The Head Butler, whose tastes are nothing if not varied, loves Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel Young Man with a Horn. (According to the Butler, it is the great novel of the 1920s, behind Gatsby.) “It’s a story,” he writes, “about genius and glory and doom, about a boy who taught himself how to play piano and trumpet and was, at 20, bound for glory, and well before his 30th birthday, was dead.”
Which is to say it’s a story about Bix Beiderbecke. Except that it is decidedly not about the Bix of history, but about the Bix of myth. Said myth is an ingenious blend of the false and the true, the historical and the legendary. It concerns itself with Bix the romantic hero, “jazz’s Number One saint” (to quote Benny Green), the Bix of our imagination.
And sometimes this is the only Bix we have.
When the Head Butler unexpectedly imagines Bix as “the white version of Jimi Hendrix,” he should understand that he is referencing only the Bix of myth. In this case, he comes to us in the guise of Dorothy Baker’s Rick Martin. He is, to quote the Butler, “a good-looking lad in a world dominated by black artists who do it, he feels just a bit better than he ever will. That’s Bix Beiderbecke’s relation to Louis Armstrong, and that’s Rick Martin’s sense of himself in comparison to his black idols. Is it surprising, then, that he never sleeps? That he drinks and drinks and drinks? That his romances are duds?”
The historical evidence suggests that Bix was not, in fact, a white Jimi Hendrix. (Does the Butler know anything about Jimi Hendrix?) Still, this is not to say that admiration of Young Man with a Horn is misplaced. It’s a novel. That it does not treat Bix Beiderbecke as a historian or music critic might need not reflect on its quality.
Up there with The Great Gatsby, though? I don’t think so.
[May 21, 2006]