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 had heard Bix live. He said he was far more powerful, far wilder than he sounds on his records, which were, of course, still technically primitive.) But his records are sometimes revealing. Listen, on the Bix section of the recent Mosaic reissues, which were made largely with small groups in 1927 and 1928, to the two famous, serene classics, “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming, Virginia,” both of which made it hip for jazz musicians to play ballads; then to such almost ringing pieces as “Ostrich Walk,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “Jazz Me Blues.” And listen to the miraculous session made on October 25, 1927, and including the shouting “Goose Pimples,” “Cryin’ All Day,” which has a Pee Wee Russell solo that shows he was already on his unique, circumspect way, “Sorry,” and “Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down.”
At roughly the same time, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were making side after side in Chicago (all of them just reissued on Columbia Legacy), and for a few brief months Beiderbecke and Armstrong—the first consummate jazz soloists—were running neck and neck. Armstrong’s solos unwind steadily and are full of fervor and cracked notes, while Beiderbecke, playing impeccably and with great clarity, stands in one place and displaces the air around him. Both groups had weak-sounding rhythm sections, due largely to nervous recording engineers who damped all drummers. (This is puzzling, since the Original Dixieland Jass Band recordings, made in New York ten years earlier, are full of drumming.) But by 1928, Armstrong had turned a corner, and with such records as “West End Blues,” “Basin St. Blues,” and “Tight Like This” was on his way to the magisterial heights he reached in 1932 and 1933.
Bix’s style was three-dimensional. His tone, which has caused countless lyrical flights, has been compared to bells, chimes, and moons, as well as being called silvery, golden, and gleaming. It did ring (although he used very little vibrato) and shine on air, but it also had a grayish-white sound, a Germanic sound that colors his best work. Bix’s solos, rarely a chorus long, seemed pre-set: three notes sounded directly on the beat, stepping stones; a quick ascending four-note run, an easy, flattish three-note passage, with the final note bent; a quick, loud five-note hear-this announcement, and a deft downward swerve that ends with a clear patch of the original melody.
Bix was not an ascending improviser like Armstrong and Roy Eldridge in the Thirties and Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro in the Forties. He was a melodist who rhythmically rearranged whatever tune he was playing—doing it with great spirit and aggression at fast tempos (“Goose Pimples”) and with a slightly mournful and hymnlike seriousness at slow speeds (“Singin’ the Blues”). But whatever his tempo (there were never any of the blinding gallops that became fashionable in the Forties and that finally made jazz undanceable), his sound came first, his beautiful, elegant, unearthly sound.
But what of Beiderbecke’s short, painful life? He was athletic, somewhat smiley, inward-moving, and obsessed by his music, an irresistible condition that moved him further and further from reality. He was a kind of robot whose schooling finally sputtered and went out, who didn’t seem to have much to do with women and sex (he was not gay), who cared little for clothes and cleanliness, who always parted his hair in the middle and wasn’t bothered by his Bing Crosby ears (their ears may have been the unconscious basis of their friendship), who never learned to read music properly and, completely self-taught, used totally unorthodox fingering on his cornet, and who, for no apparent reason except the deadly fashions of Prohibition, began to drink and drink and drink until it was too late.
Perhaps the best way to comprehend Bix is to fictionalize him, and that is what Frederick Turner has done with wit, grace, inspiration, and emotion in his brilliant subsuming novel, 1929. The Wall Street crash reverberates in the background of the book, but the title really marks the end of a wild decade and the year Beiderbecke’s talent and drive began to seriously falter. Turner loosely follows the outlines of Bix’s life, but he encircles it with two mostly invented figures—Herman Weiss, a skilled auto mechanic and driver, and his older sister, Helen, or Hellie, or Lulu. (A real Helen Weiss became Bix’s friend near the end of his life; she even had dinner with Bix at Hoagy Carmichael’s apartment on East Fifty-seventh Street a month before he died. But when Sudhalter and Evans tried to find her for their book, she had vanished.) Turner’s Helen is a pretty, tough blonde who, when Bix meets her, is the property—called Lulu—of Machine Gun Jack McGurn, one of Al Capone’s best boys. The gangsters in Chicago and New York owned most of the nightclubs and casinos and roadhouses where Bix and his musicians played, and Turner makes them into a serio-comic, monosyllabic Italian chorus. Machine Gun Jack and Capone discuss the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago:
[Capone] twists the huge diamond ring on his thickening finger and smiles at Jack. “I like it,” he says at last. “I like it. Who ya gonna use?” “Killer. Killer’d come up from St. Loo,” Jack says, feeling expansive now that he’s put this over with Snorky. “You know nobody’s better on the typewriter than the old Killer.” Capone nods, eyes heavy-lidded with murderous satisfaction. “Anselmi and Scalise, that’s three. Then I got Joe Lolordo from Detroit. That’s four, an that’s all we need: good, tight squad, not too big.” Capone wants to know about the wagon and uniforms, and when Jack tells him everything’s ready to roll, Capone’s face breaks into a big grin, the scars getting deeply involved as it spreads. “This is good,” he says, “gonna work out good.”
Hellie first meets Bix in the summer of 1926 at the Blue Lantern on Hudson Lake, in Indiana, where a small group from Jean Goldkette’s band that includes Bix and Trumbauer and Pee Wee Russell has a long gig. She is puzzled and entranced by Bix’s shyness and unsuccessfully tries to kiss him. McGurn finds out about her flirting and calls Bix “that fairy horn player.” Bix and Hellie run into each other again in Hollywood a year or so later, but it is a dark time. Bix has joined Paul Whiteman’s huge, celebrated orchestra, and they are in town to appear in one of the first sound pictures. No screenplay is satisfactory however, weeks pass, and Bix spends more and more time with his gin in a rented shack in Laurel Canyon. Hellie has fled the monstrous McGurn in Chicago and wants to get into pictures, but McGurn finds her and one of his goons savagely destroys one side of her face. Herman Weiss has become Whiteman’s road manager, and he has little time to keep an eye on Bix, let alone Hellie.
But the Weisses are only part of the marvelous fictional flourishes in the book: Bix’s nighttime hunt in the back country near New Orleans for a legendary trumpeter named Kid Casimir, who is supposed to be even better than Louis Armstrong; a New York evening in which Bix plays for his idol Maurice Ravel (they did, in fact, meet briefly), finds him a gratefully received bottle of real French red wine, and takes him to the Cotton Club in Harlem to hear Duke Ellington; a party at the actor Richard Barthelmess’s mansion in Hollywood at which Hoagy Carmichael, who sneaks in the back door, dances with Vilma Banky and Louise Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin falls in love with Bix’s playing; the ghostly, disturbing meetings Bix has with Enore Skelton, an inmate at the Keeley Institute, a (real) drying-out place in Dwight, Illinois; several funny nights Bix spends with Clara Bow, the “It Girl,” who not only takes the distraught Hellie in but, frantically challenged by Bix’s seeming indifference, finally rapes him.
Turner’s prose never stops to admire itself, but slides along in hitchless sentences that build into easy page-long paragraphs. Here is his description of Bix’s musical collapse:
When Bix had joined the band for the Camel Pleasure Hour [the arranger Bill] Challis had wanted to spot him on Comet as he had of old but learned quickly it was no longer possible: the golden tone was gone, coarsened to bronze or even copper and often just as dull, the execution stiff, hesitant, lacking in that old assurance that had never truly been devil-may-care-what-the-hell, but instead a brilliantly intuited sense of what chances could be taken at the given moment: that inimitable risky phrasing; in, out, around the melody with that preternatural ability to understand on the instant what he needed to keep of it and what discard or reinvent. All that gone now, somewhere, leaving Bix the cornetist merely mortal and sometimes even less than ordinary.
And here is what happens when Herman Weiss, who is now driving for a New York mobster and has long since given up on Bix’s increasingly self-destructive behavior, turns up at Bix’s apartment in Queens after Hellie frantically calls him:
And then he had raised the gummy windows, the sad, short curtains sucking briefly in the new cross-draft, stirring air heavy-laden with a long season’s accumulated heat, with grime, sloth, body fluids, and with something else he couldn’t put any name to then, except Death itself. And that done, he had been forced to turn back to the room, making himself look at what, entering, he’d been able to avoid. And there was Bix, back in his sheet-shucked bed and stiffening by the second, his right eye opened on Nothing. He remembers helping Hellie remove the soiled underwear—shirt and drawers—and while she went over the body with soap and warm water, he washed the underwear in the sink, moving the material about in the thin, sudsy slosh, thinking back on similar scenes in other, anonymous hotel rooms when he’d had to clean up after Bix and even clean up the man himself, dropping him into a cold bath, dunking his head under a full-force faucet, throwing shirt and tie and coat on his unprotesting form, raking a comb through his hair—“Christ, Bix! You got rehearsal in twenty minutes—!”
In 1928, Bix autographed a copy of the sheet music of “In a Mist,” one of his dreaming piano pieces that Bill Challis had helped him arrange. The inscription reads: “To Bill Here’s to memories of marvelous times—may they be long lived. Sincerely Bix Beiderbecke.” Bix did a lot of kind things for other people, and passing along his memories of marvelous times to Challis, who lived until 1994, was one of them.
August 14, 2003