March 10th marks the one hundred eleventh anniversary of the birth of the short-lived Bix Beiderbecke. Bix’s story is a most remarkable one, so good in fact, that if he hadn’t existed, I would wish to write such as a story. His genius is undeniable!
Bix, working hand and glove with Frank Trumbauer, pioneered the Jazz ballad. Beiderbecke was a brilliant improviser. His performances with the top ensembles of the day were widely admired and Bix’s licks and concept were widely emulated. Those circumstances – playing in the leading “pop/Jazz” groups illuminate the power of Jazz as it was woven into a more generic American sound and system.
Jazz, initially only known in New Orleans became both could appreciated, and played by non-Crescent City natives, and with such undeniably unique style and conviction. In the brief time Bix flourished, he appeared on such seminal recordings as “Singin’ The Blues,” “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” and (his own) “In A Mist,” but these only scratch the surface, and his short yet remarkable existence, tells a most fascinating story.
Born in Davenport, Iowa in 1903, Bix came from a rather well to do family. He was drawn to music as a youngster, first taking up the piano. After his older brother returned from WW1 with some records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, including “Tiger Rag,” he became hooked on the music, and taught himself the trumpet-like cornet and the ODJB’s cornetist’s, Nick LaRocca, lines. Bix was self-taught, accounting for his somewhat unorthodox style of fingering and overall approach, and pursued music, playing with various locals bands, before being sent away to Lake Forest Academy in 1921, following an unfortunate incident that, all but undoubtedly, did not involve Bix. Still his parents hoped a new school environment away from town would be beneficial. But it only served to further deepen his interest in Jazz, as Lake Forest is just a short ride north of Chicago, The hotbed of Jazz activity at the time. Bix frequently ventured out to hear King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, at the Lincoln Gardens, and The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, at the Friars Inn.
Such outings led to Bix being expelled from Lake Forest in the 1922. He joined the Wolverine Orchestra in 1923, making his first recordings with them on February 18, 1924. Recorded for Gennett Records, the date was comprised of four titles that were all associated with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band including the issued “Fidgety Feet” and “Jazz Me Blues” on which Beiderbecke solos.
Hearing Bix for the first time is a revelation, his style is entirely original; highly melodic, bluesy, swinging, playing unusual notes and intervals, and sticking mainly to the mid-register. He is already a wonderful improviser and there were very few at this early period in the music. Bix stayed with Wolverine Orchestra into Fall 1924, spreading hot Jazz, and recording four more sessions for Gennett. One only need listen to Bix’s solo on their June 20th recording of “Tiger Rag,” to hear just how far the music had come in just seven years!
In the Fall of ’24 Bix left the Wolverines to Join the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Goldkette appreciated hot Jazz and the importance of a good “get-off” man (soloist), but could not deal with Bix’s absence of formal training. Bix was with the band for only a very brief time.
Throughout 1925 and into 1926 Bix jobbed around, improving his musical abilities, and developed his life-long friendship and musical partnership with C melody saxophonist specialist Frank Trumbauer.
In the summer of 1926 Trumbauer, Bix, and several other of their musical cohorts re-joined the Goldkette Orchestra, this time for a longer, and very influential stay. With Bix, Tram (as Trumbauer was known), Steve Brown on bass, among others, it was a top-notch ensemble and a hot Jazz unit. They went on tour determined to become the best and most famous music group in the USA. They just about achieved it.
One of the places they went, happened to be New York’s Roseland ballroom, where in October ’26, they bested none other than Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, in two long famous Big Band battles. The Jean Goldkette Orchestra also recorded frequently for Victor. Although many of the titles are fairly straightforward dance-band style arrangements (foisted upon them by the Victor executives), they did the best they could with them, with much of the credit going to ace arrange Bill Challis. Standouts include “Sunday” (1926), “Proud of a Baby Like You” (1927), “My Pretty Girl” (’27), “Slow River” (’27),” and “Clementine” (’27). Of the aforementioned, “My Pretty Girl” and “Clementine” (ending pronounced “teen”, and “tine” as in twine) comes closest to capturing the true sound of one of the finest ensembles of the Jazz-Age.
In addition, Trumbauer had a side contract to make recordings under his own name for OKeh Records. This is where he and Bix demonstrated their innovation: a most remarkable concept. They developed a way of phrasing a solo, which wasn’t frenetic, but still had the spark of Jazz, and wasn’t as syrupy as a typical dance band tune. It was still Jazz even when played at the slower tempos. Bix and Tram had devised a way to play sweet AND hot at the same time, thus inventing the Jazz ballad! On “Singin’ The Blues,” (February 4, 1927), and “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” (May 13, 1927), they pioneered the concept, producing some of the most important and striking Jazz every recorded.
In the fall of 1927, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra had broken up, and Bix, Tram, and most of the other members of the band were quickly hired by Paul Whiteman. During the 1920s Whiteman was the best-known and most influential bandleader in the world, and while never a strict Jazz band per-se, knew the value and importance of it, particularly hot Jazz. He recruited Beiderbecke for his Orchestra, realizing that what Bix, and his like-mined brethren possessed, was an uncompromising ability to improvise, and that Jazz as they presented it, was an important part of the music making of the day. With Pops (as Whiteman was called by band members), Bix was frequently featured on the hot arrangements, with standouts including “Changes,” (1927), “From Monday On,” (1928), “You Took Advantage of Me,” with a particularly fetching chorus of Bix and Tram trading twos (!) (1928), and “China Boy” (1929).
By early 1929 Bix’s chronic drinking had begun to take a toll on him. He left the Whiteman Orchestra, returning to Davenport to recuperate. He rejoined the Whiteman band in April, but Bix didn’t last long and was sent back home in September.
Bix never rejoined Paul Whiteman but came to New York City as a freelancers Spring 1930. Bix recorded twice that spring – with his buddy Hoagy Carmichael on May 21st and for entrepreneur Irving Mills on June 6th. Bix Beiderbecke final two recording sessions in September 1930 include one under his own leadership. It produced three titles, “Deep Down South,” “I Don’t Mind Walking In The Rain,” and “I’ll Be A Friend With Pleasure.” The second, under Hoagy Carmichael’s leadership, with a further three, “Georgia,” “One Night In Havana,” and “Bessie Couldn’t Help It.”
Bix died less than a year after the recordings were made, on August 6, 1931.
Beiderbecke’s contributions are multifold: an exceptional indicator of the power and draw of the music outside New Orleans, consummate improviser, pioneer of the Jazz-ballad – Bix was highly admired and influential. Though he was only active in the music for about a decade, and recorded for less than seven years, his mark is indelible, and his story continues to enthrall enthusiasts and musicians to this day. Bix Lives!
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]