Beiderbecke, Bix (1903-1931)

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Beiderbecke, Bix (1903-1931)

Leon Bismarck "Bix" Beiderbecke is one of the few white musicians to have influenced important black musicians. Considered one of the all-time great jazz artists, he was admired by Louis Armstrong, who always mentioned Beiderbecke as his favorite trumpet player. Beiderbecke actually played cornet, which was also Armstrong's first trumpet-like instrument.

Remarkably, Beiderbecke did not hear a jazz record until he was 14. The music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band became his inspiration, and he copied the cornet solos verbatim. However, he resisted any formal musical instruction, and fingered the cornet in an unorthodox fashion that enabled him to solo with incredible speed. In common with many jazz musicians of his day, Beiderbicke never learned to read music very well, either. Rather, he relied upon his great ear for music. Despite his apparent talent, his parents sought to discourage his musical pursuits. They sent him to Wake Forest Academy, a military school near Chicago, in the hopes that its strict discipline would quell his interest in jazz.

Their ploy did not work. Beiderbecke managed to get himself expelled for cutting classes and soon turned to music full-time, coming to fame in the 1920s. In 1923, he joined the Wolverines and recorded with them in 1924. He soon left the Wolverines to join Jean Goldkette's Orchestra, but lost the job because of his inability to read music well. In 1926, he joined Frankie Trambauer's group and recorded his piano composition "In a Mist." In concert with his time, Beiderbecke lived the life of a "romantic" artist, drinking to excess and living for his art. Both made him a legend among his contemporaries. His tone on the cornet was gorgeous, very different from Armstrong's assertive brassy tone. It became a model for a number of later horn players, including Bunny Berrigan, Harry James, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis, among others.

Beiderbecke recorded extensively with Eddie Lang, guitar, and Frankie Trambauer, C-Melody sax. He managed to improve his music reading enough to work with Jean Goldkette again, and later joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, the most popular group of his day. In 1929, Beiderbecke returned to Davenport, Iowa, to recuperate from the ill-effects of his hard drinking. Whiteman treated Beiderbecke well, paying him his full salary and offering to take him back when he was well. Beiderbecke never fully recovered. He made a few records with Hoagy Carmichael before his death in 1931 of lobar pneumonia and edema of the brain. Beiderbecke's romantic life and death inspired Dorothy Baker's book, Young Man with a Horn, as well as the movie of the same name. The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival continues in Davenport, Iowa. It is billed as Iowa's Number One Attraction.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Berton, Ralph. Remembering Bix. New York, Harper & Row, 1974.

Burnett, James. Bix Beiderbecke. London, Cassell & Co., 1959.

Carmichael, Hoagy, and Stephen Longstreet. Sometimes I Wonder. New York, Hoagy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965.

Sudhalter, Richard M., and Philip R. Evans. Bix: Man And Legend. Arlington House Publishers, 1974.