Bix, Mary Kate Olsen, Peru! Who knew?

From Odd Harbor, a 2006 novel by Jonathan Shipley:

Therto Bordy, still dressed in his Mary Kate Olsen costume, amazed everyone on the boardwalk at the pier. He, though asthmatic, could play the cornet! Who knew?! Agave knew, for one. That was what got her attracted to Therto in the first place. In Peru, when Therto was in the Peace Corps, he’d play his cornet, just like Bix Beiderbecke, wowing local Peruvians who a) had never heard a cornet before, and b) had no idea who Bix Beiderbecke was. One of those wowed? Agave Montave, a young fresh beautiful girl whose father worked as a chicken plucker in Quito. Therto played Halloween tunes, and Thanksgiving carols, as well as impressing all those who witnessed his musical mastery. The cornet! Who knew?

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]

And Then Came the Film ...

First there were Otis Ferguson's articles. Then there was Dorothy Baker's novel. Finally, in 1950, Michael Curtiz (that’s right, of Casablanca) directed the screen version of Young Man with a Horn. Curtiz’s adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s novel improbably cast Hoagy Carmichael as Smoke. (In the book—you guessed it—Smoke is black.) Hoagy opened the film dragging on a cigarette and reminiscing about his old friend Rick Martin: “What a guy!” Carmichael wanted the part because he well understood that he would be playing himself and talking about his old friend Bix. But it must have been tough to pretend, what with Kirk Douglas, in the role of Martin, running around eating scenery. Harry James, meanwhile, blew the opposite of cool on the soundtrack, and the hero didn’t even die in the end but ran away with Doris Day! That in itself was a crime. What little chemistry existed in the film was between Douglas and Lauren Bacall (in the role of the “perverse hussy” Amy North):

AMY:  You can call me Amy.
RICK:  I bet I could.

In the end, Smoke mused, “the desire to live is a great teacher, and I think it taught Rick a lot of things. He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up.”

Well, not in Hollywood he doesn’t.

[May 22, 2007]

The Good and the Bad of It

What’s interesting about the Head Butler’s love of Young Man with a Horn (1938) is that, for the most part, everyone else on the planet hates it. In fact, hating it seems to be prerequisite to becoming a Bixophile. (Here, Albert Haim, who runs a website devoted to Bix Beiderbecke, can’t resist the parenthetical assertion that Baker’s novel “failed.”) Baker conscientiously insisted that the “inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life” of Leon Beiderbecke, but her mysteriously self-destructive, horn-playing, gin-swigging white protagonist Rick Martin will forever be one with Bix in the popular culture.

In true dime-store fashion, Baker populated her novel with shady black musicians with names like Smoke and Art (“In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes”) and a barroom siren, the lovely Amy North, who is described by Clifton Fadiman, in his Foreword to my 1943 edition, as “a perverse hussy.” Ultimately, though, Baker aimed high, just like Rick, telling us that her story is about “the gap between the man’s musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life,” about “the difference between the demands of expression and the demands of life here below.”

This is the sort of stuff drove that drove Benny Green nuts. In The Reluctant Art he grumbled, “Bix was obviously the greatest white jazz musician Miss Baker had heard about, so she grafted on to him the hack figure of the artistic genius who is romantically frustrated.” However, John Paul Perhonis, in The Bix Beiderbecke Story (a 1978, unpublished dissertation), notes that Baker had been tight with Otis Ferguson, author of the original article “Young Man with a Horn,” and that “she was not interested in Bix’s life, but rather . . . she wanted to say something about the music—the good and bad of it, and the built-in mortal hazards.”

And where she left off, Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall would soon pick up.

[May 22, 2007]

All Thumbs

Eugene “Rosy” McHargue, on hearing Bix Beiderbecke play the piano in 1926:

He played the tune called “Jazz Me Blues,” and he must have played it for twenty minutes that day. I have never heard anything like that in my whole, dreary life! He played it on piano—all wrong fingering—he played runs with these two thumbs—and he always seemed to make it. The sound he got—he really didn’t have to play much, because this sound always caused everybody to shut up and listen. I can’t describe it—it was just more like sort of a chime ringing—he got this tone on it. And I have heard and seen people cease talking to each other, just when he played some simple melody. His whole musical life was about ten years—his age, from about twenty to about thirty. A lot of that, of course, he was boozed up most of the time. But if anybody happens to ask about Bix Beiderbecke—yes, he was the best cornet player I ever heard, and could be the best jazz musician I ever heard. I will tell anybody that—I’ll tell the Devil that if he asks me!

Hef & Bix (Take 2)

This is from Brad Kay, a regular and regularly thoughtful contributor to the Bixography forum:

I happen to know Hugh Hefner a little, through music, and let me assure you the guy really is a dedicated jazz fan. I used to play around town (L.A.) with Johnny Crawford (some of you may remember him as the kid actor on ’50s TV hit, “The Rifleman,” starring Chuck Connors). Johnny and Hefner are old pals. According to Johnny, one day in the ’70s, during a lull in his acting and rock ’n’ roll crooning career, He and Hef were hanging out at the mansion, and HH said, “Forget this rock ’n’ roll! I want you to hear something!” And he pulled out one after the other of the [Paul] Whiteman Victors with Bing [Crosby] and Bix. This changed Crawford’s whole karma. For the next 15 years Johnny yearned to sing like young Bing (which he does, admirably), and to have a band like Whiteman’s! Eventually, around 1991, he ran into me and my bunch, and we ended up as “Johnny Crawford and his 1928 Jazz Orchestra.” We worked together for about two years, including gigs at the mansion. Hefner had his birthday at our club in ’92. That evening, I played “I Can’t Get Started” with Ray Anthony on trumpet, and backed up Mel Torme on “Stardust”! Hefner loves talking about Bix, and will pause, even when being assaulted from all sides, to do so.

Of course, there’s the Playboy Jazz Festival, and the magazine’s formerly extensive jazz coverage, but we’ll just stop here.

[June 19, 2006]

Like a Poet Saying Yes

J. B. Spins calls attention to the collection Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young, and even quotes from Dana Gioia’s “Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931)”:

He dreamed he played the notes so slowly that
they hovered in the air above the crowd
and shimmered like a neon sign.

Ian McCluskey, meanwhile, is a self-described “Mad angel-headed hipster in the starry dynamo of night,” as well as a blogger-poet. His May 13 entry, “Hitchin Desert Blacktop,” uses Bix in an unexpected juxtaposition:

Brakemen and Bix Beiderbecke. Long lonesome
and bald tires. Pintos and bays, sorrels and dun.
If you say the names of the desert it’s a letter
you type, old Smith-Corona chatter and click clack
of the Santa Fe.

Bix appears in other poems, as well, including Michael Longley’s “To Bix Beiderbecke.” It begins this way:

In hotel rooms, in digs you went to school.
These dead were voices from the floor below
Who filled like an empty room your skull,

Poet Rod Jellema, in 1999, wrote the epically titled “Bix Beiderbecke Composing a Suite for Piano, 1930–1931, mist, candlelights, cloudy, flashes, dark.” It ends this way:

Shaded from morning stabs of light, 
he got back to where he was going all along, 
the dreaming mind, the diamond-making dark.

Other poets have been content to merely celebrate Bix’s moniker. There is, for instance, Hayden Carruth’s “The Fantastic Names of Jazz,” which reads, in full:

Zoot Sims, Joshua Redman,
Billie Holiday, Pete Fountain,
Fate Marable, Ivie Anderson,
Meade Lux Lewis, Mezz Mezzrow,
Manzie Johnson, Marcus Roberts,
Omer Simeon, Miff Mole, Sister
Rosetta Tharpe, Freddie Slack,
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Teagarden,
Max Roach, Paul Celestin, Muggsy
Spanier, Boomie Richman, Panama
Francis, Abdullah Ibrahim, Piano
Red, Champion Jack Dupree,
Cow Cow Davenport, Shirley Horn,
Cedar Walton, Sweets Edison,
Jacki Bvard, John Heard, Joy Harjo,
Pinetop Smith, Tricky Sam
Nanton, Major Holley, Stuff Smith,
Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan,
Mr. Cleanhead Vinson, Ruby Braff,
Cootie Williams, Cab Calloway,
Lockjaw Davis, Chippie Hill,
And of course Jelly Roll Morton.

Finally, Bix’s shadow can be seen in Philip Larkin’s 1954 ode to another early jazz legend, “For Sidney Bechet”:

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.

This sounds suspiciously like the wisecracker Eddie Condon’s 1947 description of Bix’s music, which, he attested, “came out like a girl saying yes.”

[May 29, 2006]

On Not Being a Self-Respecting Jazz Writer

I am not a jazz musician, a jazz critic, or even a jazz writer. I am however, a writer who is working on a book about a jazz musician. This, it turns out, is a perilous place to be. Consider this paragraph from Terry Teachout’s 1997 review of a Louis Armstrong biography:

But Laurence Bergreen is a professional biographer, not a jazz scholar (his previous books were about Al Capone, Irving Berlin and James Agee, an oddly assorted trio [Ed: Not to mention the explorer Magellan]), and the very first sentence of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life—“In the beginning, he was a sound, and only a sound: a strange blend of happy cacophony and tormented caterwauling”—points to trouble ahead. No self-respecting jazz writer would have allowed a fruit-filled sentence like that to get into print, and Bergreen, though clearly an assiduous researcher, writes as if jazz were a foreign language he had studied late in life for the sole purpose of writing Armstrong’s biography.

I’ve read Bergreen’s book and accept most of Teachout’s criticisms (Teachout, meanwhile, is working on his own biography of Armstrong). But I flinch at the phrase “self-respecting jazz writer.” What does this mean exactly? Is “jazz writer” a guild one must join before intruding upon the genius of Louis Armstrong? In a way, yes. The assumption here is that Bergreen should, if not be a musician exactly, at least be knowledgeable of the music. “Revealingly, neither ‘West End Blues’ nor any other Armstrong solo is reproduced in musical notation,” Teachout observes. “Imagine a biography of Mark Twain that contained no excerpts from his writings!” I can’t. But neither can I imagine very many readers who could make heads or tails of a transcribed Armstrong solo. The two are hardly the same.

Teachout well understands the irony of that first sentence: rather than jazz, it seems to call on the Bible and on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist (“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .”). The author’s roots, then, are literary, not musical.

But Teachout seems to be saying more, that there is, in fact, a literary style to jazz writing that Bergreen should but does not adhere to. (Such a style might be found here.[Ed.: Notice use of word fruit as in TT above.]) If that is true, I may be in trouble. I ain’t no Mezz Mezzrow or, for that matter, Terry Teachout.

[March 4, 2006]