“Bix is jazz’s Number One Saint,” critic Benny Green once wrote of cornet player Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). In 2003 I produced a one-hour WFIU centennial tribute (click to listen) to the man who, in the span of six years and more than 200 recordings, left a legacy that still echoes through jazz today, as well as a troubled personal tale that continues to provoke scrutiny.
Richard Sudhalter, author of the Hoagy Carmichael biography Stardust Melody and co-author, with Phil Evans, of Bix: Man and Legend, is a special guest on the program, joined by Indiana University School of Music faculty member and trumpeter Pat Harbison, and Michael McGerr, a cultural historian and Indiana University professor. They discuss how Beiderbecke’s innovations and style, so influential in the early years of jazz, made their impact, and how the unresolved contradictions of his life led to his tragic and premature demise. You’ll also hear a wealth of Beiderbecke’s music, from the first recordings made with his band The Wolverines and the jazz canon-makers with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, to the compositions he wrote for piano not long before his death.
Beiderbecke grew up in the town of Davenport, Iowa, in the early years of the 20th century, and listened to jazzmen playing on the Mississippi River steamships that docked along the edge of the city. He was a child prodigy written up in the local paper at the age of seven for his ability to play piano pieces entirely by ear; he didn’t learn to read music until late in his life, and then just barely. By age 21 he was leading the Wolverines, storming through Bloomington, Indianapolis, and New York City, playing hot jazz for college dance parties and recording at Richmond, Indiana’s legendary Gennett studio. Hoagy Carmichael fell under his spell and quickly became his friend.
Bix joined forces with Trumbauer and introduced a lyrical sensibility into jazz with their 1927 record “Singin’ the Blues.” Paul Whiteman, leader of America’s most popular orchestra, invited them both into his band. On cornet his only rival was Louis Armstrong, who said, “Bix was the only musician I ever met who was as serious about music as I am.” He attended symphony concerts and longed to fuse his jazz virtuosity with his interest in formal composition. Many called him a genius — of himself he said, “I’m only a musical degenerate.”
Beiderbecke never played his solos the same way twice, he once told a friend, because, “I don’t feel the same way twice. That’s what I love about jazz. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?” This program originally aired on the eve of Beiderbecke’s 100th birthday in 2003; with the 105th anniversary of Bix’s birth imminent, I’m posting this portrait of an American jazz pioneer in sound and story with hopes that both those who already know his music, and those who have yet to encounter him, will find here something of the pleasure that his recordings have given to so many listeners over the years.
Watch the only known footage of Bix playing cornet (he stands up for a few moments to play in the upper lefthand corner of the frame about one minute into the film), from the Whiteman band’s 1928 video for “My Ohio Home” (Whiteman’s tearing up of a contract signifies the orchestra’s move from Victor to Columbia Records):