Image 1 of 5
Image 2 of 5
Photo: Book cover art
Image 3 of 5
Image 4 of 5
Image 5 of 5
Photo: Arbutus (courtesy of Evan Finch)
“Now these things happened in the spring of the year 1924 and they happened on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington,” writes Hoagy Carmichael in the opening pages of his 1946 memoir The Stardust Road. What happened that spring, in this “town of some twelve thousand inhabitants and as many maples,” as the songwriter who helped put Bloomington on the map described it? What happened was this: the man who wrote the anthem of American popular song and became one of its most renowned composers brought the man who became one of jazz’s first iconic legends to Bloomington for a series of campus performances. The future jazz icon recorded the future renowned composer’s first piece and encouraged him to make a practice of writing music. They played dances, listened repeatedly to Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking The Firebird, drank a lot of bootleg liquor, and unknowingly began to create history.
But that was long ago, as a certain song once put it. And while the story of how Hoagy Carmichael wrote that certain song, heard round the world for the past 80 years as “Stardust,” is well-known, if almost certainly embellished by the author—how he supposedly sat on the spooning wall at the edge of campus one hot, quiet summer evening, thinking of lost love and the town around him, then dashed across the street to plot out the melody on the piano at the Book Nook—the story of his time in Bloomington with an up-and-coming trumpet legend is less so, though Hoagy devotes considerable space to it in The Stardust Road and his later autobiography Sometimes I Wonder. It’s quite possible, however, that “Stardust” would never have come to pass if it hadn’t been for the visits the up-and-coming trumpeter paid to Bloomington in that now-distant spring of 1924.
Bix Beiderbecke had just turned 21 when he and his band the Wolverines arrived in Indiana that April. Born into a relatively prosperous German-American family in Davenport, Iowa, 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. After listening to records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and jazzmen playing on the Mississippi River steamships that docked along the edge of the city, he became, in the parlance of Carmichael’s memoirs, a fullblown “jazz maniac,” and he took up the cornet, an instrument very similar to the trumpet, but with differently constructed tubing that makes for a mellower sound.
Easily bored, unable to stick with school or a 9-5 job, Beiderbecke threw everything into his music. He was largely self-taught, he was not virtuosic, and yet he somehow became one of the first great soloists in jazz; some credit him with the invention of the jazz ballad style. The late jazz historian and Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter identified one of Beiderbecke’s jazz breakthroughs as “emotional layering. For the first time, a ‘hot’ improvisation… seems to be able to speak on several levels and arouse in the listener a mixture of responses.” On top of it all, jazz historian Ted Gioia touts Beiderbecke’s influence on Bing Crosby, traces a line from his lifestyle to the counterculture of the 1960s, and calls him “the founding father of cool jazz.”
There have been numerous attempts to describe Beiderbecke’s sound and its impact. Guitarist and Indiana jazz legend Eddie Condon said it was “like a girl saying yes.” Ralph Berton, whose older brother played drums with the Wolverines, said “Every note went through you like a shaft of light, making you feel all clear and clean and open.” Bloomington native Fred Murray, a young musician and sometime Carmichael sideman who saw Beiderbecke play at a jam session during his 1924 spring sojourn in the city, told WFIU radio host Dick Bishop in 1959 that Beiderbecke avoided the tricks and artifices of his contemporaries: “He didn’t try to squeal like a clarinet, or play low like a flugelhorn. He played within a range of two octaves, and what he did within those two octaves was something that most men have not been able to do before or since. He seemed to have opened the door to a new type of music.”
For eighty years now, since his untimely death from alcoholism and pneumonia at the age of 28 in 1931, Beiderbecke’s recordings have been treated as sacred texts of early jazz. When he and the Wolverines rolled into Bloomington in the spring of 1924, they had recorded only two sides so far, and his reputation was just beginning to spread among his fellow musicians. Carmichael, whose musical-performance circle had been widening in Indiana throughout the early 1920s, had already met Beiderbecke at the Friar’s Inn, a jazz speakeasy in Chicago. “This fellow was rather slight and extremely young,” he wrote in Jazzbanders. “His eyes were peculiar and his silly little mouth fascinated me. His upper lip was red and he had a faint odor of gin on his breath. I learned that he had just come from a job, and it was the cornet that had reddened his lip.” Carmichael had heard him play, too, in 1922, and had not been particularly impressed. But by the end of 1923 Beiderbecke had made big gains in his strength and creativity as a player, and the Wolverines—a territory band comprised mostly of Chicago musicians—gave him his first consistent vehicle for displaying his talents to audiences around the Midwest.
Saxophonist George Johnson, a Chicagoan and sometime musical colleague of Carmichael’s, had also joined the Wolverines and contacted Hoagy in early 1924, hoping to land some jobs for the band at Indiana University. Carmichael set up a series of ten fraternity and sorority dance gigs for the Wolverines, spread over five weekends. “They were very appreciative, because they weren’t working any place at the time,” Hoagy told an interviewer in 1969. In fact, they’d just escaped an unhappy engagement at Doyle’s Dancing Academy in Cincinnati by lowering their confiscated instruments from the Academy’s third-story window and stealing away in the middle of the night. After scoring a gig at the Butler College prom in Indianapolis and a smattering of shows in Marion, they headed to Bloomington.
Indiana University in Bloomington, like numerous other college campuses around the Midwest in the 1920s, was under the spell of “hot jazz,” the music swirling out of New Orleans and Chicago from the horns and pianos of artists such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Almost every campus boasted at least one working band. Duncan Schiedt, in his book The Jazz State of Indiana, says
These young men who made up the college bands were, like Hoagy Carmichael, taking their inspiration from the black musicians, and working out the style in endless hours of jamming around out-of-tune fraternity house pianos, in movie theater pits, and hanging around the bandstand when visiting orchestras played. It was their fever for jazz which spread like an infection… and it was the seemingly tireless college dancers who made it pay.
“There was a new spirit after the War, and that spirit was jazz…the people throughout the country wanted jazz and liquor,” Carmichael declares in Jazzbanders, an unpublished memoir he wrote in 1932 that evokes the songwriter’s early life in Bloomington and his campus days with differing detail and less nostalgia than his later autobiographies. In Sometimes I Wonder he plays a more poetic witness to the rise of hot-jazz culture among the youth: “In the farmlands among the Indiana-Iowa corn, and from the cow-pasture universities, there sprouted a beardless priesthood of jazz players and jazz composers. Instead of buttermilk and Blackstone, we were nurtured on bathtub gin and rhythm.”
“Bathtub gin” was a key element in Carmichael’s youth culture of the 1920s, both as a matter of consumption and of business. “Times were changing with the rush of a bullet,” he remarks in Sometimes I Wonder, discussing how some of his Bloomington friends quit school to “drive trucks guarded by imported mobsmen armed with Thompson submachine guns… Hijackers stopped cargoes at interurban boulevards even in Indianapolis.” The IDS and Bloomington papers from April and May of 1924 are dotted with state and national stories about bootlegger shootouts, ceremonial temperance-union dumpings of confiscated liquor, and political jockeying over Prohibition.
Bloomington was, in this new Jazz Age of America, metaphorically and literally at the crossroads of the culture. In 1910 the U.S. Census had determined the center of the country’s population to be at the Morton Street Showers Building. Showers was the city’s largest single employer in 1924, with about 1,500 workers; the limestone industry was also booming, employing about 2000 area workers. Another institution was booming as well: the Ku Klux Klan, claiming a membership of nearly 1600 in Monroe County by 1925 (with headquarters just off the courthouse square at 213 N. College), and exerting a strong influence over Indiana state government.
It was a rainy springtime that year, forcing Hoosier farmers to delay planting their corn crops. It was also a turbulent season in Indiana politics; governor Warren McCray was found guilty of mail fraud and sentenced to ten years in prison. Although his conviction was based on some questionable loan practices, its pursuit grew out of McCray’s antagonistic relationship with the Klan. Locally, the city of Bloomington was proceeding with plans to dam Griffy Creek and turn it into a lake to help ease the area’s ongoing water shortages, despite the legal resistance of a primary landowner. The city had also just received several land-parcel gifts for the building of a school in Elm Heights that would eventually become the Harmony School.
Of Bent Eagles And Not-Swans
At the collegiate level, Indiana University was celebrating its centennial with a special pageant—and on and off the campus, a small circle of dreamy goofs and musicians were celebrating everything in their own peculiar way. Hoagy Carmichael was one of the central members of this circle, which called itself the “Bent Eagles,” but its leader was a musically gifted, poetically inclined student named William “Monk” Moenkhaus. His father was a physiology professor at Indiana University; the family’s next-door neighbor, according to the 1930 census, was Alfred Kinsey. (Some of this information has come to light on the website Indiana Musical Family Tree, where there is a subforum devoted to Moenkhaus and other interesting, Hoosier-countercultural figures and themes.) Moenkhaus had spent some of his adolescence as a student in Switzerland during World War I, and Richard Sudhalter writes that
He was apparently exposed to the Dadaist movement then taking shape in Zurich – or at least its intellectual fallout – and brought its principles back with him when he returned to study music in Bloomington… In an intriguing way he was the exact antithesis of Bix: ‘Monk’ the creature of intellect, all left-brain domination, Bix was one of intuition. Moenkhaus learned music, understood theory (he notated several of Hoagy’s first pieces for him); Bix came to it almost entirely by instinct. Together they formed a sort of yin and yang for Hoagy’s awakening consciousness.
Writing under the name “Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus,” the skinny, spectral-looking music student with what Carmichael described as “a weird coyote-howl laugh” built a following through his satirical, nonsense, and neo-dadaist poem contributions to the IU student literary magazine the Vagabond. “The years have pants!” one of his poems began, a refrain that would be adopted by Carmichael in The Stardust Road, which also recounts a summit meeting between Moenkhaus and Bix that ends with the former’s approval and friendship when Beiderbecke, in response to a “test” of surrealist questions, simply utters, “I am not a swan.”
Moenkhaus and the other Bent Eagles often held court and observed their strange, Dada-like rituals on Indiana Avenue at the Book Nook, “a randy temple smelling of socks, wet slickers, vanilla flavoring, face powder, and unread books,” Carmichael, who served as a sort of unofficial house pianist for the Nook, wrote in Sometimes I Wonder:
Its dim lights, its scarred walls, its marked-up booths, unsteady tables, made history. It was for us King Arthur’s Round Table, a wailing wall, a fortune telling tent… new tunes were heard and praised or thumbed down, lengthy discussions on sex, drama, sport, money, and motor cars were started and never quite finished. The first steps of the toddle, the shimmy, and the strut were taken and fitted to the new rhythms. Dates were made and mad hopes born.
The Wolverines Arrive In Bloomington
Klansmen, Dadaists, bootleggers, political scandal, hot jazz, and Midwestern industriousness, all set in and around a pastoral southern-Indiana campus haven of youth: such was the world that Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines entered when they played their first gig in Bloomington, for the Booster Club Hop at the Men’s Gymnasium (part of what is now the HPER building on the IU campus) on Friday, April 25 at 8 p.m., an event that the Indiana Daily Student touted with some excitement, reporting that more than 200 tickets had already been sold. There was a buzz building around the Wolverines similar to what you see today for hip, up-and-coming underground bands that are new and still too cool for the mainstream. That same day the IDS announced the opening of a barber shop for women on Kirkwood with the headline, “An Indication That the ‘Bob’ Is Here to Stay.” Cecil B. DeMille’s Triumph was showing at the Indiana Theater (today the Buskirk-Chumley). Reverend Basil Doyle of New York City was delivering a series of lectures at St. Charles Church on 421 E. 3rd St, the latest proclaiming, according to the Bloomington Daily Telephone, that “Birth Control Is Against the Law of God.” On Saturday night the Wolverines played the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at 1026 E. 3rd St., and Bix Beiderbecke’s whirlwind season in Bloomington was underway.
Another event of note occurred right around the time of the Wolverines’ first appearance in the city. On Tuesday, April 29, an ad appeared in the IDS: “LOST: C.G. Conn si(l)ver plated baritone black case at some campus building some time during the last two weeks. Reward for return to H.B. Wells, Sigma Nu House.” The ad ran for two more days, but the lost saxophone was never found. Fifty-five years later IU chancellor Herman B Wells, class of ’24 and university band member, wrote that “the loss ended my active musical career.”
Wells’ memoir Being Lucky offers several memories of the IU campus, a growing place in the early 1920s. Enrollment had been climbing since the end of the World War in 1918; by the time Beiderbecke and the Wolverines arrived, there were nearly 1900 men and more than 1300 women studying at the university. Nearly a third were in the Greek system. Wells recalls his immediate love for the wooded areas and paths of what’s now called the “Old Crescent” or “Old Campus,” as well as the “wonderfully stimulating, exciting spirit (that) pervaded the campus during the 1920s.” He partook in some of the same culture as Carmichael—the late-night “bore-ass” sessions of talk and music, the bootleg-liquor runs to Jasper and “a homebrew speakeasy cabin on the banks of the White River beyond Bedford.” Though Wells notes that IU lacked the “expensive decadence of the Ivy League,” he writes that “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise served to picture much the same world as ours and was avidly read even by students largely unread.” IU retained some less-than-1920s-modern airs, however; president William Lowe Bryan still arrived at his office each day by horse and buggy and left the horse tied up outside Maxwell Hall.
“Like A Mallet Hits A Chime”
The Wolverines actually quartered in Indianapolis throughout much of the spring, living in apartments around Pennsylvania Street just north of downtown. During the weekends they stayed over at fraternity houses, sometimes lingering into the weekdays. A comparison of their Bloomington itinerary doesn’t always square with Carmichael’s remembrances; he has them playing their first Bloomington show at his own Kappa Sig house, while the records that exist indicate they didn’t perform for a Kappa Sig dance until their second Saturday in the city. Throughout that spring Carmichael found attending the Wolverines’ gigs difficult, as he was often working a date himself on the nights that Beiderbecke’s group played. On one of those first Saturday afternoons, however, the Wolverines set up at Hoagy’s frat to rehearse, and he finally got a chance to hear Beiderbecke—the newly-advanced Beiderbecke of 1924—play.
Carmichael would recount this scene time and again for the rest of his life. As the Wolverines started to warm up, “Every nerve in my body began to tingle,” he writes in Jazzbanders:
My hands shook… Then I saw Bix get out his cornet and Jimmy told him to take the break in the middle of the chorus… Bix played just four notes that wound up the afternoon party. The notes were beautiful, and perfectly timed. The notes weren’t blown—they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime, and his tone had a richness that can only come from the heart. I rose violently from the piano bench and fell, exhausted, onto a davenport. He had completely ruined me… I’ve heard Wagner’s music and all the rest, but those four notes that Bix played meant more to me than everything else in the books. When Bix opened up his soul to me that day, I learned and experienced one of life’s innermost secrets to happiness—pleasure that it had taken a whole lifetime of living and conduct to achieve.
“Something that he heard in either Bix’s tone or the way he put phrases together affected him very deeply,” Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter said in a 2002 interview. “Deeply enough so that when he started to try his own hand at writing music—also the suggestion of Beiderbecke—it was inevitable that his whole approach to phrase-building, to composition, would be based on what he’d heard coming out of Bix’s horn.”
“Bix lit the fuse that shot Dad out of the musical cannon,” says Carmichael’s son Hoagy Bix, whose middle name provides further evidence of the trumpeter’s influence. “ It was Bix that really turned Dad’s head and locked it in that direction. He told Dad, ‘Look, you wanna be a lawyer, kid, that’s up to you, but there’s some stuff on the ends of your fingers…you got it!’ And you know, if Mickey Mantle tells you to put your spikes on, that you can be a great hitter… you put your spikes on.”
The “kid” was actually three years older than Beiderbecke, but his path remained uncertain in 1924. He was, as Sudhalter described him, “a musical Big Man On Campus,” playing at least 40 gigs in the 1923-24 school year and meriting frequent mention in the Indiana Daily Student. He was a member of two prized campus social societies. Yet his family’s finances remained precarious, endangering his and his sister Georgia’s enrollment status, and his pursuit of a law education was half-hearted at best. He was already 24 years old, and despite his popularity at IU, perhaps in danger of becoming “the eternal college student,” as he later mused in Sometimes I Wonder, giving us a vision of Carmichael as the original slacker.
“Dad was, without a doubt, being prodded heavily by his mother to be a lawyer,” says Hoagy Bix. Lida Carmichael—described by Hoagy in Jazzbanders as “this little 80 pounds of wire and sweetness”–“wanted some income in the family—somebody, finally, to make a little money. Certainly her husband wasn’t very good at it.”
Carmichael would eventually earn his law degree, but his love of music would win the battle for his heart and bring him riches that would have been inconceivable to the young man who walked the streets of 1924 Bloomington. Driven by memories of his family’s hardship, the well-off songwriter would always put a high value on being financially comfortable; but it’s clear from his memoirs that he cherished the spiritual wealth of his early musical experiences in Bloomington, chief among them the spring with Beiderbecke. Recalling one of the Wolverines’ first weekends in Bloomington, he writes in Jazzbanders about a “midnight serenade,” a ritual in which musicians were driven on a truck past the sororities and fraternities around Third Street:
By 1 o’clock, everybody was at the Book Nook to start the serenade. It was drizzling rain, but the truck was at the curb. The piano and the Wolverines were placed aboard the truck, and every music-bug in school piled on it as the noisy contraption and a string of honking automobiles paraded to sorority alley… Bix’s cornet playing was heavenly; he had never played in the open air at night, and the thrill it gave him was interpreted into the most uncanny phrases of beautiful notes. The music sounded best about a hundred feet away.
Hoagy, doing a dance on the lawn of the Pi Beta Phi sorority house on Third Street, spots a friend doing the same who tells him he heard Beiderbecke’s cornet all the way from Vinegar Hill, and that he started running towards the source of the sound, realizing that “this was the music I’d been waiting to hear, all my life… I rode along on his notes in a perilous trip to Paradise—to have let me down on a single note would have wrecked my journey and my life. He didn’t fail me.”
Years later Carmichael would revisit this scene in The Stardust Road, describing “an orchestra huddled in the back of a two-ton truck. Light cut dimly across a weird assortment of enchanted listeners as a cornet carved passages of heat and beauty in the night.” It’s a dream-like image, the young Bix Beiderbecke standing on the back of a truck moving along Third Street as he plays in the late-evening rain; of such stuff are jazz gods made, and in 1924 one walked among us for just a few weeks. In his wake another one was born.
The Wolverines returned to Bloomington the following weekend and played on Friday, May 2 for the Sphinx Club dance at the Sigma Chi house, located then, as now, at the corner of 7th and Indiana. Carmichael, a member of the Sphinx Club, managed to take the night off from his band to attend and wrote in Jazzbanders, “The dance was the crowning affair of the season. It was more than that; it was such a riot that the organization barely escaped with its charter. .. We were accused even of setting fire to the Delta Upsilon house, which burned to the ground shortly after the dance…JAZZ had reared its ugly head.”
The next night the Wolverines played for Hoagy’s Kappa Sigma fraternity. According to the IDS the dance was to be held at the Trophy Room in the Men’s Gymnasium, but Hoagy’s memoirs locate it at the Kappa Sig house itself on 714 E. Third Street (the house, long gone, sat roughly between where the current ATO and Acacia houses are today). It’s possible that the Wolverines performed at both venues on different nights, or that they had a jam session at the Kappa Sig house later that evening. Wherever the location, in Jazzbanders Carmichael describes his frat
in an uproar…Who wouldn’t have had a swell time with a band like that playing low and dirty! Vic Moore (the Wolverine’s drummer) was doing a voodoo dance in his chair, and he damn near bit his tongue off when he slipped in an important cymbal beat… Until then, my boys and I had just listened in amazement, our faces frozen into a mask of agony because the music made us hurt inside. But Vic’s cymbal lick and the break that Bix followed it up with relieved the tension and let us explode that awful pain inside. The dancers exploded too. Wad Allen yelled, ‘Hell on the Mayflower!’ The band got hotter than ever… Bix’s chorus was usually the superb wind-up before the band would ease down soft and low and play a chorus in rhythmic phrases, accenting the upbeat. Then a beautiful blast from Bix’s horn at the break in the chorus was the signal for the final dash while everybody went nuts.
The Jazz Age in Bloomington in 1924, courtesy of Beiderbecke and company.
“Some Terrible Longing”
“Take a drink of whisky that tastes like kerosene in your mouth and a blowtorch going down,” Carmichael wrote years later in The Stardust Road, recalling the hungover mornings, philosophical afternoons, and exhilarating evenings that he spent in Beiderbecke’s company that spring. Both The Stardust Road and Sometimes I Wonder include a long account of Hoagy and Bix together at Hoagy’s Kappa Sig house, lying on the floor and listening repeatedly to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, drinking bootleg liquor and joking, taking in the splendor of the music, until there’s a pause and Beiderbecke says:
“Whyn’t you write music, Hoagy?”
It was something Carmichael had already begun to contemplate; Jazzbanders includes an account of him in the Book Nook spontaneously composing, at the behest of Moenkhaus and other Nook regulars, “a most terrifying dirge which I called ‘The Death of a Hog’; it was full of blues in the lower register of the keyboard. We chanted it mournfully and ended with a discordant scream at the top of our voices.” (This from a man who’d spent three miserable weeks at one point working in an Indianapolis slaughterhouse.) The unpublished memoir and other sources also allude to Carmichael’s having toyed with composition before Beiderbeck’s query, but to be prompted by an artist whom he idolized must surely have moved Carmichael’s aspirations towards solidity. There was a mood, too, the kind of mood Carmichael says “comes only a few times in a lifetime,” and one that would forever inform his music:
We lay there and listened. The music filled us with some terrible longing. Something, coupled with liquor, that was wonderfully moving; but it made us very close and it made us lonely too.
Then the inevitable stagger into next-day consciousness, waking up in the Kappa Sig house with The Firebird and white-mule liquor still reverberating in his head, and looking over to the bed beside him to see Beiderbecke,
a pale blond galoot needing a shave, sleeping in his tattered underwear with his funny little mouth open, smelling like a distillery, his crumpled clothes piled on the dirty rug, the hole showing in the sole of his right shoe… We went chugging down Indiana Avenue, our minds personally unoccupied, aware we were alive, surveying casually the small-town Sunday morning. People coming from church, smugly pious in their righteousness, dressed in their best, at peace with a world Bix and I never knew. Happy contented people.
As for Hoagy and Bix, they were on their way to meet William Moenkhaus and his friends at the Book Nook—the place where Hoagy had already begun to write music one day on the battered piano, a piece with “a verse that was screwy and different, while the chorus was actually a thirty-two measure blues.” It was about to be immortalized by his companion.
Birth Of A Songwriter
The Wolverines’ recording session at Gennett Records on Tuesday, May 6, 1924, another cool and rainy day in a rainy springtime, is a small signal moment in the history of jazz and American popular song. Just three months earlier they’d made their first records at the Richmond, Indiana label that had begun as an offshoot of the Starr Piano Factory, and which had already hosted visits from Jelly Roll Morton and a young Louis Armstrong. Gennett, which also recorded everything from so-called “hillbilly” music to novelty records and Ku Klux Klan propaganda hymns, would eventually be dubbed “the Cradle of Recorded Jazz,” and Beiderbecke’s handful of dates for the label between 1924 and 1925 would contribute to that legacy.
That Tuesday the Wolverines recorded two compositions that they had learned only recently. One, a jaunty tune called “Copenhagen,” had bowled them over when they heard its composer Charlie Davis and his orchestra play it in Indianapolis. With Davis’ permission the Wolverines waxed “Copenhagen” for Gennett, and it became a jazz standard. The other freshly-minted composition came from the mind and fingertips of Hoagy Carmichael—the piece with the “screwy and different verse” that he’d played for the Wolverines just several days before, while they rehearsed on a Saturday afternoon at his frat house . The Wolverines dug it, though they didn’t care for Hoagy’s “Freewheeling” title. When they laid it down at Gennett that Tuesday, they called it “Riverboat Shuffle,” and there began what would soon be a widespread activity: recording a Hoagy Carmichael tune.
After they returned to Bloomington, Wolverine saxophonist George Johnson woke up Carmichael and played him the record. “I listened patiently and quietly,” Carmichael writes in Jazzbanders. “I wasn’t thrilled—I was pleased, that was all—so much so that it made me sort of sad. I felt like crying over my little brain-child as a proud parent might cry at Thelma’s graduation exercises… And that, boys and girls, is how to break into the songwriting business.”
Beiderbecke would revisit Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” on record three years later, in a performance so epic that it was included in the box-set that accompanied the release of documentary film-maker Ken Burns’ 19-hour history of jazz. Less significantly, Carmichael and his friend Wad Allen, performing as “the Judge” and “the Professor,” would do one of the tunes the Wolverines recorded that day two weeks later for a weekly IU student body gathering. “’Oh, Baby’ and ‘Somebody Stole My Gal’ tripped from the tinkling keys of the piano agitated by the ‘judge,’” the IDS reported, “blared blatantly from the instruments of Archie Warner’s aggregation, and echoed through the hall in the voices of the audience.”
“Did You Have A Good Time?”
On Saturday, May 10, a cool and rain-threatening day, Beiderbecke and the Wolverines gave a noontime performance at Ed Williams’ newly-relocated music and jewelry store on the east side of the courthouse square at 114 N. Walnut, where one could buy phonograph players and recent records such as Al Jolson’s “California, Here I Come.” (Though they long ago stopped selling musical items, the Williams Jewelry Store is still there today, on the northern side of the alley that also borders Caveat Emptor Books.) Williams took out ads in the Indiana Daily Student and the Bloomington Daily Telephone to promote the event, promising “A RARE TREAT SATURDAY… Wolverine Orchestra of Nine Musicians—Will Play Their Own Selections—As Played to Make Their Fox-Trot Records—Records Are—Fidgety Feet, Jazz Me Blues—Come and Hear Them All—And Other Record Numbers…” The Wolverines were normally a seven-piece ensemble, and Beiderbecke biographer Philip R. Evans speculated that one of the additional musicians was most likely Hoagy, playing his Bix-inspired, newly-favored instrument of choice: the cornet. The courthouse square was a popular point of destination on Saturdays (according to the Bloomington Evening World, an April Saturday survey had counted more than 1100 cars and 200 horse-drawn buggies parked in the immediate downtown area between 3 and 4 p.m.), so it’s also possible that the performance drew some town residents as well as the Wolverines’ student fan base, curious to hear the whirr and joy of hot jazz (perhaps just a bit weary with hangover) pouring out of the long, narrow street-level store on an overcast afternoon.
That evening Beiderbecke’s band played a dance at the Student Building for the Women’s Self Government Association that required the musicians to wear tuxedos. Years later Eddie Condon would recall how Beiderbecke had asked him if he could borrow a tux; Condon managed to assemble one for him out of several disparate pieces. When Beiderbecke eventually returned the outfit to Condon, all of the original mismatched pieces had been replaced by different and even odder-looking pieces. “Did you have a good time?” Condon asked. Bix’s reply: “I don’t know.”
It would not be surprising if Beiderbecke and some of the other Wolverines had stayed over in Bloomington after that weekend; band favorite the Charlie Davis Orchestra was opening at the Harris-Grand at 7th and Walnut, accompanying singer and Bloomington hometown hero Ed East. The beginning of the next weekend, Friday, May 16 saw the fifth annual observance of “Tacky Day” on the IU campus—a day on which the Boosters Club decreed that male students had to wear second-hand clothes. Those sporting neckties would have them forcibly removed, according to the IDS. The tradition had actually grown out of the spike in clothing prices that followed the end of the First World War, forcing students for awhile to dress much more casually than was the norm; Beiderbecke and his ragtag tux might have been right at home. If anybody needed straw hats for non-Tacky Day wear, Kahn’s on the south side of the square and the nearby Eagle Clothing Co. were offering them in all of their fashionable varieties—“Panamas, Bankocs, Sennits”—at prices ranging from $1.50 to six dollars.
That night the Wolverines played a dance for the Delta Upsilons—they of the recently fire-ravaged house—at Phi Gamma on 631 E. 3rd St. The next night they were back at Sigma Chi. If they stuck around past the weekend, they could have taken in some cinematic sensationalism: “COME ON TO THE PARTY! The Jazz Band’s Playing and Wild Youth Is Having Its Fling!” blared an IDS ad for “Daughters of Today” in advance of its three-day run at the Indiana Theater. “A Story of Youth and its new freedom, of boys and girls who sometimes mistake license for liberty. A story that is being enacted in every city and town today… What is your daughter doing? Does she know more about Gin than Geography? Does she know more about Lovers than Love? Does she know more about Men than Mother?” It’s amusing to contemplate what the Wolverines might have thought of this ad and movie, given that they were providing the soundtrack for the real-life version.
On Friday, May 23, a cool and rainy evening in Bloomington, the Wolverines began their last weekend in town by playing another dance for the W.S.G.A. in the auditorium of the Student Building. That same day the murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago was reported in the IDS and the Bloomington Daily Telephone; his killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, were not yet known or apprehended. Indiana author Gene Stratton-Porter’s film adaptation of her novel A Girl of the Limberlost was showing at the Princess Theater; the Reginald Denny vehicle Sporting Youth was set to open on Monday. Construction was about to begin for the Masonic Temple at the corner of 7th and College. The Wolverines wrapped up their Bloomington stay with a performance at the Delta Gamma sorority house Saturday evening at 814 E. 3rd St., in what is now the IU Military Sciences and ROTC building, just a block away from Carmichael’s Kappa Sig digs.
With the school year nearly over, the Wolverines moved on from Bloomington to open at Indianapolis’ prestigious Casino Gardens on the banks of the White River, and initially they were a hit—helped in large part by the many newly-converted fans from IU who came up to see them play. But business trailed off and they had to move on. By the end of the year Beiderbecke had left the band, replaced by Jimmy McPartland, who would accompany the Wolverines on their next trip to Bloomington. Beiderbecke himself returned to Bloomington at least twice, playing the 1925 IU Prom with Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, and the 1926 Junior Prom with Frankie Trumbauer’s group. The IDS, which touted his 1926 appearance in advance by invoking the Wolverines, reported the day after the show that “Bix Beiderbecke… did not disappoint a single person who listened to his ‘dirty’ cornet playing, in its original form.” The campus reputation he had established in the spring of 1924 had clearly lingered and grown.
In 1927 Beiderbecke and Trumbauer joined one of the most popular ensembles in the country—the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Hoagy’s friendship with the two bore fruit in the form of “Washboard Blues,” a tune he’d written two years before, already recorded by the Indiana band Hitch’s Happy Harmonists. That November Carmichael got the chance to rerecord it with Whiteman, playing piano and singing (Whiteman vocalist Bing Crosby was supposedly kept on tap as a backup in case Hoagy came down with a case of the flubs), while Beiderbecke provided flourish with a dramatic cornet lead in the song’s uptempo passage. It was Carmichael’s first moment on the national stage, and another sign that the career path of law was over.
“A Pretty Good Tune”
Just three weeks earlier, on October 31, another event had taken place at the Gennett studio in Richmond, the significance of which would only slowly become apparent; Hoagy Carmichael had recorded his tune “Stardust.” More than a year in the making (Richard Sudhalter’s biography details the evolution of its composition), “Stardust” would eventually become one of the most recorded songs of all time—and it bore the imprint of its composer’s friend Bix Beiderbecke.
“If you listen to ‘Stardust,’” Richard Sudhalter said in a 2002 interview, speaking of Carmichael’s 1927 Gennett recording, “both in Carmichael’s melody and also in his piano solo, he was listening very strongly to Beiderbecke’s way of putting phrases together… You hear it in ‘Skylark’ as well. You have a little two-bar phrase, another little two-bar phrase, and then a little longer phrase to sum it up. It’s a wonderful way of composing.” In his Hoagy biography Sudhalter also cites the Bixian classical-inspired harmonic devices that Carmichael uses in his piano solo, and popular song-critic Will Friedwald observes in his book Stardust Melodies that “the melody has the feel of a jazz improvisation, particularly one by Hoagy’s hero Bix Beiderbecke.”
By Sudhalter’s account, Carmichael may have originally picked the Halloween recording date for “Stardust” with Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer in mind, as they had just arrived in Indianapolis the week before to join the Whiteman orchestra. Whiteman’s band left town on the 29th, however, and “the birth of ‘Stardust’ went on as scheduled, but unattended by its spiritual godfather,” Sudhalter writes in Lost Chords. But what did Beiderbecke himself think of it?
“It had become a hit,” Carmichael told an interviewer in 1969. “I’d never heard a word from Bix about the song, till finally, one day, very politely, he said, ‘Hoagy, that tune of yours—‘Stardust’—that’s a pretty good tune.’ Well, I felt so great! That Bix would even tell me that my tune was a good tune, you know.”
A Lost Brother
By 1929, though, the “spiritual godfather of ‘Stardust’” had gone into a state of accelerating decline, spurred primarily by his struggles with alcoholism. He left the Whiteman orchestra, tried some spells of rest at his family home in Davenport, and eventually returned to New York City, where he made his last recording date in 1930 with Carmichael. Concerned, Carmichael continued to visit Bix as his health worsened, but on August 6, 1931, gripped by pneumonia, hallucinations, and alcoholic exhaustion, Beiderbecke died. He was 28 years old. Earlier that year William Moenkhaus had also died, not long after joining the faculty of the Detroit Conservatory; he, too, was only 28. Two of the centrifugal forces that had helped fire the first flights of Hoagy Carmichael’s imagination were already gone.
The Jazz Age was over—in more ways than one, in Carmichael’s opinion. “With the passing of Bix, my interest in music dropped about fifty percent,” he wrote in Jazzbanders, only a year after Beiderbecke’s death. “He felt that the jazz he knew had, to some extent, died with Bix,” says his son Hoagy Bix. “And Dad turned his musical thoughts to songs more like ‘Nearness of You’ than to ‘Boneyard Shuffle.’ He became more commercial. “ Asked if he thinks Carmichael would have written “Stardust” without spending so much time in Beiderbecke’s company that spring of 1924, he pauses and says, “Maybe not. Maybe not.”
Bix Beiderbecke remained central to the heart and soul of Hoagy Carmichael for the rest of his life. Shortly after Beiderbecke’s death, his girlfriend Alice Weiss gave Carmichael several
of his belongings, including his Holton cornet mouthpiece, which Carmichael kept as his mantle centerpiece for many years, right next to a statuette of William Moenkhaus. His 1946 memoir The Stardust Road laid the foundation for much of the enduring Carmichael legend and contributed to the Beiderbecke one as well, with the spring of 1924 playing a key role.
Carmichael would revisit his friendship with Beiderbecke again just three years later when Dorothy Baker’s Bix-based 1938 novel Young Man With a Horn was made into a movie, starring Kirk Douglas as a brilliant but troubled trumpeter, with Hoagy cast as his piano-playing, Hoagy-like friend. (“Dad didn’t like the choice of Douglas for that role,” Hoagy Bix says. “Bix Beiderbecke with his shirt off?”) He continued to talk about Beiderbecke and his days in Bloomington to friends, fans, family, and researchers, speaking of him with reverence, humor, and melancholy, as if he were a lost brother.
Strangely enough, no pictures of Bix and Hoagy together have ever surfaced. “They were probably too drunk to stand up for a photograph,” Hoagy Bix jokes. The images we have come almost entirely from a handful of individual photos and scenes from Carmichael’s published and unpublished memoirs. “The spring of ’24. Seems like the moon was always out that spring,” he wrote in The Stardust Road. “Seems like the air of those nights was doubly laden with sweet smells. The air was thick and soft and pale purple. Grass was greener… moon was yellower. Of course it helps to be young, and I was young.” As was his friend and inspiration, “He of the funny little mouth, the sad eyes that popped a little as if in surprise when those notes showered from his horn.”
Walk, bike, or drive around Bloomington on some springtime eve, under the deep electric-blue skies that come just after sunset. Daffodils, crocuses, and lilies of the valley have all been blooming, and there seems to be a magical mist of green garlanding the trees; the world’s about to give way to summer. Nearly 90 years ago other people were out on these same streets at the same time of year, reveling and worrying, celebrating their youth even as it edged towards inevitable disappearance. Among them were two young artists, crossing paths in the heart of the heartland, high on life, liquor and music. A few years later one would be dead; the other would live, and write, and sing, and remember. Together, they carried the spirit of Bloomington into the annals of jazz history.
Further Hoagy and Bix
- Hoagy Carmichael, The Stardust Road and Sometimes I Wonder. Hoagy’s 1946 and 1965 memoirs, sadly out of print at the moment, but available used online.
- Hoagy Carmichael, Jazzbanders. Carmichael’s unpublished 1932 memoir, which gives a more detailed, closer-to-the-events account of his early years in Bloomington and his campus musical career. A copy is available for in-room reading at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music.
- Duncan Schiedt, The Jazz State of Indiana. The best-standing history of early jazz in Indiana.
- Richard Sudhalter, Stardust Melody: the Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael. As close to a definitive biography of Hoagy Carmichael as we’re ever likely to get. See also the chapter “Bix Beiderbecke and Some of His Friends” in Sudhalter’s book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945.
- Bix Beiderbecke, The Complete Wolverines: 1924-1928. All of the recordings that Beiderbecke made with the Wolverines, including the May 6, 1924 session featuring “Copenhagen” and the first-ever studio waxing of a Hoagy tune, “Riverboat Shuffle.”
- Hoagy Carmichael, First of the Singer-Songwriters: the Key Cuts. A budget-priced 4-CD overview of Carmichael’s early years, with a generous sampling of his 1920s “hot jazz” music.
(A different version of this article appeared in Bloom Magazine.)