Geoff Muldaur is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger who was a founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and played with the bluesman Paul Butterfield. In 2003 he released an album inspired by Bix Beiderbecke's art, Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music. I interviewed him on May 18, 2009, at the Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Jim Quarles.
GEOFF MULDAUR: Talent and character are not connected. It’s a horrible realization for most people. But it’s absolutely true. And it baffles people, because how could Ray Charles produce such warm and beautiful things when he wasn’t this great guy. Or as Benny Carter, greatest guy in the world. It’s so random—obsessive compulsive slob Beethoven. I mean, total slob. Kept his shitter under his writing desk. I mean, the place was disgusting, and he produces God’s music.
So, that being the case, I’ve never been that attracted to the historical part of each person. But I’ve been very interested in the music, and on that level, of course, Bix is like this shining little nugget, an absolute diamond—very singular in our entire history. So he becomes special for that, but when I was in Davenport, the people were starting to talk about this place down the street from the house where they say he might have molested that girl and all that shit and I was like, man, I didn’t even go there. I’m a recovering alcoholic, and to me, so much is answered by that. Why does he write that letter to Trumbauer talking about how his knees don’t work? Have you ever seen that? It’s to get money! Because he’s an alkie, man. And at the same time he’s playing these pure notes from heaven, so ... He’s just an alcoholic, man, he had a disease. Plain and simple. If Bill Wilson had come along sooner then perhaps we’d have a guy visiting colleges now and talking about his chamber works. You know, I don’t know what would have happened. [...]
To me this is the baffling thing. Why, and not just Bix, but primarily Bix, why do these white guys in the early twenties, in the Midwest, the Chicago area, and of course Bix in Davenport, they hear the music of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Even Bix, when you’re standing in his bedroom, you wonder if he could hear that music coming from the river. It’s very romantic to look out across that park and to think about the wanderlust, what sounds were coming across— So you hear that, and you’ve got something in your soul, and you’ve got tons of classical and American popular music in your bones because everyone did, because everyone had a piano in the world, and you decide to pick up the cornet, and maybe you learned a few licks from Nick LaRocca and then this guy, who’s this other guy who came through town, Hardy or whatever it was—
BRENDAN WOLFE: Emmet Hardy.
GM: Yeah. So, but really, the driving force is Louis Armstrong, Freddy Keppard, these guys out of Chicago, and you decide to play this instrument and you immediately find your own voice and don’t come close to imitating those guys. How does that happen? Today, the first thing kids do is try to get in to what the guy sounds like, what he did, and he didn’t do any of that. He didn’t play any Armstrong licks. He didn’t go for that sound. He just opened up from his soul. And the same from others, look at Pee Wee Russell and a bunch of other guys. Just like, if you’re listening to Johnny Dodds on the clarinet and you’re a young white guy from Chicago, and you’re Frank Teschemacher, and you decide not to play like that, or do you decide? Or do you just pick it up and out starts coming this stuff and you don’t think it’s your job to even come close to copying somebody as a tradition.
So to me, in this day and age, it’s so different than what’s done today. It’s almost why there’s so little going on. Everyone has incredible technical abilities but no one creates a new world.
So that’s always been very curious to me, and then of course the whole Midwestern thing, with the whole tone moves and some of these great chordal moves, seems to have died out to black big band music. You know, the dancing became the thing, and having structured, interesting chordal changes like in the Trumbauer orchestra or, you know, I’m not a big Goldkette fan, but the Trumbauer stuff is just sick good.
BW: Why the Midwest?
GM: Well, there were probably a lot of parlor pianos and the riverboat music, Chicago, and the black influence coming up from New Orleans, et cetera. I mean, the whole world was this way, but the United States, music was just everywhere. Even when I was a kid in the early fifties, music was everywhere, man. On the street corners, people singin’ quartets and stuff. Electronics almost kind of kills it in a way.
BW: You grew up in New York?
GM: Outside of New York. It was the doo-wop thing. The first records I bought were 78s. And then immediately 45s. I was at the very tail end of 78s. And they were doo-wop things I bought, and then these 45s came out and all of a sudden we’re dancing to Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed and we’re white kids in the suburbs of New York.
BW: How big was your town?
GM: How big was my town? I don’t know. You know, I really don’t know. It’s a major suburb, you know, it’s the next one over from the Bronx. Pelham, New York.
BW: Fairly close to the city.
GM: Yeah, twenty minutes by train. There was a golden era goin’ on when this whole thing happened with Bix and it was a golden era in opera, it was a golden era in almost every style. And out of this comes these kids from the Midwest, Bix being the most brilliant of them all, and why does this happen? Why so unique personal? It’s different music, man. It isn’t Dixieland. It’s totally different music.
Amos Garrett was very steeped in Bix Beiderbecke, my longtime co-conspirator in music, and he came out of barbershops, barbershop quartets, and I think a lot of that quartet singing, lots of singing with augmented chords, and these different moves and changes, than in the New Orleans thing—not that they didn’t use augmented chords, I’m not saying that, but just the way that they approached music. And I think—also, you, as you already know, these guys listened to so much Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel ...
BW: It seemed like Bix’s ear wasn’t merely sharp, it was omnivorous. He listened to everything and just took it all in.
GM: Right. And he was a savant. I mean, let’s face it. And he got hooked on booze. He’s one of those guys like, there’s a pretty large body of work, and when we went through it, 209 cuts or whatever it was, we went through every one of them that the Italians put together in that set, put together for the Bix thing, and it isn’t as big a body of work as everybody would like to think. There’s an occasional solo here in a piece of crap tune that’s good, and you know you’ve really got two CDs worth of great music. And then you got the piano pieces only one of which was ever recorded by him, and of course we, I, and quite a few others, don’t feel he even came close to his potential. I’m grateful for what he did for me. He really had a profound effect on me.
BW: How did you come to first listen to Bix?
GM: Well, you know, that room of my brother’s was just a treasure trove, man.
BW: Your older brother, right?
GM: Ten years older, so I’m six when he’s sixteen and he’s collecting 78s when he’s sixteen. So Muggsy Spanier came out to the house for dinner, you know. We went up and listened to Muggsy’s records, and then we listened to Bix’s records. I was only a peanut.
BW: What did your parents do?
GM: My father was in advertising. This is an interesting part of this culturally, too, for me, is that, you know, sort of Eisenhower Republicans, you know, the wife doesn’t work, the father wears the gray flannel suit and goes to New York on the train—
BW: Mad Men.
GM: Yeah, and they were crazy for good music. And the whole idea that it’s generational and the kids today aren’t going to listen to your music, you’re not going to understand them—that’s all crap! They loved it! They weren’t as much loving what I was getting into the doo-wop world, but I was cuckoo over what they loved. And my father when he went to Princeton he helped put on the dances, so he was hiring Fletcher Henderson and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. I mean, unbelievable bands went down there. So he had it good, and everyone had their story about they night they were with Bix. If you added up all those old grads when I was a kid that said they’d hung out with Bix you’d have a population twice the size of the United States.
BW: And he would have had a fifty-year career.
GM: It was an impossibility! But maybe a few of them had, but part of the whole thing about how music was everywhere. But that room— I didn’t have a happy childhood, which I don’t want to go into, a lot of it. But that room became the way out. And I’m not alone in that. And it wasn’t just Bix, because there was so much else there, with those X label RCAs, and those funky women blues singers, and Sydney Bechet, and of course Louis, and all this stuff. Those three Columbia LPs, and I don’t know when they came out, of Bix—
BW: The ones George Avakian produced.
GM: Probably. They had various iterations in their covers. We lived with them. But you know there was Bix & Tram was one of them, and I just can’t tell you how many times we listened to them. And we’d take them up to our place in the summer on Martha’s Vineyard. Have you ever heard of a trombonist name Roswell Rudd? Very famous avant-garde, complete beyond bop, maniac monster trombone player. World famous. And I met him when I was fourteen and he was up summering on the Vineyard and I hired him a few years ago for a session. I met him again in London about ten years ago for a concert that we did together.
BW: Did he remember meeting you?
GM: No, but he remembered, when I said, you’re not going to believe this, but you used to come up to my house and put on these Bix albums and roll around on the floor in ecstasy, and he remembered that. And he used to go down to the Yacht Club and sit in with the band on cornet, this was not trombone at the time. He was a cornetist. As a kid. So maybe he was eighteen and I was thirteen or fourteen. For some reason there was a Bix connection, and it isn’t huge, but if you had been doing these thirty or forty years ago, you’d have thousands of people to interview. And they’re gone.
BW: Rich Johnson in Davenport, this eighty-something-year-old guy, pounded the table and told me, We’re the last breed, man. We’re gonna be gone!
GM: Well, the music isn’t gone, so who cares?
BW: There will be new fans.
GM: Yeah. Were these guys pounding the table in 1832 saying, We’re the only guys who knew Beethoven? How’s the world going to go on without us?
BW: Maybe they were! ... So you’re listening to your older brother’s Bix records, and you’re listening to doo-wop, what happens next? You said it had a profound effect on you.
GM: Who else is bringing jazz records to parties for necking? You know, I mean, hear we are dancing to Little Richard and all that, and I’m the guy who’d drink a little too much beer and get a couple of LPs out of his car and bore everybody with my albums.
BW: I’ve been there.
GM: So yeah, when I mean profound, I mean that’s it, that’s the basis of my musical feeling comes from that music. I mean, I love all sorts of stuff, and the Bix thing was the clearest, cleanest of it all. I am in amazement of Louis and am thrilled listening to him but, as I’ve written before, there’s something conversational about the way that Bix plays. He comments. He’ll state an opening statement, and the next statement is an answer to it. There’s a logic to it. And it’s much more conversational than going up and hitting a blasting note like Louis Armstrong to thrill everybody viscerally. [TOOK THIS PHRASE OUT FOR CONCISION: It’s much more conversational.] It’s like somebody talking. [hums out a solo] Whereas Louis is [hums out something else] and you’re like, woo! And you’re elated, but it’s not like someone is talking to you as much. I think that got to me in some way.
BW: Thinking back to the Bix story, he got his first jazz records from his older brother, coming home from the First World War. Had a Victrola. “Tiger Rag.” When you say that you got your musical feeling from Bix—
GM: Did I say that?
BW: I think you did.
GM: Well, it’s on tape ... The basis of my musical experience and what comes through me and what eventually gets into my arrangements and my vocalizing comes from these early records and Bix is a prime mover in that, probably the most— He’s probably way over my head in some ways and in others he isn’t. So what’s the question?
BW: Just thinking out loud. You described taking the LPs out of your car in the fifties, reminded me of the movie Blackboard Jungle. There’s a famous scene where a high school teacher wants to impress his students, pulls out his Bix Beiderbecke records and plays “Jazz Me Blues,” and the students—this is just right before rock and roll. In fact, Bill Haley was on the soundtrack. But they are not impressed with Bix at all. Bix becomes the symbol for everything that’s old and not cool in that moment, and they start dancing around to pre-rock, fast big band music.
GM: That’s what we were getting into in sixth grade. It was still, sha-boom, sha-boom [humming], really bad stuff. That’s when the white barons were still in charge, and then this stuff started creeping up from the South and it was game over.
BW: So here Bix is moving you in the way he was, but he was also, culturally speaking, pretty uncool.
GM: I never saw that, never felt it, never thought I was a nerd for it.
BW: You weren’t aware that he was uncool or you think it wasn’t true?
GM: Of course it wasn’t true that it wasn’t hip. And I just felt maybe arrogant. Maybe I felt I had a key to something other people didn’t. Why else would I bring these records to parties? I thought this stuff would get you a feel job or whatever it was you were looking for at age fourteen. Bringing Charlie Shaver with strings to parties because he was a monster lip guy. So it actually got into trying to figure out what people might like that I actually thought was good. But it was still, I felt that I had a key to something that other people just didn’t have.
BW: So how did people react to Bix records?
GM: Some of the people tell me even today, you know, like if I run into them somewhere, there’s this guy from prep school, these sort of things kind of marinated with some people and then all of a sudden some things clicked together. And this one guy was talking about his civil rights lawyering, and how the blues stuff that was playing in prep school had an effect on his life because it connected him to the people he eventually started defending. I always knew this stuff was a gift.
You hear this stuff and you say, Where does this stuff come from? I mean, I knew where doo-wop came from because I went to the locker room and there were kids from the other high school singing it. Doo-wop was a real social thing. But Leadbelly and that blues stuff, I remember thinking, what planet is this from?
Always exciting. So then as you grow up you meet another nut, and then another nut, and then I got to Cambridge and it was full of nuts!
Some of the Whiteman stuff just didn’t hold up. And also, a lot of the lyrics of the tunes were distasteful. Very hard to deal with. Maybe you’ll do a certain tune but you have to change this lyric, and then you realize you have to change something else. Man, I got so much to change, I don’t even want to do it anymore.
BW: Reminds me of “Mississippi Mud,” which gets anthologized a lot. It’s a little tough to listen to, with all the Sambo stuff.
GM: Yeah. But it’s interesting, culturally. I mean, these guys must have all had the best friends with their black counterparts in McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit. I mean, Goldkette managed both bands. So these guys were hanging with the giants in the black world. And a few of the guys in the white world were giants, only a few, but they were. And they must have just been wrapped up with each other after hours, hanging in parks playing or whatever. And when it came time to sing a song, it was, Put on your darkie sound. Really strange to me.
BW: Hoagy Carmichael wrote some songs like that.
GM: We didn’t choose one Hoagy Carmichael song. And my quote black friends don’t like him. First of all because they think he stole “Stardust.” I mean, my jazz friends. And also these lyrics, man, it’s like, Sorry, pal. You may be a chordal genius but ... and you know the tunes are gorgeous, but the lyrics are very difficult. I mean, I did “Lazy Bones” with Amos, but I didn’t sing it!
BW: You were talking about the Whiteman stuff not holding up.
GM: It [REPLACED "It" WITH Whiteman" for clairty] just agonizingly does not swing. I mean, Ferde Grofé and all that stuff. And he gets a lot of credit for bringing certain things to the American public, and Gershwin and the whole bit, but it ain’t like the Trumbauer stuff. It just kills. It just swings so hard. And early Bix groups, Bix and Our Gang, the Wolverines, they swing like crazy!
BW: There’s always been the charge that Bix sold out to Whiteman.
GM: He was gone, man. He was a slave to his booze and a paycheck. I mean, I think of him more as a pathetic character because of the alcoholism. I haven’t looked carefully at the years he recorded, how brilliant things were in the last three years versus the three years before that, but there ain’t many years we’re dealing with here.
GM: Well there you go! I thought it was going to be like twelve. Six?
BW: He made his first recording in twenty-four, his last in thirty.
GM: Wow. Those kids swung, man. They had the right spirit. That’s why the Whiteman stuff doesn’t hold up. It’s too much thinking going on. Conceptually it was sort of interesting to me. Elijah Wald has just finished a book on Whiteman. He compares them to the Beatles. The thesis is, if Whiteman gets so much crap for stiff jazz, then why didn’t the Beatles get crap for stiff rock and roll?
I have a lot of respect for what Whiteman did, how popular he was and what he brought to America on that level, but it’s not that interesting.
BW: And he put Bix out front and center.
GM: Sure. Is it true about how the guy wrote on the thing, Wake Bix up?
BW: It’s a good story. There are always stories. Bix’s drinking created a million and one of them.
GM: Like I say, I’m the wrong guy to get in on it at that level. In my own case I will never be as accomplished as I could have been because of my drinking problem. The brightest and best years of your life, if you’re wasting your time until five in the morning, how much are you going to get done? And that’s how I feel about Bix. He’s just a much more major talent than I think he knew. Such an incredibly bright mind to get through to so many people, including somebody my age. He was the white man’s Charlie Parker.
If we had put this Bix album out in 1971 it would have gone gold!
BW: Think so?
GM: Absolutely. Every grad would have had to have it. And by the way, Sudhalter, all those guys, we thought they were going to butcher us. Because I changed everything. Everyone went for it. Just about everyone. Even the guy who runs the Bix Beiderbecke website—
BW: Yep, Albert Haim.
GM: Yeah, they had complaints about Joe Boyd’s notes being incorrect. [In an uptight nasally voice] Forest Academy was not a military school, and all this stuff. But aside from that, everyone had respect for what we did musically. I say we because I had a lot of help from our producer. We were very lucky, because Peter Ecklund warned us. They’re going to kill you, man. And even guys I would hire to come in to play the music, I’d say, No, man, too short. Well, that’s how they played it. I said, I don’t want it short. I want it long like McKinney’s. I’d say, I’m writing this music.
The point is, these oldie moldy figs in Davenport, they loved it!
GM: I had a gig there [in Davenport] in 2004 or 2005, a little ol’ dinky gig, and then I met all those wonderful folks, and they took me around, to the graveyard, whatever that hall is—I can never remember the name of it, the sort of cavernous—
BW: The Col Ballroom?
GM: That’s it. The Bix burger bar, the house ... his grandparents’ home?
BW: That’s right. It’s a bed and breakfast now.
GM: The main vibe, though, came from standing in Bix’s bedroom, in his home. And I was just thinking about myself looking out on my own backyard, you know, and how a few years later, I was living in the French Quarter. And Bix was looking out his own back window and thinking, Get me outta here! [chuckles] You know, I felt like I was flying across that field. There was a really mystical moment when I stood at that window, thinking like the Marable band was playing, and I was just thinking, wow, you know, the lure of it all, and the dream of it all and how anyplace, as Malcolm X says, anyplace is better than this.