

“Singin’ the Blues,” the most famous side by Bix Beiderbecke & Frankie Trumbauer, was recorded on February 4, 1927. Today, The Wall Street Journal belatedly celebrates the 80th anniversary of the event by reporting that this particular recording “changed American music.” How? It was the first jazz ballad, proving that the music could be both hot & slow. Writer Tom Nolan also points out Lester Young's affection for Trumbauer’s solo in particular.

In the winter of 1927–28, in a hotel in Bismarck, N.D., a teenage saxophonist named Lester Young heard a record being played in the room of fellow traveling musician Eddie Barefield, and knocked on the door to ask what it was: “Singin’ the Blues.” Young, who would become one of the most important figures in jazz, a primal influence on at least two generations of saxophonists, both black and white, is said to have carried a copy of that Okeh 78 in his tenor-saxophone case for years. Those who listened could often hear whimsical traces of Trumbauer and little bursts of Bix in Young’s driving, ethereal playing.

What players such as Young responded to in “Singin’ the Blues” was the way both Bix and “Tram” constructed their solos—not out of disconnected “hot licks” and tricky ’20s gimmicks, but with thoughtful, balanced phrases that “said” something. “Trumbauer always told a little story,” Lester Young observed. In 2003, a 93-year-old Artie Shaw said: “Listen to Trumbauer’s solo on ‘Singin’ the Blues.’ It’s like a poem.”

True enough, I suppose, although it might have helped if Shaw had specified which poem. Perhaps Bix scholars should get on the case . . . In the meantime, the article ends with a sideswipe delivered by another Iowa-born legend, Glenn Miller:

Bix Beiderbecke, a compulsive drinker, died in New York in 1931, at the age of 28. Ten years later, when Bill Challis, who’d done much to preserve and perpetuate Beiderbecke’s music, brought some Bix-evoking arrangements to Glenn Miller, the popular bandleader rejected Challis’s charts: He said people didn’t know or care about Beiderbecke anymore.

On the Bixography forum, one Bixophile finds this last bit to be "upsetting" and "disturbing," while another suggests that “the Glenn Miller hagiographers . . . reject anything that besmirches or speaks the truth of their hero!” This is not behavior limited to Glenn Miller types. For instance, I’ve always particularly enjoyed this inventive way of denying the claim, by Ralph Berton, that Bix may have had a gay affair with Berton’s brother Gene:

Possibly Ralph could have fabricated the Eugene incident as a rhetorical “what if” scenario as a means of coping with having had a gay brother.

Irony is a Bix fan’s best friend.

[June 2, 2007]