It's never too late to get hip to a good thing. I've finally opened my ears to '20s-era Bix Biederbecke.
I own lots of music. Long-playing records, compact discs, and MP3 files burst from closets and hard drives in my house -- they stack up on desks and dressers and must-listen-to lists. It's a joy, and it's a burden. Is there life enough left to enjoy it all? Mostly, my collection contains jazz, though that would be a simplification. Where do you draw the line between jazz and soul music in your Ray Charles albums? Should you even bother?
But, amidst all those notes and tracks -- all that joy over so many years as a passionate jazz fan -- I've found that there are some artists I've simply overlooked. Last time out, I got some music from pianist Paul Bley and learned what I'd been missing for so long. Here, I finally overcome decades of guilt and prejudice by purchasing the essential recordings of cornet player Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke.
Bix: A Jazz Legend
While we were in high school, my best friend bought me a massive poster -- easily four-by-six feet -- featuring a photograph of a young man holding a cornet. Seated in a chair, with his haired carefully parted in the near-middle and wearing a tuxedo with a pocket hankie, the fellow is relaxed but intent. He gazes at you with equanimity but focus. As I would soon learn, this was Bix Beiderbecke in 1924, the year he made his first recordings with The Wolverines. What I didn't know is that he was a legend.
Bix is arguably the prototypical jazz legend: a young guy with a horn who skipped school to dig his heroes in speakeasies and then was kicked out of school. He made some records and headed to New York where he was hired by the biggest band in the land. Then, tragically, he lived too hard and fast, slowing himself down with alcohol. Spiraling downward, he died in a rooming house in Queens after a final drinking binge at the tender age of 28.
In the middle of it all, however, were a series of gorgeous and singular cornet solos that transfixed fans, created generations of imitators, and even won the respect of older legends -- indeed, Louis Armstrong himself dug Bix. Hollywood saw it as legend, making Kirk Douglas play Bix as Young Man with a Horn in 1950.
My Awkward Avoidance of Bix: Race in Jazz
So, the question then: in more than 30 years of collecting jazz records, why did I pointedly avoid Bix? (Ultimately, there are only a few albums to avoid --some early recordings with his band The Wolverines, his classic material with C-Melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, and later material from his stretch with the "jazz" orchestra of Paul Whiteman.) With the cat literally staring down at me from the wall of every dorm room, apartment, and house I've ever occupied, how could I take a pass on his music?
I have my excuses, and then there's the real reason. First, I'd say, I had a limited interest in early New Orleans-style jazz. But if I was exclusively a modern jazz guy, then why was I in love with Armstrong and Bechet, indeed very nearly a Pops completist with a keen interest in stride piano, Jelly Roll Morton, and the earliest swing records of Ellington? The truth, I'm pained to admit, was that I avoided Bix because he seemed like a "great white hope" of jazz -- the white jazz musician who had been lionized, I suspected, only because he was white.
Jazz, like every other area of American culture, is suffused with race. The complexities of race in jazz are laced with irony and bitterness, of course. The great jazz pioneers and innovators, it is widely acknowledged, were African-American: Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane and onward. Yet the richest and most successful bands in jazz, at least into the '50s, were white: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, even Dave Brubeck's quartet. Though the blues and jazz are the bastard children of European music and African music colliding in America, the cauldron of their birth is African-American. Blacks invented it, then whites cashed in, right?
That's true as far as it goes. But it's equally true that white jazz musicians have been vital and valuable creative forces in jazz from early on. All colors of musician were fascinated by jazz and set about learning it and playing it early, with record companies tailoring "hot" and "sweet" markets for the music based partly on the race of the musicians and the perceived audience. This argument was made most respectfully and convincingly in the 1999 book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 by Richard Sudhalter. Sudhalter had previously written a biography of Beiderbecke and, indeed, is a Beiderbecke disciple himself as a cornetist who played extensively with Bobby Hackett and others.
As Sudhalter knows all too well, over-acknowledging the contributions of white musicians to jazz (particularly early on) risks seeming to denigrate the genius of the great black innovators and founders of the music. As a white guy who loves jazz, I've spent scores of evenings in jazz clubs listening to black musicians play for largely white audiences, pondering these questions. How can you -- how should you -- think about this great black music in the context of America's often intractable racial divide? While I'm neither foolish enough nor racist enough to believe that black jazz musicians are inherently superior to white jazz musicians (or vice versa), I've made a point of avoiding being the white guy who lionizes Bix.
But shouldn't I at least check him out?
Bix Beiderbecke and the Rhythm Jugglers
Bix made relatively few recordings in his five productive years (1924-29) as a musician. The jewels are the sides recorded with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer in 1927 and 1928, small group recordings that utilize the basic form and band sound associated with King Oliver, Armstrong, and Morton -- the melody stated by trumpet or a reed with contrapuntal accompaniment by the other horns (also clarinet, trombone) and a rhythm section of percussion, piano or guitar, and bass or tuba. Superficially, these are copycat sides, recordings of ragtime or hot-band classics from the era recorded very much in the style of the masters.
Closer listening, however, is richly rewarded. I purchased the best compilation of these Beiderbecke/Trumbauer tracks, Columbia's Bix Beiderbecke, Volume One -- Singin' the Blues. The band -- a full complement of brass and reeds over large rhythm section (guitar, banjo, piano, bass and drums) -- sounds light on its feet on most tunes. There are strong statements from Trumbauer, Jimmy Dorsey's clarinet, and Eddie Lang on guitar. There is nothing here that suggests any improvement on, say, Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, but jazz is not a competition. What is here, most plainly, is some cornet playing that is strikingly different than Armstrong's, but with its own unique virtues.
One Famous Solo
Bix is the star of these records. The side you might know is the title track, "Singin' the Blues", which features a solo by Bix that is properly famous. Over a mid-tempo two-beat groove, Bix makes a statement that sits squarely in the middle of the instrument's register, never pushing the tempo or reaching for showy high notes or tricky articulations. The intent would seem to be a syncopated lyricism. Bix places the notes with deliberate care against the beat, generating excitement through the subtlety of his rhythmic displacement. His note choices are logical but occasionally startling, having the quality of melodic invention rather than mere riffing.
But most fascinating are the tonal qualities he brings to his playing. While the recording quality from 1928 is such that much is masked, Bix's tone is distinct. There is a buzzing Armstrong influence, certainly, but the dominant sound is much more mellow and even -- like a voice in conversation rather than a virtuoso musician. Bix speaks here in logical phrases that develop with gradual logic.
The voice, however, is witty and unpredictable. For all its composure, there is a lovely string of subtly bent notes in bars none and ten and then a two-bar (15-16) break with a flurry of notes that evokes Armstrong but is still stately and cool in even measure. The next phrase begins with a growled rip but settles immediately into an echo of the rhythmic figure that ended the break.
This second half of the solo toggles downward logically until Bix plays a series of phrases that are the mellowest but also the most blues-derived in the statement. It is brilliant to hear a musician who has so carefully absorbed Armstrong yet found a way to play Pops on his own -- very different -- terms.
A Wealth of Interest
Many other tracks stand out, with Bix almost always the most interesting and consistently distinctive soloist. "Three Blind Mice (Rhythmic Theme in Advanced Harmony)" is a clever arrangement of the well-known melody, and Bix plays a sparky solo that rises and falls evenly before Lang plays a superb bent-string guitar solo. Hearing Adrian Rollini's succeeding saxophone solo makes you realize that Bix and Lang were in a different class.
"Humpty Dumpty" gives Bix a nice stop-time moment, and his solo on "(The) Baltimore" is vintage if short with two arresting slow triplet passages. The traded passages between Trumbauer and Bix on "Just An Hour of Love" are crisp and strong, and the entirety of Trumbauer's work on "Wringin' and Twistin'" is gorgeous -- testament to why both Benny Carter and Lester cited Tram as a major influence.
There are also, alas, some tiresome sections here. All the vocal choruses are abominable, the kind of cornball singing that Pops' gravelly joy would eventually drive out of jazz. "Blue River", "There's a Cradle in Caroline" and "Hour of Love" all contain assured playing that deserves better. A straight cooker like "Clarinet Marmalade" is hipper by four thousand percent, with Bix playing an aggressive lead and the band swinging unabashedly -- leading to a trumpet solo deeply assured and including a sequence of a single repeated note as climax. When this music is allowed to let go fully, it is as good as anything but the most revolutionary sides recorded in this period.
Beyond Jazz and More
The other famous and seminal track on Singin' the Blues is "In a Mist", a piano solo recorded by Bix. He grew up in Davenport, Iowa, where his parents disapproved of his interest in "hot" music. But, along the way, the young man picked up an ear for the Impressionist classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. "In a Mist" fuses an understanding of stride piano with harmonies and textures that were relatively alien to jazz in the '20s. The opening section sounds like almost nothing else in jazz (or any other kind of music, for that matter), and its elegant transition into a raggy theme is plainly the work of a musician with ears the size of parabolic dishes listening for life on another planet.
A few weeks of listening to a single Bix collection was plainly not enough, so I happily sprung for Volume Two of the Columbia series, which documents his small group playing during the time that he was gigging with the popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Whiteman's group was faux-jazz at best, a semi-symphonic pop orchestra that let Bix show off his great tone between fluff. But these 1927-28 recordings are more of the good stuff. Trumbauer and Lang are back, and tracks like "Royal Garden Blues", "Jazz Me Blues", and "Goose Pimples" may make you a believer.
My favorite here is "Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down", where Bix is playful and spry, narrowing his tone to play fast, then getting a section of slow-then-fast alternations for the ensemble that just swings like a madman. Bix plays in the middle of it all, a still at the center of the storm. Pretty terrific.
So: had a wasted 35 years of good listening by avoiding the great, if white, Bix Beiderbecke?
First, it's never too late to get hip to a good thing. And now that I own the essential Bix, I expect to dig him onward into the future. And, in a sense, I feel that my original assessment -- that Bix is a secondary musician from his own era -- is still accurate. Listening to his solos, it is difficult not to think about Armstrong, who was his inspiration and his artistic contrast. Bix sounds cool and effortless by any standard, but he gains distinction in the Armstrong comparison. Where Louis tore it up, Bix gave you a wink, and in their contrasting similarities you see how clever and creative Bix really was. But, no surprise here, Armstrong commanded the greater sound and imagination, the wider range of expressive options, and the massive distinction of having invented the syncopated dodges and rope-a-dopes that Bix transforms.
But none of this diminishes the younger man's beauty as an artist. Bix might be the cornet player from the '20s that you prefer. Goodness knows, his tone and focus is a marvel. And in his playing, unquestionably, are the seeds of so many essential musicians that would follow. Honing in on Bix's style, I feel I now understand better the strategy that Miles Davis employed when faced with playing in the band led by his hero, virtuoso Charlie Parker. A slew of modern trumpet players drew on Bix -- not just his followers like Jimmy McPartland and Doc Cheathem but also Art Farmer and Clifford Brown and Chet Baker. No doubt he (and more broadly these records) inspired jazz players on many instruments to seek ice as well as fire, even in "hot jazz".
If I've learned nothing else, it is that my own blindness (or deafness?) is something I should not underestimate. My jazz collection remains a block of Swiss cheese. There is always more music to discover.
Next time out: another gap, filled, with saxophone expressionist Charles Lloyd.