Lots of cats tried to play like Bix. Ain't none of them played like him yet - Louis Armstrong
One of the most tragic figures in American music is the jazz cornetist, Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke. Self-taught, tormented, and brilliant, Bix is one of the seminal figures of early jazz. His contemporaries lauded his purity of tone and his improvisational chops, those "pretty notes," as Armstrong called them, that echoed both the blues and modern composers like Debussey, and foreshadowed the intellectual playing of the great bebop artists of the 1950s. In a lovely simile, Eddie Condon described Beiderbecke's playing as "like a girl saying yes."
Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa on March 10, 1903, the youngest of three children. His father was a businessman; his mother played the organ in the Presbyterian church. Bix, as he was nicknamed by his father, first heard jazz when his older brother brought home some records after his service in the first World War. He fell in love with the new hot music and taught himself to play cornet on a borrowed instrument, later playing in his high school band. Legend has it that he heard Louis Armstrong playing on the riverboats that docked at Davenport. This has never been proven, but it's a good story.
Bix never fit in with his conservative, respectable family. When he was a teenager, in an effort to curb his rebelliousness and his already out-of-control drinking, his parents enrolled him in a strict boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois; he was quickly expelled for sneaking off campus to frequent jazz clubs and speakeasies in Chicago. A brief stint at the University of Iowa (where an advisor, in perhaps one of the most idiotic moves in academic history, refused to let him take music courses and instead signed him up for military training and religion) ended when he was thrown out for getting into a drunken fight in a bar.
In 1923, Bix began playing as a professional musician with the Wolverine Orchestra. At this time, he also began taking piano lessons, his only formal musical instruction. (He composed six known pieces for the piano, but only recorded one, "In a Mist." His piano music has been compared to that of modern composers such as Debussey and Ravel, and contemporaries describe the brilliance of his playing - when he was sober.) It was also during this time that Bix met and became friends with Hoagy Carmichael, who later credited one of Bix's melodic riffs as the genesis of "Stardust." In 1924, Bix left the Wolverines to join the Jean Goldkette Orchestra; in short order, he was fired for improvising too much and for his poor sight-reading skills. However, it was through Goldkette that Bix met the man who was to become his greatest friend and collaborator, the saxophonist Frankie Trambauer.
Trambauer also got Bix back into Goldkette's band long enough to record some 78s, but both of them were uncomfortable with Goldkette's style of sweet dance music. Trambauer - known universally as Tram - formed his own recording group, the Frankie Traumbauer Orchestra, which consisted of Tram, Bix, Eddie Lang on guitar, and Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and trombone. It was this group that made one of the most important recordings of early jazz, "Singin' the Blues." Bouncy, syncopated, and effortlessly effervescent, "Singin' the Blues" begins with Tram on saxophone, then moves into Bix's cornet solo - a gem of improvisation and grace.
Bix and Louis Armstrong have often been compared. Armstrong, in addition to the mighty heart of his music, was a technical virtuoso, soaring into the giddy stratosphere of high notes and complicated arpeggios. Bix, having been self-taught, was less skilled technically, but developed a unique and quirky fingering style that allowed him to express his music in brilliantly clear and elegant tones. Traveling in the same musical circles, Armstrong and Bix knew each other. But because of the social codes of the time, they were never able to play on stage or record together, although they did meet on occasion for informal jam sessions after hours. In addition to this being a tragedy for us (imagine hearing the two of them together!), it was a tragedy for Bix, who, as writer Margo Jefferson has pointed out, was not able to work extensively with the one man who could have pushed his playing to even greater heights.
Bix's career was also marred by his rampant alcoholism. By the time he and Tram joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1927, his drinking had already begun to take a toll on his health and his playing. Many of his recordings with Whiteman are sloppy and haphazard - because he was drunk at the time. He began dozing off during rehearsals and performances, or missing them altogether; there is the famous notation on a Whiteman score, found by another musician many years later: "Wake Up Bix!" His friends watched helplessly as he spun ever deeper into an alcoholic abyss; Mezz Mezzrow describes Bix taking a drunken walk along a railroad track and almost getting pulverized by on oncoming train. The drinking was made worse by a killer touring and recording schedule, and soon Bix collapsed in what has been variously called a "nervous breakdown" and an attack of the DTs. Eventually, in February 1929, Bix returned to his family home in Iowa. Although Whiteman assured Bix that he would always keep a chair open for him, Bix was never well enough to play professionally again.
What made Bix drink? Was it a deep sense of insecurity, as an autodidact among professionally trained musicians? At the beginning of his professional career, he was turned down for a union card because he couldn't sight-read. Was it the fact his family never accepted him or his music? When he came back to Davenport in 1929 in a last-ditch effort to recuperate, he discovered, in a hall closet, all of the records he had made with the Wolverines, Goldkette, Trambauer, and Whiteman. He had proudly sent them all home, and his parents had never listened to any of them. Was it something darker? In a 2005 biography of Beiderbecke, Jean Pierre Lion describes a nasty incident, shortly after Bix's 18th birthday in 1921, when Bix was arrested and charged with committing a "lewd and lascivious act" on a 5-year-old girl. The charges were later dropped, and no other similar incident was ever recorded, but it has been speculated that this arrest increased Beiderbecke's feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.
Whatever the cause - and who can really understand the psychic demons of anyone else or the mechanics of a terrible disease like alcoholism? - by 1931 he was living in a one-room apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, not working, playing the piano to pass the time, and drinking heavily. On the night of August 6, he began screaming. His rental agent, who lived across the hall, ran over and found Bix hysterically pointing under the bed, insisting that there were two Mexicans lurking there, ready to stab him to death with daggers. Then he stumbled, fell into the agent's arms, and collapsed, dead. He was 28 years old.
Only one piece of film is known to exist of Bix Beiderbecke actually playing. It comes from a Fox Movietone Newsreel from May 28, 1928, on the occasion of Paul Whiteman's new contract with Columbia Records. There are two parts to the clip - the first shows the entire band and Beiderbecke standing up for his solo; the second part shows Bix in a brief close-up. That's it - just a few seconds of one of the greatest jazz cornetists ever."Bix Beiderbecke Resources: A Bixology" can be found a remarkable archive by anyone interested in finding out more about him. The highlight of this impressive collection is the 1971 "aural thesis" of James Robert Grover for the Miami University of Ohio, which includes extensive interviews with Bix's friends and colleagues, including Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong.