Scott Black is a professional musician who for many years played in the band of Leon Redbone. I interviewed him by phone in March 2007. Black was at the Bakersfield, California, home of Linda Evans.
SCOTT BLACK: I’m in Bakersfield.
BRENDAN WOLFE: Oh, okay.
SB: It’s Linda’s house. Yeah. I’m packing the house. Boxes and boxes of research, and then I’ll be driving across the country in a couple of days. Boy. It’s going to be a long trip.
BW: How much stuff is there? You told me—how many boxes are you dealing with?
SB: I’ve already taken back quite a bit. And I’m filling her van, a Plymouth Voyager van, and I hope I have enough room.
SB: Yeah, it’s just a mess.
BW: What kind of stuff is it? Is it like notes from interviews?
SB: There are, oh, six or eight thousand letters from everybody, from everybody who knew Bix that was alive from 1954 on. You know, he just, you name it, every side man, George Johnson of the Wolverines, letters from Hoagy and Louis, Teagarden, and jeez, Bill Rank and Roy Bargy. It just goes on and on and on and on.
BW: And that’s when Phil Evans started his research, in ’54?
SB: 1953–’54, yeah. There’s a 1954 letter from Louis, couple of them, talking about when he first met Bix, how much they enjoyed each other. They were really close, much closer than people realize.
BW: Who’s that, Bix and Louis?
BW: Okay, you get that from the letter?
SB: From the letters and just, from other people mentioning them being around each other a lot and different interviews with Louis. Louis spent some time with him in 30–31 and telling him to take care of himself. Supposedly Bix played on one of Louis’ recordings, just in a section, he was in the studio and just joined the band, didn’t solo or anything. Louis asked him to play. But nobody can remember what side it was.
SB: Bix heard the record from one of his Davenport friends who went over to his place to visit because he said I’ve got some new records. And they found this one by Louis and Bix just started laughing. What’s so funny? And he said, I’m on this. I was in the studio that day and I saw Louis and he said, hey, get your horn and sit in the section.
SB: And the guy said [to the Davenport friend] do you remember anything at all about it? And he said no. I didn’t think he’d be dead in six months. It was right before he died. So it would have had to have been something he recorded obviously in mid 1930 I would imagine. Somewhere between August and September of 1930.
BW: Bix said he thought he’d be dead in six months?
SB: No, no, no. The guy when asked if he can remember what record it was said No, at the time he didn’t expect Bix to be dead in six months.
BW: Oh I see. He didn’t think Bix would be dead in six months so he didn’t think to remember.
SB: Right, he didn’t take notes. A lot of people said that. I would have paid more attention to things. It was a shock, you know? But, ah, hell of a story?
BW: Is now an okay time to talk?
SB: Yeah, I’m just a, like I said, I’m just going through tons and tons of letters. Wait a second. I’m going to walk outside here. Let’s see. Where was I? Yeah, see, in the past few years, I’ve scanned—the first thing is preservation, you know?
SB: And I’ve scanned about six thousand pages of letters, to help you visualize everything. And it ended up being, I got in last night and she found another three thousand letters.
SB: Yeah. I’m thinking, Oh boy! [Excited tone] And at the same time, Oh, boy. [Depressed tone] It’s just so much information. People ask me how much is there and I tell them that J. Edgar Hoover didn’t have this much information on Martin Luther King. That’s how massive it is.
BW: Has there ever been any thought of donating it to an archive?
SB: That’ll end up being a decision I have to make. When Phil died, geez, within days practically, there were four or five different universities that contacted Linda and said, Gee, we’re so sorry to hear about Phil and everything else ... we hope you know that he had an understanding with us that his archives would go to us. You know. And Linda’s nobody’s fool. And she said bullshit. She said I never heard of it and I know Scott Black never heard of it. If we didn’t hear it, it didn’t happen. We were the closest to him when it came to this. Have been for twenty years. I was his legs on the East Coast, whatever he needed. So then I’ve been getting the con artists trying to hustle me. There’ve been so many. I guess I get kind of sadistic. I tend to lead them on, thinking that they’re going to make a big score and then drop the bomb on them, you know. I don’t know. All these different writers approach me, and try to use the same reasoning that Sudhalter got away with on Phil. You’re not a writer. I’m an accomplished writer and ... I say, whoa, that’s true, but there’s two things here. [Here he seems to be talking specifically about Sudhalter and Evans.] One of them is this book is about in their words, not mine, I’m just going to put little fillers in there so people will know what’s going on, you know, the dialogue. And number two, my wife was an editor for Harcourt for four years. She knows how to put it in formation, but thanks anyway there.
BW: So is that what your book is going to be, just a collection of letters?
SB: No, no, no. Besides the letters, I’ve transcribed word for word over seven hundred hours of tapes. And the tapes go back to 1951 of recorded interviews of people who knew Bix.
BW: I don’t know how you have time to, you know, have a life?
SB: I really don’t. I’m on tour most of the time. I’m a cornet player and I tour with Leon Redbone. So we do these concerts and generally the concerts are about an hour, hour and a half long, so I’m generally back in my hotel by ten, ten-thirty-ish. And I just, I go to bed about two-thirty in the morning, and I just sit up there with headphones on and take everything down word for word, play it back, make sure I got everything right. So yeah.
SB: So it’s over five hundred pages so far, all in the first person. You know. No theories. No bs from other people. Nothing from anybody that didn’t know Bix personally. And that’s what it should be. An entirely different picture of the guy comes out, completely different.
BW: Different from what?
SB: From what everybody thinks. You know, especially about the Sudhalter crap about the family being ashamed of him. That never ever ever happened. Richard took all that stuff and decided he’d write the Great American Novel. So he added a story about that, and the story about the records in the closet? Never happened. It’s just all bs. Makes for a good story, though.
BW: It does make for a good story.
SB: Oh yeah.
BW: So, as far as the records in the closet story goes, I don’t have an opinion or an agenda about any of these stories, how do we know one way or the other that it’s true? I mean, we have, obviously, people who tell these stories, and they may be more reliable or less reliable people, but how do we know one hundred percent either way.
SB: Well, Bix’s record collection is in Colorado.
BW: Where in Colorado?
SB: Oh geez. I don’t know if Steve Beiderbecke died it might have gone into an archive up there. His father Charles had it. In all of the records there were a few of his own. I can tell you exactly where the story started, too. And I can tell you exactly how you can confirm it.
BW: The story started with Esten Spurrier, didn’t it?
SB: Well he augmented a story. Esten hated Burnie, Bix’s brother. They were friends at one point. When people started going Bix-crazy, Esten just—anybody from Davenport said they were friends with Bix, Esten called them a liar. And he put himself up as quote “Bix’s father-confessor.” He knew Bix, yes, maybe he played a couple jobs with him, yes. But Bix had one close friend and that was Don Murray. And that was his best friend. I mean, he was close with a lot of people, Jimmy McPartland, they were closer than people realized, too. Jimmy was my closest friend from the time he died, when I was fifteen. There’s a lot of people, from the time these guys died, to, you know, they just made up things. So—
BW: So where did this story start if it didn’t start with Esten?
SB: Okay. The story goes back to 1933, I think. Marshall Stearns went to visit the Beiderbecke family. And he found a bunch of records that were in mint condition in one of the closets. That was Bix’s own record collection. And Bix’s collection consisted of mostly classical, but he had a complete set of New Orleans Rhythm Kings. He kept them in mint condition. Those were it. And out of Bix’s entire collection, I thought there was only one that was historically significant. There’s a copy of “Tiger Rag” by ODJB that’s so worn out you can hear both sides when you play it.
BW: Is that the one Burnie brought home from—
SB: When he was a kid, that’s when he started playing the cornet.
SB: And he played it over and over and over again.
BW: So he kept that record his whole life.
SB: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s neat. That’s a great record. But there were no test pressings [what Bix was supposed to have sent home to his folks]. His mother had the one of “Tiger Rag” which the Wolverines ... that was it. But the family loved the guy, supported him, were behind him. And all of that stuff about Bismark? None of it is true. He’s a very nice man. Easy going guy. Played a lot of baseball. And, like I said, the problems, Richard put all that stuff in the book because he was trying to identify himself with Bix through his own father, who told him he would never amount to anything, you know, as a musician. It’s just a bunch of crap. What can you do? It’s in print and people now think it’s gospel.
BW: So you think Sudhalter was conflating Bix’s father with his own father?
SB: Well, yeah.
BW: Had he written about his own father somewhere else?
SB: Yeah. Get Chip Deffaa's book on jazz personalities in New York. I think it came out in the mid-'80s, I think. You know, it’s got Vince Giordano and different people in it, you know. And there’s one on Richard, and he was talking about, and he does it in letters, too. He confesses these deeds, actually. You know, when all this came down. It’s such an ugly story. Phil saved every letter that was ever written to him. You know, when I decided, right after he died, and I came out here, I was really reading the letters thoroughly for the first time. And it’s such a wealth of information that I said to Linda, I said you know there’s such detail about all the facts, and there’s hundreds of stories about Bix that have never been heard before. I said, you know, we should do one. One more book with, you know, no genealogy, no discography. I mean, that’s been done by people far better than I, and each got a lot of ink. Just the facts, just the stories, just the impressions told by these people in their own words. You know, no reading into anything. Let people decide it for themselves. So over the years I found a lot of things myself. And I’m thinking okay I have to dig up my own. I’ve moved a few times, you know, all over the country. So things are scattered. Then I found this box in one of Phil’s rooms with my name on it. I opened it up and there’s twenty-five years of letters, everything I had ever found and made copies of and sent to him. So all my stuff is right there. It was great.
BW: Wow. He was just a born archivist himself.
SB: Oh geez. He was a pack rat, yeah. It’s almost a sickness. I’ve got at least a dozen new photographs of Bix that haven’t been seen before including I’ve got one from about four months before he died. He looks great. He looks absolutely great. He wasn’t the run down, sickly, you know desperate character that he was portrayed to be. He never lost his lip as has always been claimed. Bill Challis and several others said that. He’d be rusty after a layoff, sure. In the spring of 31 he was playing better than every according to a lot of people who heard him.
BW: What explains, I mean, he didn’t sound very good on “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” would you say?
SB: Well, you know, that’s another thing. People—a few years ago they found some Trumbauer test pressings that hadn’t been heard before. What was it? “Seventh Heaven”? “Futuristic Rhythm”? Anyway, as soon as they were found, I was talking to [David Bodinghouse?] a buddy of mine, terrific piano player, and he’s telling me, oh boy, they just found these, and I said yeah, and I’ll bet you, I’ll bet you he’s going to sound a lot better on these than, you know, he did on the released versions, which he sounds pretty weak on. The thing is, he didn’t have any control over which takes were issued, you know, for whatever reason, a bubble in the wax, for whatever reason, a sack’d be scrapped, and they’d end up using a take that just wasn’t that good as far as he was concerned. They didn’t have the final say.
BW: So if he wasn’t looking bad in the photos and he wasn’t necessarily always sound bad, what does that say about people’s sense that he was slowly killing himself with booze? Are you saying that that’s wrong?
SB: What happened was, he went on the wagon quite a bit. With anybody with an alcohol problem like that, when you off the wagon, it’s memorable. It’s like picking up where you left off. He’d be sober for months at a time and most people don’t or don’t want to remember that time because, you know, well, he’s just playing great. But when he’d screw up or be drunk, he’d be really, really drunk. And his family was never ashamed of him. He was more ashamed of himself. He was hardest on himself over that. And the big reason was—he had a place at the 44th St. Hotel for years and years, and you know, it was Tommy Dorsey. Dorsey liked to get him drunk, keep him up playing all night. He’d be trying to work on his arrangements, you know. Bix was writing the last couple of years, composing all the time, and writing out arrangements. In '31 he had just signed with Victor to do his piano compositions and he was telling the guys in Princeton about this and he was laughing and telling them that he had to submit a personnel chart, what he wanted to use, so he was going to use “Flashes” and “Candlelights,” and all this sort of thing. He wanted cellos, violas, violins, flutes.
BW: The whole Geoff Muldauer thing.
SB: You know, that type of set up must have been put on the Red Seal label, the classical label. He was very excited about that. You know, it was his chance to really shine. And Victor was excited about it, too. One of the things that got Bix more than anything was sleep deprivation. Dorsey would get done doing his radio shows, nightclub things, and he’d drag a bunch of guys up to Bix’s room to have him play piano. And they’d keep him up until six or seven in the morning. And so if Bix had say an audition to do at ten in the morning, a radio show or something, he was glassy eyed, hung over, not completely sober yet. You do kind of stagger around in that condition, and radio is too precise for that kind of, you screw up once and that is it. And Tommy used to tell all the drunk Bix stories. And he’d be telling these stories to everybody, so who’d want to use him, really? There are plenty of competent musicians out there you can depend on.
BW: What was it about Tommy Dorsey that this is what he was doing? Was there something in it for him?
SB: He was a sadistical son of a bitch. He did the same thing to Bunny. When Tommy drank—he went on the wagon in later years—well, there’s a letter from, oh god, Joe [Hames?]. The first thing he did [when TD got his own band], Joe Hames says in his letters, he fired Sterling Bose from the trumpets. Because he said all Sterling would do is talk about Bix and Jack Teagarden and he said it made Tommy so jealous he couldn’t stand it. And Tommy was a great musician himself. But there was two people he could not outshine and that was Bix and Teagarden. And Joe Hames says he was convinced, when he took over my band, that was why he fired Bozo. He’d get Bix drunk, you know, and laugh at him. Hey, Bix. Play your cornet! And he couldn’t. So it was a big joke to him.
BW: And are you getting this from the recollections of other musicians?
SB: Well that’s from a letter from Joe Hames. Yeah. He talks about Dorsey, and several did. And Red Nichols is the one that told Phil that, that Dorsey was the one who would usually get Bix drunk at Plunkett’s and make fun of him.
BW: Well I was going to ask you if that was the same kind of behavior that Red Nichols was talking about in that piece for Down Beat—
SB: In '38? Exactly. Yep.
BW: I’ve always wanted to know—I guess I feel like something that doesn’t get talked about too much in biographies is the relationship between Bix and his friends late in his life and whether those relationships really served him well. And I guess it’s a complicated story any time you’ve got somebody close to an addict or an alcoholic, there’s only so much you can do, but—
SB: To a degree, but, you know, a lot of guys, let’s see. Bix had a lot of friends. And Bix was a very, very nice person. His general disposition. Everyone says the same thing to describe his personality: as sweet. And if you were his friend, he was devoted to you. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. And a lot of these he was friendly with, not a lot of them, but some, had a mean streak. And Dorsey was famously one of them.
BW: Even Dorsey’s brother didn’t like him much sometimes.
SB: Oh yeah. Yeah. And he, Dorsey was famous for taking shots at guys. For punching them. And he always sucker punched them. He never walked up to somebody face to face, you know, and hit them. He hit you when you weren’t looking. He did that in 1949 on the set of “Song Was Born” to Benny Goodman. They were recording the soundtrack. I’ve got the newspaper article about this. Benny was late, and when he came in Dorsey said something, and Benny just shrugged it off. And Dorsey waited till Benny sat down in his chair and walked over and punched him in the nose. If it was a horn player he’d generally try to hit you in the lip.
SB: There was a couple guys that told me that, well, you can never know, that Tommy’s own death was not accidental. He was separating from his wife at the time. And it was Thanksgiving, and Tommy couldn’t sleep without sleeping pills. And one guy who was around there then said that the story most people believe is that he took his sleeping pills after he’d had a whole bunch of turkey and stuffing, and going to bed, and she woke him up an hour later and said, Tommy, you forgot to take your sleeping pills, and she gave him some and he took them.
BW: You’ve seen the book Jazz and Death?
SB: Is that the one about alcohol?
BW: It’s a book that sorts through how various famous jazz musicians have died and tries to kind of figure out medically, you know, the guy’s a doctor—he theorizes that Tommy Dorsey had had food poisoning. He was on barbiturates and had drunk a lot that night, and somehow that had slowed down his heart, did something, so that if he had vomited, he wasn’t able to, his body wasn’t able to deal with it.
SB: He got in contact with me a few years ago, asking me all these questions about drinking, and I tried to set him straight. He’s telling me all these theories about this and that, and I was saying well this isn’t possible, and he didn’t want to hear anything. His mind was already set. He’s looking more for people to confirm what he though that to give any information counter. For one thing, when Tommy Dorsey died, he wasn’t drinking. He wasn’t drinking at all. So that shoots that in the ass. His last wife had just agreed to split up and it was going to turn into a nasty divorce or whatever, with family and they had a big dinner. I have newspaper accounts of his death, and there was a big inquest into it as to whether it was accidental or not. So evidently someone, the DA’s office thought it was pretty shaky, as well. They looked into it and about three months later decided, no, probably not, and just dropped it.
BW: Were there other friends who, if we have this general idea of some of Bix’s friends who weren’t treating him well, and we have a specific name in Tommy Dorsey, were there other people who were kind of the same way?
SB: Well, you know, not that would get him drunk. No. A lot of crap was said about Eddie Condon which was not true. I knew him very well and spent many afternoons with him talking about Bix’s last days and as he pointed out to me, Bix towards the end, would come into Plunkett’s, he had to hang out at Plunkett’s because that’s where the work would come through.
SB: That was the musicians’ hangout. So, he said, Bix was in such bad shape and shaking so bad, he said that it was not that he wanted a drink, he needed a drink. And he said there’s a difference. There’s a big difference. Eddie was not the type to say come on, Bix, let’s get drunk if the guy was trying to be sober. But you know in some cases, when he started drinking again in 31 right after the tour, he did the tour with another band in the spring of 31 and then settled back into New York. Bix was a very, very intelligent person. He knew his condition. He had no illusions. He was in no sense of denial about it. So he also knew that if he would go cold turkey, the DTs would set in. So he took to sipping wine, maybe an ounce, a shot glass, every hour or two hours. So this way he could remain sober and his body had the alcohol to stabilize everything else that he needed, and it worked for him. And he did fall off the wagon a couple of times.
BW: Well, yeah, that’s a dangerous game to play, right? The whole thing about being an alcoholic is that you can’t just have a little bit.
SB: When he drank he drank gin. He could sip wine. A shot glass every hour. He’d be sober and be able to function and not have to worry about the physical—when he’d fall off the wagon and go on a tear, it just sets your clock back, basically, you know.
SB: And he did try his best. He really, really did try his best. And bad timing. And it’s true, he could not say no to his friends. He’d do anything for them. And it’s very obvious, too, if people look chronologically, that Bix and Wall Street crashed at the same time. Bix was very wealthy. Extremely wealthy.
BW: Is that right?
SB: He gave money away. But he sent the majority, at least eighty percent of it, and had it invested, and he lost everything. So you know you take a hit like that, you’re going to be pretty bummed out about it. You take the price of homes and cars in 1929, he was making enough with Whiteman, just a straight salary, and he was making enough to buy a new car every week. You put that in today’s terms, you know, or every two or three weeks he could afford to get a new house. You could get a new house for a couple grand. But you add in the royalties, and publishing, and other things that he had, and he had a great income coming in. But by '31 he couldn’t even make his room rent at the hotel. And mostly because people wouldn’t hire him for records. The record business had fallen apart and everything was radio. People aren’t going to spend thirty-five cents on a record if they have a family to feed. But he had his own radio show in 31, it wasn’t his radio show, but he was on it frequently playing piano. You know, like around seven o’clock in the evening, just whatever he wanted to play, solo piano. I even found Bix playing solo piano in 1923, January of 1923 in Davenport on the radio. Yeah. With [Hofstetter?] on sax. Just the two of them.
BW: So much of the information that we have and that you have in these many letters and interviews, how do you go about sorting through what’s reliable in your mind and what’s no reliable?
SB: That’s not easy. Phil went through that too. There’s a lot of people out there who knew Bix and who played with Bix who were also full of shit. Some of them would inflate their role out of proportion, such as Esten. The guy was so magnetic that everybody wanted to be a part of it. In the case with these letters, Phil kept in touch with a lot of these people for twenty, twenty-five years or more. And you’ll see contradictions pop up, because sometimes their stories would get out of hand. They’d place themselves somewhere where they weren’t, whereas they’d mentioned in a letter specifically fifteen years before, where they were. So a lot of people get tripped up like that. So if a new piece of information would come in. Say, for example, one of the Goldkette stories. Back in the 1950s got those guys together again since they broke up at the Roseland in '27. Not all in one room, but he was writing to them all. And he would, say, if Bill Rank remembered a story, Phil would pass it on to Chauncey and Spiegel and whoever else was around, and they’d go, oh, I remember that! That was at—and this way they were able to narrow down where it happened, and then someone might have a diary of where the band was that day and then they’d reach a consensus. And it’s great in the letters because essentially, well, Bill Rank—Phil’s letters to these guys, some of them were fifteen to twenty pages long. And they’re very intimidating. As far as like, you know, geez, Phil, if somebody question, this was thirty-five years ago, I’ll do my best. Well, when people started buying tape recorders, they started making these reel-to-reel tapes reminiscing. Because it’s much easier than writing a letter. And they’re wonderful. I mean, they’re absolutely wonderful. And they tell these stories. So Bill Rank says, oh, you’re in touch with Spiegel? Give me his address! I gotta see Spiegel. I love Spiegel. And they got back together. And these guys all pulled together because they loved Phil. They made him their scribe. I mean, the Goldkette Band. Those guys were so proud of that band. They would have done anything, you know, for that band, even after it broke up. The whole Goldkette story unfolds, to the minutest detail, what everybody did, you know ... it’s just a lot of detailed stuff that I think people would like. I’m going toput out also a set of CDs of the interviews, I can’t put out seven hundred hours of them out, but just some, you know, some great stories, in their words, and you also get the emotion in their voices telling this stuff. It’s so telling. It adds so much to it, you know.
BW: I always think of, there’s a scene in that Brigitte Berman documentary where Spiegel Willcox and she’s interviewing him and he gets out the trombone and he puts on “My Pretty Girl,” I think, and it’s such a poignant scene because, you can tell, he’s getting kind of emotional remembering it.
SB: That’s what made me think of doing this in the first place. Because there’s also a scene in that of Bill Rank—no, no, no Bill Challis, and he’s talking about Bix’s drinking. And at one point he just looks at the camera and you can just see him welling up with emotion, and he goes, You gotta understand. You gotta understand. He couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t help himself. And that speaks more than a whole chapter written by anybody, just the emotion that comes through with that. And Brigitte, every time Phil helped people out with any project, they just took advantage of him. It was just unbelievable.
BW: There were stories that she stole thing?
SB: Phil gave her, and why he gave her the originals, I don’t know. I think it was eighty-four original photographs to use in that thing. She returned exactly half of them. And he couldn’t contact her. She wouldn’t answer anybody. And a couple years later he finally got a-hold of her and she said, I returned everything. And she did. She gave half of them to somebody else. And that somebody else donated them to an archive for a tax write off. Phil found that out about a year or two before he died.
BW: Getting back to the credibility of people, it seemed that Bix’s legend grew both at the end of his life and then afterwards in part because of the stories his friends told about him. Would you say that that’s true?
SB: Well his really good friends, those stories didn’t come from, the ones who were truly his friends. Like that Ralph Berton book was, nothing in that thing was true. Absolutely nothing.
BW: Right. But I’m talking about like memoirs by Hoagy Carmichael and Eddie Condon and Louis Armstrong and Max Kaminsky and Mezz Mezzrow and these guys.
SB: Well, okay. Condon’s stuff was to the best he could remember. He told me the same stories. I have this freak memory for things. I met Eddie when I was seventeen. I used to go up and visit him in his apartment in the afternoons. This is like around 1970 or so. Why he liked me, Eddie was one of nine children. I could name off all his brothers and sisters. We liked each other, you know. He was just a great guy, and he was telling me these stories about Bix that he’d mentioned before, and there was no variation. He told it pretty much the same way. He didn’t embellish them. And that’s how you can tell. Louis did the best he could. You know, but geez, Louis was around so many people in his life. Bix stood out. Louis loved Bix and Bix loved Louis. They were each other’s biggest fans. Always were. And he was really, really—there was one interview with him where he kind of breaks up talking about Bix. People didn’t do him right.
BW: Is that the interview where Berman got the title of her film from? And that was in the radio documentary as well. When was that interview done?
SB: That was a phone call between Phil and Louis and Phil taped it.
BW: So that’s a phone call Phil made and then it was—he loaned it to the radio documentary and then Berman used it.
SB: The Miami University radio documentary, they contacted Phil about. I’ve got all the paperwork on that. They were going to make him the executive producer of it. And so he brought out all of these wonderful interviews, and the ball started rolling, and somebody from over there and came in and took over the project and declared himself the executive producer. Yet he kept all of Phil’s stuff. And the interviews that they did do, Phil set them up with them, with Bargy and all that other stuff. It was Phil. It’s unbelievable the lengths that people to steal this material from the guy. If people were just honest, he was so open in those days to share whatever material he had, he was happy to share. But people would borrow something and say, Look what I found! Look what I found! And completely exclude Phil from being in the equation, which just isn’t right.
BW: It seems like people have wanted to question Louis’ credibility regarding Bix, whether they met, and in particular whether they met in Davenport.
SB: The problem with that, with some of them guys, there’s a tape of Will Bill Davison made in 1960. He talks about Bix with the Wolverines, and how he used to see Bix at the Stockton Club and then he used to go out to this other place and jam—
BW: This is Louis you’re talking about?
SB: No, no. This is Wild Bill.
BW: Oh, okay.
SB: And Will Bill on this tape goes into great detail about this place. But at the same time Bill insisted this was 1921. The details of what happened were correct, because other people would confirm, Yeah that was right, that’s how it happened. But he was just off by a couple years. Which was understandable, because meeting Bix could leave that kind of impression. Fifty years later, so you’re off by a couple of years, but the essence of what he said was true.
BW: Do you believe that Louis and Bix met in Davenport?
SB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. A couple of Bix’s childhood friends say the same thing. They remember going with him and he used to see, whenever he could, if Bix was off and Louis was in town, Bix was there. If Louis was off and Bix was in town, Louis was there. They were very close. They kept in touch with each other as often as they could. When you both play the same instrument, it’s hard to do that. But they both admired each other because at that stage of their life, everyone’s either imitating Bix or Louis.
SB: They just admired the originality of each other, you know. Bix was also a big fan of King Oliver, and classical players, too. He was a fan of the instrument, basically.
SB: One of the tapes that I recently found—god, it took me four years until I finally found it—was Charlie Margulis. He was one of the finest trumpet players of his time. He cut [something about Whiteman, symphonic to jazz]. And you get this vague impression he was jealous of him, you know? And then you hear the tape. A couple hours of Challis and [Gabbo?] talking together about Bix, and it stunned me how close that they were. He used to hang around the Goldkette band to be around Bix. He was one of those guys, when they started doing the interviews, was very apprehensive. You know, he said, you know, anytime people write about Bix, he says, I’ve never heard anything in print about Bix that sounds like the man that I knew. He says you know, you gotta understand how reluctant I am to say anything because somebody will twist it and turn it into some bullshit story that is going to come out and be in print and be part of his legacy, and you know, that’s not right. But Phil was an honest guy. Everybody vouched for him. And he became very close to everybody that he wrote with. And Challis was saying the same thing. And then you get like Max Kaminsky, and I knew Max. And I grew up in South Jersey, and I grew up going to New York and sitting in at Jimmy Ryan’s, mostly with Roy Eldridge on trumpet. And when Roy was out on tour, Max would come in, or Jimmy, or somebody. So I got to know Max. And Max was a great player, no denying that. One of the tastiest leads in Dixieland jazz that you could want. In his book he talks about how Bix’s cornet fell off the bus, you know, and he found it and Max reached down and gave it to him and that sparked a friendship that lasted until Bix’s death. Well, on this tape, it’s just great, they’re talking about the Goldkette, and like I say, Gabbo was there, you know, when this stuff happened. It’s just amazing. He wasn’t with Whiteman yet. All of sudden he says, Hey Bill, he says, you remember that time we caught Max Kaminsky trying to steal Bix’s cornet? I fell down. Really? That story just shoots him in the ass, doesn’t it?
SB: You gotta weigh one thing against another. And after awhile you develop an instinct about it. If it starts getting too soupy and lyrical—he was a fun guy. He liked to enjoy himself. His big love was music. He has more girlfriends than you can shake a stick at. You know, I keep finding more and more and more women that he was with. He never bragged about it. He would never say, hey, I nailed so and so last night. He was very much a gentleman. But he was also a dog. He just didn’t brag about it.
BW: Hoagy is quoted in maybe the Evans & Evans book on the question of this woman, Helen Weiss—Hoagy is quotes as saying that he can only remember two women in Bix’s life, one was in Cleveland and I forget the other one.
SB: He was a very good friend of Bix’s. But at the time—Hoagy was talking about Bix and Cornelia Marshall. There were long periods of time when Bix and Hoagy didn’t see each other. Hoagy was going to law school. Bix was on the road. So that naturally the guys he’d be closes to were the guys in the band. And like I said, Bix’s closest friend was Don Murray. They were like brothers. He loved Tram, as well. They were musical partners and Bix’d do anything for Tram out of respect, love, admiration, all of the above. But as far as a hanging-around buddy, Tram was married. He had a very serious outlook on life and ambitions in the musical field. Tram always wanted to be a leader form the get go. But Don in a lot of ways was like Bix. [...] You know how Don Murray died?
BW: Well I know what I’ve read, that he fell of a moving car.
SB: The car wasn’t moving. It was his girlfriend. He was filming “Everybody’s Happy” [?] with Ted Lewis. They were on lunch break, and his girlfriend came over, and he was standing on the running board talking to her. And he fell of and hit his head on the curb. Well, there’s a reason why he fell off and hit his head on the curb and it had nothing to do with alcohol. Don Murray was an epileptic. And he had a seizure, and that’s why he fell.
BW: So why is that not in any of the books?
SB: I guess it’s not colorful enough. It’s better to say that gangsters, and all this other crap, and I guess nobody went looking for it. Nobody ever questioned this kind of stuff. And it’s just a shame. And once it’s in print, and somebody takes the bullshit story and puts it in their book, then it’s in two books, twenty years later somebody else wants to write a book, well, here’s two references to it right here, and I find that all the time. You spend time tracking all these stories back to the source only to find out that the source was bullshit. And the same with the bottle story, up the ass. Never happened!
BW: Is that when he was supposedly attacked?
SB: Mm-hmm. The barroom brawl. And you know, like I said, I knew Jimmy, I can’t tell you how close, I still talk to Marion all the time, and, I asked Jimmy about that. He says, oh yeah, I wasn’t there when it happened because I would have defended Bix with my life. But, he says, I knew he got cut really bad. And I can tell you what he told me? I says, That’ll do! He says, he described a barroom brawl, the way Bix said was out of the Wild West. Everybody hittin’ everything kind of a thing. And Bix got hit, and he flew over a table, and there were bottles on the table, and when he landed on the ground, he landed on a bottle. And he got cut beneath the cheek of his ass. You know, on his one leg. It was very, very deep. He probably cut a tendon, or whatever they have down there. Hamstring, I don’t know. And that was the extent of the injury.
BW: And is that why he walked with a cane?
SB: No, no. Well, it may have, it MAY have had something to do with it. Yeah, no. There was another injury. I can’t give it all away. I found this out on one of the tapes that Burnie, Lou Black, and Larry Andrews, with modern technology and headphones, I can hear a lot of the things, when all three spoke, talked at the same time, you know, you’ve got these three guys the same age from the same part of town, it’s hard to tell who’s who, but no, he had a broken leg. I don’t know if it was from that or if he fell later. It was a stress fracture.
SB: And that’s why he had a cane. I talked to a doctor in Florida about this. I said, I told him the whole situation here, I said what kind of injury would you have having something shoved up your ass that you had to walk with a cane for the rest of your life. And the doctor, who is a very prominent surgeon, married to my cousin, says, he says, listen, he says, when I was an intern, he lives down in Florida, and there’s a very big gay population down there, he said, when I was an intern in the emergency room, he said, people would come in on a regular basis with things up their ass that should not be up their ass. Produce. Car parts. You name it. Hair brushes. Living things. Other than a Volkswagen, he says, I can’t imagine what would cause that kind of injury that would do damage that would affect your legs. That just makes no sense to me at all. I said can I use your name, can I quote you for this? He said, doctors are no different from musicians. They love seeing their names in print in reference to something. But I really don’t want to have my name used in reference to people having things shoved up their ass.
BW: Fair enough.
SB: Most of the answers to these questions about Bix are simple. But nobody looks for the simple. They try to read in to things. And most of what people are using for research are false stories to begin with.
BW: Do you think that that’s something peculiar to Bix?
SB: There was, for want of a better word, a magical quality to the guy’s music. I’ve known many people. I’ve known many people that listened to Bix’s records, and they hate everything else, it’s just him playing, when he plays. A lot of these people run down the bands, and that’s not fair. The Goldkette Orchestra and the Whiteman Orchestra were two of the finest bands there ever were. And Bix loved them both. There’s a quality to his sound that can’t be matched. And it’s addicting. You can’t get enough of it. It comes from a different— There’s one thing I’ve read, and it’s just about from everybody Phil corresponded with, and it’s amazing that this same phrase is used, almost every time, I mean, I’m talking a hundred letters with people using the exact same phrase to describe his playing, and it’s always “out of this world.”
SB: There was something to it.
BW: Do you feel like, do you feel almost like you knew Bix?
SB: Not knew him. I know enough about him. I started when I was fifteen, sixteen.
BW: How old are you now?
SB: 53. I started playing when I was five. And when I was nine, my father, who was a musician, a guitar player, singer, everything, record collector, and I had Hawkins scratching away at the horn, and he called me up and said, you know, if you’re going to play that thing, this is what it should sound like. And he put on a Paul Whiteman record of “Lonely Melody.” And bingo, I heard it and I said “Wow! Wow!” Because at that point my favorite horn record was of Louis doing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the 1955 album. And I just loved that. I still do. And there was something right there, you know, geez, this is, Wow. You can’t describe it. You know, it doesn’t hit everybody. Like I said, I knew Roy Eldridge really well, and one night, somebody gave him like fifty bucks because he wanted to hear “Davenport Blues.” And Roy was avoiding it, avoiding it, and finally the guy asked for it again and he said, “Well, we’re going to bring our friend Scotty Black up here,” and I did “Davenport Blues,” you know. And during the break, Roy and I were going for a walk and he goes, you know something? I never dug Bix. He said, when I was a kid, Rex Stewart used to tell him all the time, man, you gotta check out Bix. You gotta dig Bix. He says I gotta few of those records, and I heard a lot of pretty runs, but I didn’t hear anything that said anything to me. I really didn’t. Which is odd, since he started out loving Red Nichols! But he thought that Bix played some very nice runs but there was nothing about Bix that— Well, Roy was just a competitive player. Bix was not a competitive player. That’s why in the case of Louis, Louis came up, he had to cut his way through every trumpet player to reach the top, and when he reached it, he had to defend it. Everybody wanted to cut Louis, cut Louis. That never happened with Bix. You didn’t want to cut something like that. Too beautiful! You know, it was poetic. What are you going to do? Hit a higher note than Bix? So what? The guy had half the range that most trumpet players have. He used it perfectly. He just showed a different way. And he just changed things.
BW: Well, and I suppose that it doesn’t really mean too much to like something or to be influenced by something if you like everything and are influenced by everything. Seems to be that it’s totally reasonable for someone like Roy Eldridge not to dig Bix, so long as that, what bothers me is when people go around bad mouthing stuff and saying that stuff sucks, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad.
SB: Right. Well, one time I went up to New York and I would generally, I would cut high school, and I lived near Philadelphia, and I would get into New York around eleven on the bus, so I drove. Around two o’clock, Louis, the manager of Ryan’s, would open up the place, so I’d be there, and I’d take my school books and my cornet and whatever I had an I’d put them in the basement. And I’d go down to the Village and hang out and things like that. Go to Condon’s place and shoot the shit all afternoon. And there was one time I got there and boy it rained like you couldn’t imagine. If you just thought about going outside you were going to get wet. And so I just stayed in there. And there was an old black guy sitting there ar the bar, and I hadn’t gone downstairs yet to put my stuff away, and he goes, oh hey man, you got a horn, huh? And he said, oh yeah, you know I play the trumpet myself. I said, oh yeah, and he says, and I says, oh what’s your name? And he says I was way before your time, and he’s going on like that, and I said, well, what’s your name? And he says Louis Metcalf. And I said Louis Metcalf?! King Oliver? He was a— Here was a seventeen-year-old kid, you know, and he’s going, Yeah, yeah, I knew that! So we’re sitting there talking, and we start talking about Bix. And he was talking about catching Bix at the Roseland with Goldkette, and you know, he said, when Bix hit the town, all the guys up town, he says, you know, it changed Rex Stewart’s life. Rex is telling everybody, You gotta hear Bix! And guys were saying, What’s a bix? What are you talking about? He blows horn. Well, what’s he got? Because back then it was all about how high can he go. That was how you gauged the guy. But he didn’t have any range. You gotta hear what he does. People were kinda, Huh? Mm-hmm. And then Louis said, Bix and Rex were really close for a spell there. He’d be Midtown and he’d run into Bix and Rex walking down the street laughing. He said he’d go downtown, he’d run into Bix and Rex. He’d go to Harlem, he’d see Bix and Rex sitting around laughing. He said, I wish—because Rex had died only a couple of years before—I wish he’d wrote more about Bix because he really knew him very, very well. But he described hearing Bix, it reminded him of hearing church bells. Which is nice, you know? He said he had to hear it. And everybody I knew that knew Bix said the same thing. You know, what he sounded like in person never made it to records.
BW: You do hear that quite a bit. I ran across a rather acid comment from James Lincoln Collier who wrote that everyone used to say that, but that’s because when they were hearing Bix live, they were all drunk.
SB: Yeah. That’s the same man that said Louis Armstrong was born in 1894. You know? I mean. There’s another guy. He writes with some facts and then adds bullshit to it. So the novice, they don’t know what to separate. I had to read Lost Chords because if I dare to say anything that sounds anything remotely like Sudhalter’s opinion about things, Albert Haim and the rest of those clowns are going to jump all over it. And every time I read something in that book, I thought where the hell did this come from? I’ve never heard anything like this before. I would go to the bibliography, and every time it would come out, in a conversation with the author. Oh, come on. The one that really offended me was the one about Jimmy McPartland, saying that, quoted Jimmy as saying that Bix wasn’t really one of us. And no. No. I knew McPartland way too long for that. I spent 25 years listening to how they double dated, went fishing, bowling, played baseball, any time they could get together, they could. Jimmy was like Bix’s kid brother. If he ever had a kid brother, it was Jimmy. He loved the guy. And vice versa. Just devoted. Jimmy would have never, ever said that Bix wasn’t really one of us. That’s all he talked about, what a regular guy Bix was. Besides being a musical genius, he was just a sweet, wonderful guy you just loved spending time with. They used to double date all the time. It was just somebody trying to put that [?] thing to Bix’s life. The misunderstood genius. He was a genius. You bet he was. But there wasn’t anything mystical about it. He was a kid with an amazing gift. And that’s what it was, a gift. Some people are born with things like that, you know? I mean, what some people lack in common sense, like myself, you make up for in other, nature gives you something to compensate for it.
SB: It’s not that he was from another planet or practiced a certain religion that gave him these powers. It was just something he had. And nobody’s had since.
BW: Can you give me a broad outline of what happened with Phil and Sudhalter?