The Jazz Groove — Bix Beiderbecke

Not all of the early jazz musicians were born in New Orleans, with one in particular born a bit further up river.

Bix. Image: Wall Street Journal

Richard M. Sudhalter was a fine trumpet player and excellent writer, whose contribution to jazz literature is relatively restricted in subject but massive in literary quality, detail and page count, with his Bix: Man & Legend — The Life of Bix Beiderbecke (co-written with Philip R. Evans) coming in at over five hundred pages, which, for the life of a young jazz cornet player is quite exceptional, yet necessary for the times in which Bix Beiderbecke lived and worked, and his huge talent which is the musical equivalent of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the so called Jazz Age they left behind them.

Image: Steve Newman

Bix: Man & Legend — The Life of Bix Beiderbecke, was first published in the UK by Quartet Books in 1974, and is an almost day by day account of the life of Leon Bismark ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke, with Sudhalter’s and Evan’s laid back prose a perfect literary channel for the laid back playing of Bix, who inspired both Louis Armstrong (Louis and Bix met on the riverboats) and Miles Davis.

Richard Sudhalter on Cornet. Image: The Telegraph

Sudhalter’s Introduction to the book is a splendid essay in portraying the essence of a young man born (1903) at a time when the world, and especially the US, was breaking open socially and artistically:

“ Leon Bix Beiderbecke played jazz on the Bb cornet and a variety of music, some of it defying categorization, on the piano. He came from Davenport, Iowa, and died at twenty-eight in New York of a combination of pneumonia and the effects of alcoholism. He flared briefly and brightly in the popular music world of the 1920s, and departed before he was able to explore any more than a fraction of his native talent. He was only on wide public view for about three years, yet his memory and influence among musicians still survive.

“ The springtime years of jazz produced many outstanding players, some of them colorful personages in their own right. Why, of all of them, did the passing of this quiet, deferential young man provoke so widespread a feeling of almost apocalyptic bereavement among those who knew him or even merely admired him from afar? And by what process did the succeeding years turn him into what the British critic Benny Green has aptly termed ‘Jazz’s number one saint?’

“ Part of it, of course, rests with his music. Phonograph records, relatively few of them, have left some indication for later generations; yet even they, according to the now grey and wistful emeritus flaming youth who heard him in the flesh, are but [a] pale echo of the real thing.”

Those youths are now long gone too, which, apart from their written accounts (including Bing Crosby’s), just leaves the recordings which, as Sudhalter says, display a “ …blindingly silvery tone, tempered by melancholy, even in moments of joyous abandon. There is ample evidence of a faultless ear and a contemplative, sophisticated musical intelligence. Perhaps most significant, they suggest the capacity to reach a listener and move him emotionally, even at first contact.”

And that is what I found when I first heard Bix: a sound I’d never heard before: contemplative, totally modern (as is Fitzgerald)and timeless, and not unlike the poetry of e.e. cummings — which is also timeless — although I didn’t realise that until later. And there was the powerful, yet gentle improvisation, with the odd lick that suggested the young Louis Armstrong; you will also hear the influence of Bix in the early recordings by Louis.

Listen to Bix on ‘Singing The Blues’ to get the essence of the musician.

Bix’s German grandfather, Carl, arrived in Iowa in the mid-1850s, just short of twenty years after Col. George Davenport founded the town overlooking the Mississippi, to which he gave his name.

Young Carl Beiderbecke (the surname means ‘by the brook’) had landed in New Orleans and immediately headed north having heard of Davenport’s expansion. That the town was also attracting German immigrants must also have been an attraction for a young man who spoke little English.

Within days of arriving Carl went into partnership with another German immigrant, Hermann Mueller, creating a wholesale grocery business that became very successful . Carl later sold his share of the business to Mueller before joining the First Chartered Bank of Davenport as a director. He later became the bank’s president.

As can be imagined Carl very quickly became a pillar of Davenport society and soon married the daughter of an established Davenport family.

Louise Piper was four years younger than Carl, a well educated and talented young woman who was an accomplished pianist. Music in the Beiderbecke home was considered indispensable.

Their’s was a happy and prosperous home, and on St. Patrick’s Day 1868 the couple’s third child, Bismark, was born, and as the child, who became Bix’s father, grew the Beiderbecke house was full of the music of Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and no less importantly, that of Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett (the composer of ‘Dixie’), music that Bismark would often play on his zither.

Then along came Agatha Jane Hilton, who was the daughter of Mississippi River Boat Captain, Bleigh Hilton, and Caroline Hill, who had come west in a covered wagon. Her marriage to Captain Hilton was frowned up by her family who effectively disowned her. With Caroline’s early death, Captain Hilton left his young daughter Agatha in the care of Caroline’s unmarried elder sister Mary Ann and her brother John, the owner of of a Davenport livery stable.

Agatha grew up to become a quiet, good looking and talented young woman who played at the Davenport First Presbyterian Church, and as Sudhalter writes:

“ She was a welcome addition to musical evenings at the Beiderbecke home, and come Christmas found herself at the centre of the family’s Weihnachtsfeier [Christmas Party]. With Agatha at the piano…singing carols in German and English.

“ The beauty and poise of Bleigh Hilton’s daughter were far from lost on young Bismark Beiderbecke, and after a courtship as ardent as it was brief he won her hand. They were married in 1894, and moved into a roomy new white frame house at 1934 Grand Avenue, in a peaceful residential neighborhood.

The Beiderbecke Home. Image: The Quad-City Times

“ It seemed a good, lasting existence, one of hammocks under shady trees and long summer evenings on the veranda, the clip-clop of the family buggy giving slowly away to the cough and the sputter of the gasoline engine. Change, certainly, was in the air; Bix [Bismark] and Aggie were aware of it, accepted its inevitability secure and confident they could watch it come, live with it and adapt to it, all the while able to retain what they found good and warm in the past. What they could never have suspected was that one of their own children would become the embodiment of another sort of change — one so drastic and abrupt as to shatter the very coherence of so well-ordered a universe.”

The Beiderbecke Family. Image: The Beiderbecke Resources

As I said earlier in this piece Bix: Man & Legend goes into an almost daily chronology of Bix’s short life, which there simply isn’t room for here: you must get hold of a copy of book to read such detailed information, not only of Bix Beiderbecke but of his times, and his own upbringing, which were not so much dissimilar to that of Ernest Hemingway for instance, and one that was not, it would seem, unhappy, with Bix growing up surrounded by music in a beautiful, not untypical, house of the period for the family of a wealthy and much respective executive of the East Davenport Lumber & Coal Company, with a wife who was a pillar of the church, society and the ever growing town on the Mississippi.

By the time Bix left Davenport and entered Chicago’s Lake Forest Academy, in 1921, he’d already discovered jazz (and met Louis Armstrong on one of Riverboats, and heard each other play) and soon became a member of a band called the Wolverines, playing at roadhouses and college dancers, and drinking the bad booze of the prohibition period.

But in that period, booze or not, he managed to play with some of finest bands of the day, not least Frankie Trumbauer’s, and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and finally the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Bix(top centre) with the Goldkette band. Image: YouTube

Like Fitzgerald Bix was small and not built for booze, especially bad whiskey and gin.

It’s easy to say that Bix was rebelling against his home life and was looking for adventure.

He certainly found it, but it did for him in the end, although his clear and contemplative cornet shines through to this day.

Bix died in 1931.

Part of Sudhalter and Evans’s book is a massive discography complied by William Dean-Myatt.

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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