Hoagy Carmichael loved to tell stories about his friend Bix Beiderbecke. “The only time I ever met Carmichael,” Benny Green once wrote, “he had half a dozen Bix stories at his fingertips, stories I had never heard before, and I confess I found myself wondering whether Carmichael had either.”
Here’s one of the stranger. It comes from Carmichael’s 1946 memoir, The Stardust Road. In it, Hoagy tries to describe Bix to his oddball surrealist friend William “Monk” Moenkhaus. In the process, he seems to mistake King Oliver for Louis Armstrong while treating Bix as both a god and a “little boy.”
I remember trying to explain Bix to Monk. I remember trying to put Bix together for Monk, so that he would see him and hear him and feel him the way I did. It was like the telling of a vivid dream and knowing that it wasn’t making sense.
“A man put the mark on him, Monk, marked him for greatness.”
“A man with a horn. . . . What is man but a puny thing. . . . Best forgotten, all but the I. . . . The I as in Beiderbecke,” Monk said.
“He was a black man with a golden horn and he played the boats, those floating palaces, that plied the rivers in the warm moon drenched nights of summer. The man was King Oliver . . . he played a trumpet.”
“Not in this world?” Monk said, but he was listening.
“The boats came and tied up and the townspeople would go aboard and the boat would go down the river, ten miles or so, and the come back while the people danced or just sat on the upper deck and stayed cool.”
“And little boy Bix, he blew his horn!”
“Yeah, he went on one of those boats one night and King Oliver was playing. After that he never was quite the same. He knew from that night on that the horn was for him, and he could say what he had to say on it.”
“As a matter of fact,” Monk said, “I am perhaps the greatest cornet player that ever drove a llama.”
[October 30, 2007]