The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions, 1924–36
Mosaic, 7 CDs, $112.00
Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Columbia/Legacy, 4 CDs, $54.98
by Frederick Turner
Counterpoint, 390 pp., $25.00
The elusive and altogether brilliant jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was born March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, of a comfortable middle-class German family, and died during an attack of delirium tremens on August 6, 1931, in an airless one-room apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. He made the first of his scant 250 recordings in February of 1924 and the last in September of 1930, ten months before his death. He was admired by, and played with, such other rising white musicians and singers as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Bud Freeman, Hoagy Carmichael, and Joe Venuti, as well as by such black musicians as Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, and Lester Young, the last of whom particularly cherished Bix’s longtime partner, the coolly skilled, non-improvising C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.
Although white and black musicians never performed together in public in the Twenties, they jammed together in after-hours places, as Armstrong and Beiderbecke did in Chicago in 1928, and they occasionally recorded together—secretly, since players were rarely listed on record labels. (Thus the famous slow blues “Knockin’ a Jug,” made in 1929 in New York with three blacks and three whites, among them Armstrong and Jack Teagarden.) Jazz, of course, was still a dance music in the Twenties, and Bix’s fans were often the college kids who filled the dance halls that covered much of the country. Beyond these hordes, who would soon be grown and gone, he was little known, except among jazz musicians who were still little known themselves, and his name appeared in print only two or three times during his lifetime.
But legend likes obscure excellence, and Bix’s legend has grown almost steadily for seventy years. Some of the progenitors: Dorothy Baker’s famous tin-eared 1938 novel, Young Man With a Horn (later a movie with Kirk Douglas and Doris Day, and with Harry James, an anti-Bix, on soundtrack trumpet); countless copycats, the best of them, now gone, being Jimmy McPartland and Bobby Hackett, who, for whatever reasons, always claimed Armstrong as his saint; more movies, one with Jeff Goldblum, one from Italy, and Brigitte Berman’s able 1981 documentary, Bix; biographies, the best Richard Sudhalter and Philip Evans’s almost day-by-day account of 1974, Bix: Man and Legend; patches of autobiography from such as Bing Crosby and Hoagy Carmichael; endless critical commentary, the most resilient by Benny Green, Martin Williams, Richard Hadlock, Otis Ferguson (written not long after Bix’s death), Gunther Schuller, and Sudhalter; poetry such as Dana Gioia’s “Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931)”:
He dreamed he played the notes so slowly that they hovered in the air above the crowd
and shimmered like a neon sign…
and the jammed Bix fest held in Davenport every July.
It’s not likely that anyone who heard Bix in the flesh is still with us: the musicians are gone, as are the recording technicians and the audiences. (I ran into a gent in the late Forties who …