Beiderbecke, Bix (actually Leon Bix, not Bismarck as is sometimes reported)

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Beiderbecke, Bix (actually Leon Bix, not Bismarck as is sometimes reported)

Beiderbecke, Bix (actually Leon Bix, not Bismarck as is sometimes reported), widely admired early jazz cornetist, composer, pianist and a unique stylist; b. Davenport, Iowa, March 10, 1903; d. Queens, N.Y., Aug. 6, 1931. Beiderbecke’s parents, German immigrants, were amateur musicians, and he began to play as a small child. His mother was an amateur pianist, and his father had his own merchant’s business in Davenport. (He later sent copies of all his records home to his Midwestern German-Protestant family, but they didn’t even open the parcels.) His brother brought home records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Bix slowed down the turntable so that he could learn to play the correct solos. He began playing piano at the age of three, and cornet at 14—which, for at least the first eight years, he played left-handed. During his high-school days (1919–21), Beiderbecke began gigging and sitting-in with various bands in the greater Davenport area. In September 1921, he enrolled at Lake Forest Military Academy, near Chicago. While at the Academy, he formed the Cy-Bix Orch. with drummer Walter “Cy” Welge, and also played in the Ten Foot Band in Chicago. Uninterested in his studies, he was expelled from the Academy on May 22, 1922. He briefly returned to Davenport, but then quickly moved back to Chicago to join The Cascades Band. Beiderbecke played on Lake Michigan excursion boats and worked in a quintet at White Lake, Mich., during the summer of 1922. For the next year or so, he worked with various bands in Chicago and, briefly, Syracuse, N.Y., while returning in the summer of 1923 to excursion-boat work in the Chicago area.

In October 1923, Beiderbecke joined The Wolverines, a semi-pro band popular on college campuses. The band was mostly working in the Ind.-Ohio area, with an occasional date in Chicago. He first recorded with the Wolverines, and soon became friends with songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. During this time, Bix also played briefly with Mezz Mezzrow. The Wolverines came to N.Y. in autumn 1924, to begin a residency at the Cinderella Ballroom on Sept. 12th. However, Bix left The Wolverines in November. He was hired on a try-out basis by bandleader Jean Goldkette, but then returned to Chicago to work for four weeks for Charlie Straight. After being fired by Straight, he gigged in Chicago before spending 18 days as a student at the State Univ. of Iowa from Feb. 2-20, 1925.

In September 1925, Beiderbecke joined Frank Trum-bauer in Detroit, who was then leading a band under the auspices of Jean Goldkette. A year later, the pair joined Jean Goldkette’s Band until Goldkette temporarily disbanded in September 1927. Through recordings and radio broadcasts with the band, Beiderbecke’s initial reputation was made. Beiderbecke also recorded with various accompanists, both under his own name, and with Trumbauer, from summer 1927 on. After a short position in Adrian Rollini Big Band in September 1927, Beiderbecke joined Paul Whiteman’s orch. at the Ind. Theatre, Indianapolis on Oct. 31st; he would continue to work with the band on the road and in N.Y. through 1930, except for brief periods of illness. Beiderbecke was a featured soloist in the band, and could be heard on recordings, radio, and in concrts. Beiderbecke also began to make his mark as a composer of advanced music that combined jazz with modern classical influences. Together with Lennie Hayton and Roy Bargy, Beiderbecke played a three-piano version of own composition In a Mist at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 7, 1928. The piece showed the influence of European Impressionism.

However, Beiderbecke’s health was beginning to fail, and he was absent from Paul Whiteman from November 1928 until March 1929 due to illness. He rejoined the band for a trip to Calif, in May 1929, and then returned to N.Y. Beiderbecke continued to work with Whiteman until suffering another breakdown in health in mid-September. He returned to recuperate in Davenport, and was back to N.Y. in spring of 1930. He did gigs and freelance recordings, including a four- day try-out with the Casa Loma Band in summer of 1930. Except for a brief period from November 1930-January 1931 when he was back in his hometown, Beiderbecke freelanced in N.Y. until his death. He briefly held a regular job on the Camel Hour radio show (orch. directed by Charles Previn) that spring, and also played a few university dates. Sometime during the summer of 1931 Bix moved from his 44th Street Hotel apartment to rent the ground-floor apartment of a block in Queens. He had become a serious alcoholic and his death was attributed to that, though the direct cause was pneumonia. He was treated by a doctor during the last few days of his life; he died in the presence of the owner of the apartment, a bass-playing attorney named George Kraslow. Bix was buried at Oakdale Cemetery, Davenport.

Beiderbecke was one of the unique stylists, widely admired by black and white musicians alike for his lyrical reach, unexpected melodic directions, and controlled (“cool,” they would later say) and expressive tone. (Armstrong said “He was the only one as serious about his horn as I was” He and Louis admired each other and Louis allegedly once lent him his horn so Bix could sit in.) Not an isolated phenomenon, Beiderbecke was part of a circle of musicians who experimented with wide melodic leaps, a kind of uninflected eighth-note pulse, and compositions using the whole-tone scale. This school, and Beiderbecke himself, had a tremendous impact on musicians growing up in the late 1920s, including Lester Young, Budd Johnson, Eddie Durham, Eddie Barefield, and of course cornetists Jimmy McPart-land, Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, and, through Hackett, Miles Davis. Among white musicians he developed a cult following, exemplified to this day in a annual Beiderbecke festival held in Davenport. His early death made him a candidate for legend, exemplified in Dorothy Baker’s rather fictional biography, Young Man with a Horn (N.Y., 1938), made into a Hollywood film starring Kirk Douglas in 1956.


“Singin’ the Blues” “I’m Comin’ Virginia” “Wolverines” “At the Jazz Band Ball.”


R. Berton, Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age (1974); R. Sudhalter, P. Evans, Bix: Man and Legend (1974); V. Castelli, E. Kaleveld, L. Pusateri, The Bix Bands: A Bix Beiderbecke Disco- biography (Milano, 1972); J. P. Perhonis, The Bix Beiderbecke Story: The Jazz Musician in Legend, Fiction, and Fact (Univ. of Minn., 1978).

—John Chilton Who’s Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter