Though he died in near-obscurity at age 28, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke has been hailed as the first important white musician in jazz. Long portrayed, in books and film, as a reckless paragon of the flaming youth of the roaring twenties, scholars have spent decades dispelling the Beiderbecke myth. “Bix didn’t let anything at all detract his mind from that cornet,“later related by friend and musical mentor, Louis Armstrong, in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, “his heart was in it all the time.” Compelled by the path of the self-taught artist, Beiderbecke succeeded, through gift of perfect pitch, analytic memory, and inventive wit, in fusing many elements of the world of the riverboat jazz horn with modern European harmonic ideas—a creative vision which antedated the modern jazz movement by two decades.
The second son of German middle class immigrants, Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born on March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa. His father, owner of the East Davenport Lumber and Coal Company and his mother, an accomplished pianist, viewed Bix’s early efforts to play piano as part of a well-rounded cultural education. Gifted with an accurate musical ear, Bix, by age three, started picking out simple melodies on the piano; in kindergarten, he impressed his teacher by directly reproducing vocal melodies on the class piano. Weekly private lessons by Professor Charles Grade did little to instill the discipline of sight-reading into the talented young Beiderbecke, who frustrated his instructor by playing his entire lessons by ear. The local paper took notice of Bix’s piano talent by declaring him, as quoted in Bix: Man and Legend, a “Seven-Year-Old-Boy Musical Wonder.”
In Davenport, Beiderbecke absorbed his parent’s middle class values and the free form world of riverboat life, filled with the music of traveling jazz bands and riverboat pipe organs. After World War I, his older brother Charles brought several 78-rpm sides by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band—a five-piece white New Orleans ensemble who made the first jazz recordings in 1917. As a high school freshman, Beiderbecke became drawn to the sound of the ODJB’s trumpeter Nick LaRocca. Given a tarnished, silver-plated cornet from a friend, he learned—left-handed and using the wrong fingering—LaRocca’s trumpet lines note-by-note by slowing down the turntable speed of the family’s phonograph. Keeping his private study of cornet a secret, he continued to play piano, and started a small band which performed at tea dances and Friday afternoon appearances in the school gym. Also at this time, he performed with Neal Buckley’s Novelty Orchestra and the Plantation Jazz Orchestra on the stern-wheeler Majestic.
For the Record…
Born Leon Bix Beiderbecke, March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa; died of lobar pneumonia in Queens, New York; son of Bismark, (a business owner) and Agatha; Lake Forest Academy November 1921-May 1922; attended University of Ohio a as “unclassified” student, February 2-20, 1925.
Began playing piano around age 3; by age 7 established local reputation as gifted pianist; started playing cornet in high school and started small ensemble; at Forest Academy founded Cy-Bix Orchestra 1921; October 1923 joined Wolverines at Stockton Club, near Hamilton, Ohio; recorded with Wolverines at Gennett studio February and May 1924; Wolverines open at Cinderella Ballroom, New York City, October, 1924; worked with Jean Goldkette November-December 1924; January 1925 recorded Gennett session under own name: Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers; joined Goldkette-managed band, Breeze Blowers, in Island, Lake, Michigan; 1925 worked with Frankie Trumbauer in St. Louis; played summer season with Trumbauer at Hudson Lake, Indiana; worked with Goldkette until September 1927; performed a short stint with Adrian Rollini big band; October 1927-1929 performed with Paul Whiteman Orchestra; worked briefly with Casa Loma Orchestra 1930; 1931 played universities date with various pick-up bands; fictional account of Beiderbecke’s life, A Man With a Horn, by Dorothy Baker published in 1938; a film, Young Man With a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, released in 1950.
Disillusioned over their son’s interest in an “unrespectable” art form and his failing high school grades, Bismark and Agatha Beiderbecke sent Bix to Lake Forest Academy—a strict boarding school located thirty-five miles north of Chicago. With the school’s close proximity to the city, Beiderbecke’s parents, wrote Studhalter and Evans in Bix: The Man and the Legend,”had unwittingly furnished him an ideal launching pad into the very life from which they most wished to protect him.” After arriving at Lake Forest in September 1921, Beiderbecke auditioned for the school orchestra on cornet and earned a reputation as a versatile pianist. By October he joined forces with saxophonist Samuel “Sid” Stewart, and drummer Walter Ernest “Cy” Welge, in forming the Cy-Bix Orchestra.
In November 1921 Beiderbecke visited Chicago and stopped in at a near-north side club, Friar’s Inn, on Wabash and Van Buren, to listen to the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Led by trumpeter Paul Mares and featuring clarinetist Leon Roppolo and trombonist George Brunies, the NORK’s greatly inspired Beiderbecke who, after his return to Lake Forest, sought to incorporate their musical ideas into the Cy-Bix Orchestra. Apart from off-campus work with his own band, he played shows in Chicago with Caldwell’s Jazz Jesters and satin with the NORK’s. Poor grades and increasing offcampus activity led to Beiderbecke’s expulsion from Lake Forest in May 1922.
No longer pressured to complete a formal education, Beiderbecke, left Lake Forest for Chicago and rehearsed with a revue band of Marty Bloom. Before the engagement opened, however, his father brought him back to Davenport. While in Davenport, he took a summer job with Bill Grimm’s Varsity Five on the lake boat Michigan City, and performed with Sid Stewart at the White Lake Yacht Club, in White Lake, Michigan. Later that summer, he played at a resort with pianist Bud Hatch in Delavan, Wisconsin. In Bix: Man and Legend, Hatch recalled the group’s effort to play dixieland tunes: “On choruses, we’d give out with the melody the first time around, and from then on it would be every man for himself. This is where Bix really shone—I can state emphatically that he was considerably ahead of the period in his conception, especially of harmony.”
Following the summer resort season of 1922, Beiderbecke arrived back in Davenport, only to depart once again with the eight-piece band of Pee Wee Rank’s “Royal Harmonists of Indiana” for a job at the Alhambra Room in Syracuse, New York. Afterward, Beiderbecke and fellow bandmember Wayne “Doc” Hostetter set out for New York City to hear the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Determined to sit-in with the ODJB, the young Davenport cornetist prodded his mentor, trumpeter Nick LaRocca, who finally allowed Beiderbecke to take the stage with the group. “Bix’s first week in New York dissolved into chaos of sitting-in, running to catch taxis and trains to auditions which somehow never materialized,” wrote Sudhalter and Evans in Bix, “and more bootlegged booze than the 19-year-old lowan had ever consumed in one brief period of time.”
Without musical employment, Beiderbecke went back to Davenport where his father demanded he work, as a bill collector and weighing clerk, at the family coal and lumber business. Quickly tiring of his job, Beiderbecke once again left for Chicago. In Chicago, he landed work with tenor saxophonist Dale Skinner’s band at the Valentino Inn. Band members were impressed with the cornetist’s improving style. “The awkwardness of [Beiderbecke’s] style was all but gone,” wrote Studhal-ter and Evans in Bix. “The tone had taken on a lustre, and there were times when ideas would tumble out with a flow which made even [Paul] Mares sound stodgy.” From the Valentino Inn he returned to the lake boat circuit.
At the end of the lake boat season in the fall of 1923, Beiderbecke went home to Davenport, where he got an offer to join clarinetist Hartwell’s band at a rough road-house, the Stockton Club, near Hamilton, Ohio. As informal music director, Beiderbecke ran through arrangements four bars at a time. The band’s limited repertoire included Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues, “which reportedly gave rise to the band’s name, the Wolverines. As Max Harrison pointed out in the liner notes to Bix Beiderbecke and the Chicago Cornets, the Wolverines “were the first white jazz band of consequence to be composed entirely of non-Orleans men.” The band’s tenure at the Stockton Club soon ended, however, when a raucous crowd caused the burning of the club on New Years Eve, 1923.
In January 1924, the band took a job at Doyle’s Dancing Academy in Cincinnati. “It wasn’t an all-star band,” wrote Richard Hadlock in Jazz Masters of the Twenties, “but the Wolverine Orchestra had a total impact as impressive as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings themselves. The group strived for an ensemble blend, and the brilliance of Beiderbecke’s lead cornet gave the entire unit a surprising amount of class, as well as rhythmic force and melodic content.” The band’s increasing reputation in the Midwest led to a one-day recording session for the Gennett label on February 18, 1924, in Richmond, Indiana. The band recorded and released two standards from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s repertoire—”Jazz Me Blues, “and “Fidgety Feet”—which Richard Hadlock described, in Jazz Master’s of the Twenties, as classic performances, “relaxed, in the manner of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings… in 4/4 time rather than in the jerky 2/4 ’cut’ time that mars ODJB recordings.”
As opposed to the critical acceptance of their recordings, the Wolverines failed to attract a large following at Doyle’s. Breaking their contract, the band left the club and, through the connections of Hoagy Carmichael, the band took up residence at Indiana University, playing for fraternity dances. In Frontiers of Jazz saxophonist George Johnson told how the band “played many a jam session at the fraternity house packed twice to capacity, and Bix’s efforts would produce shouts, the reverberations from which have crumbled any but a stone house.”
On May 6, 1924, the band returned to the Gennett studio for its second recording date. The Gennett session included Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle, “two selections from the ODJB and the NORK’s, and Charley Davis’ “Copenhagen. “On all the selections, wrote Richard Hadlock in Jazz Masters of the Twenties, “Bix shows sharp improvement in his playing and confidence over the February session and reveals a predilection for blues phrasing that may have been a result of his enthusiasm at that time for King Oliver’s band.”
On September 12, 1924, the Wolverines opened at the Cinderella Ballroom in New York City. Four days later, the band entered the Gennett’s New York Studio and recorded “Sensation, “and “Lazy Daddy”—numbers, wrote Max Harrison in the liner notes for The Chicago Cornets, that “mark a further advance, the scope of [Beiderbecke’s] invention growing, the ideas being more varied, yet tightly knit.” On October 8, 1924, the band turned out two more Gennett sides, “Tia Juana” and “Big Boy, “featuring his cornet and “Debussy-esque” piano work, but Bix left the Wolverines two days later.
In November 1924, Beiderbecke joined the Detroit-based orchestra of Frenchborn pianist, bandleader, and booking company owner Jean Goldkette. Based in the elegant Graystone Ballroom, the Goldkette Orchestra enjoyed immense popularity as one of the Midwest’s most talented ensembles. Added as a third trumpet in the brass section, Beiderbecke’s poor music reading skills relegated him to the role of soloist. When the band attended a Victor recording session at the Detroit Athletic Club, Beiderbecke’s deficient reading ability put him at odds with engineer Eddie T. King who disdained hot-style jazz. After hearing the young cornetist’s six-teen-bar solo on “I Don’t Know, “he demanded Beiderbecke be taken off the session. Despite his respect for Beiderbecke’s talented solo work, Goldkette eventually dismissed the young cornetist in December 1924.
In January 1925, Beiderbecke led a Gennett session under his own name, “Bix and his Rhythm Jugglers, “with Goldkette members Tommy Dorsey, Don Murray, and Paul Mertz. To complete his high school education, he then enrolled at the University of Iowa as “unclassified” student, taking required courses and music classes. Unable to reconcile himself to the university’s academic requirements, he dropped out after eighteen days, and traveled to New York and Chicago. In July 1925, he was rehired by Goldkette to perform in one of his ensembles led by trumpeter Nat Natoli. While performing with Natoli at a White Lake, Michigan resort, Beiderbecke landed a more promising job with another Goldkette-managed band, The Breeze Blowers, at nearby Island Lake.
In August 1925, Beidebecke arrived in St. Louis to join saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer’s band at the Arcadia Ballroom, a “hanger-like wooden building” on Olive Street. Also recruited by Trumbauer, St. Louis clarinetist Charles “Pee Wee” Russell quickly befriended Beiderbecke. “They found they both had been influenced by the recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “noted Robert Hilbert in Pee Wee Russell. “They also shared an interest in contemporary symphonic music, especially compositions by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel, finding unusual harmonies and progressions pleasing to the ear at a time when most musicians and the general public dismissed such as ’ugly.”
The summer of 1926 Beiderbecke and Russell performed in another Goldkette-managed Trumbauer unit at The Blue Lantern in Hudson Lake, Indiana. That fall, Trumbauer was invited by Goldkette and his partner Charlie Horvath to lead their first-string unit. As Trumbauer explained in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, “Charley Horvath made me an offer to conduct the Goldkette at Detroit, and when I mentioned bringing Bix with me, he wasn’t sold on the idea, as he explained that Bix was around Detroit for some time and nothing happened. I refused the offer unless Bix could come along; so Charley reconsidered and told me I would have to be responsible for him, as he did not think it would work.” In October 1926 Beiderbecke joined the all-star Goldkette orchestra in New York to record the tune “Idolizing, “arranged by Bill Challis. During the same year, Beiderbecke recorded dates for OKeh under Frankie Trumbauer’s name, cutting such classic titles as “Trum-bology, “Clarinet Marmalade, “Ostrich Walk, “River-boat Shuffle, “I’m Coming Virginia, “and the twenties jazz masterpiece “Singin’ the Blues.” A session for OKeh also included Bix’s best known solo piano composition “In A Mist.”
After Goldkette’s orchestra temporarily disbanded in September 1927, Beidebecke played a brief stint with bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. In October of the same year, he joined the four-man trumpet section of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Bix’s forty-five sides with the Whiteman band vary from his obscurity in the brass section to solos filled with his trademark phrasing and bell-like tone. Years of bootleg liquor and hard years on the road put him in state of poor health. Given time to recuperate, he took time off from the Whiteman orchestra (November 1928 to March 1929). Though he returned to the band in California in May 1929, four months later, health problems led him to return to Davenport.
In 1930 Beidebecke was back in New York, jobless and in ill health. “A couple of record sessions with Hoagy Carmichael were thrown together, “wrote Hadlock in Jazz Masters of the Twenties, “but Bix was no more than a spector of his old self.” Early in 1931 he turned down an offer to rejoin Whiteman. Returning to New York, he played pick-up jobs with Benny Goodman and the Dorsey brothers at university dances, and briefly worked with the Casa Loma Orchestra. On August 6, 1931, Beiderbecke died, from complications of lobar pneumonia, in the ground floor room of his apartment in Queens, New York.
Chicago saxophonist Bud Freeman voiced the sentiments of many musicians when he stated, in Crazeology, “If Bix Beiderbecke had lived longer he would have become one of America’s greatest composers.” Despite his lack of formal training, Beidebecke did emerge as one of the first jazzmen to attempt to bridge the worlds of jazz and European expressionism. In his cornet and piano work, he contributed in expanding the melodic and harmonic structure of jazz. Beiderbecke’s influence can be heard in the trumpeter styles of Red Nichols, Bunny Berigan, and Rex Stewart, and within the stylings of later trumpeters who sought to explore the midrange tones of the instrument.
Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, Riverside.
The Bix Beiderbecke Story, Vols, 1, 2, 3, Columbia.
The Bix Beiderbecke Legend, RCA Victor.
Bix Beiderbecke and The Chicago Cornets, Milestone.
Bix Beiderbecke Volume 1, Singin’ The Blues, Columbia, 1990.
The Indispensable Bix Beiderbecke, RCA.
Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1983.
Freeman, Bud, Crazeology: The Autobiography of a Jazzman, University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Frontiers of Jazz, second edition, edited by Frank de Toledano, Ungar Pub. Co., 1962.
Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Da Capo, 1988.
Hilbert, Robert, Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Rick, Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett and the Birth of Recorded Jazz, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Shapiro, Nat and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told to the Men Who Made it, Dover Publications, 1955.
Studhalter, Richard M., and Philip R. Evans, with William Dean Myatt, Bix: The Man and the Legend, Schirmer Books, 1974
Additional information: Liner notes by Max Harrison to Bix Beiderbecke and the Chicago Cornets.
"Beiderbecke, Bix." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/beiderbecke-bix
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Bix Beiderbecke (Leon Bismarck Beiderbecke) (bī´dərbĕk), 1903–31, American jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer, b. Davenport, Iowa. Mainly self-taught, he was influenced by recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and by the music of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmie Noone. His cornet playing, noted for its brilliant phrasing and its clarity of tone, soon won him a reputation. A sensitive, lonely man driven by artistic ambition, he was forced to play in the large commercial bands. Unhappy and restless, he changed jobs often, drank heavily, was frequently ill, and finally died of pneumonia. His piano compositions, including In a Mist, were influenced by Debussy.
See C. H. Wareing and G. Garlick, Bugles for Beiderbecke (1958); biographies by B. James (1961) and R. M. Sudhalter and P. R. Evans (1974).
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