Magazine article The American Conservative

Bix Was the Best

Magazine article The American Conservative

Bix Was the Best

Article excerpt

ASK ANY 10 jazz aficionados to name the two greatest jazz trumpets, and your answer will be immediate: Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Technically, are they correct? After his Chicago years, Louis switched from cornet to the more brilliant trumpet, but Bix stayed with his beat-cornet. Louis learned the basics of his instrument as a kid in a New Orleans waifs' home, moved up the Mississippi to Chicago with King Olive, and helped create the mainstream jazz of its great middle period.

Bix came from the Iowa corn country and a Germanic family. His mother was a talented amateur pianist, and on his father's side there was a strong musical tradition going back to the old country. When he was big enough to reach the keyboard of a piano, Bix began picking out with one finger the classical music he heard on the family Victrola. After his death, it would be said that his style of improvisation derived from this early training, but this is a myth-and "In a Mist," the famous piano piece he wrote towards the end of his life, bears only the faintest taint of the "modernists" he may or may not have ever heard.

The myths always sang around Bix. Dorothy Baker's 1938 novel Young Man With a Horn, presumably based on his life, made good reading for its celebration of jazz, but it was all fiction, even to the "explanation" that Bix began drinking heavily to alleviate the pain of having a beer bottle shoved into him by the mobsters who ran most of the nightclubs. The only truly evocative pieces about him were those by Otis Ferguson, who wrote perceptively about jazz for The New Republic, and Jack Teagarden, one of the greats of jazzmen who touched a nerve when he remarked, "You know Bix. He didn't give a damn." What came out of the bell of his cornet was all that mattered to him, and his life was invested in that beat-up horn he sometimes carried in a paper bag.

Leon Bismark Beiderbecke was bom in Davenport, Iowa and grew to his teens as an average middle-class kid, though from an early age given to shyness and self-doubt. By five he was a more than competent pianist and, being endowed with perfect pitch, always played by ear. The side-wheelers sometimes went up river to Davenport, and Bix would row out to hear the New Orleans bands they featured. Chicago was not too far for the winds of jazz to reach Davenport-Louis and the congeries of New Orleans musicians had moved up the river when Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels drove them out of Storyville.

Bix was 15 when he began teaching himself the cornet-playing along with the recordings of the frenetic Original Dixieland Jazz Band. By 18, he began his professional life in jazz and his love affair with John Barleycorn, gigging with pick-up groups in Chicago's North Shore and its environs, listening to the New Orleans bands and their emergent white Chicago-style counterparts-and to Louis. He was 19 when he helped organize the Wolverines, a local jazz band, and it was Bix's already defined style and the recognition of his great talent that took the young combo into the recording studios.

Bix's music came not out of his horn but out of himself-his heart and his gut. His tone was platinum pure, rounded, always singing, unmatched. Each note was like a struck gong, yet in the flow of his melodic line. Having learned from Nick La Rocca of the ODJB, the range of his improvisations seldom exceeded an octave, unlike Louis Armstrong, who climbed to the unprecedented heights of C about high C and beyond. His playing had a pulsing excitement under an unhurried, almost serene timing and easy vibrato. …

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