March 10 is a special day for those of us who are fans of a certain kind of jazz. For those who aren't jazz aficionados, the name Bix Beiderbecke probably just sounds like a bunch of consonants and vowels pressed together, making some sort of gobbledegook that sounds fascinating to jazz people. And if you are a fan of more recent styles of jazz, and by that I mean, from the 1950s onward, you're probably a lot less familiar with Bix than those of us who are fans of the early jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s — the first half of the 20th century — for those of us who are fans of that kind of music, it’s a bit of a monumental day.
Now, there are any number of books, podcasts, recordings, videos — whatever — that are out there who can tell you who Bix was and why he’s so special. That's not what I do on this podcast and that's not what I'm going to do here. There are people who are a lot more qualified than me to go on about that sort of thing. But, what I want to talk about is what Bix means to me.
I probably first came into contact with Bix’s music somewhere, I would say, in the ‘90s. When I was in high school and college, my jazz tastes were much more modern. Influenced by band directors and such who introduce you to players who are from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s. It was only my interest in older music, which I started developing when I was in high school — that of the big band era. And I started out dipping into the 1930s a little bit. It was through some of those players, the early Benny Goodman stuff, the Jack Teagarden stuff, that I probably first started to become aware of this person called Bix Beiderbecke out there.
But I would say that my appreciation for his music — and I think appreciation of earlier types jazz for someone who is more versed in later stuff — it's a learning experience. You have to learn how to listen to it. To digest it a little bit. I would say that really didn’t develop, full scale, until the late ‘90s for me. Obviously, listening to Bix, I could tell he was a good player. He had a good feeling about him.
The thing with Bix is there is just so little for us to go on. And I think that is one of the endearing qualities about him. The mystery. His early stuff was recorded in an era where everybody aimed their horns at a tin horn, and they just captured the sound as best they could. The electrical recording era developed later in the 1920s, and by that time, much of what Bix was doing was tied in with the larger bands of that era. Which meant, it wasn’t all him. It was maybe six or eight bars of a hot lick that you get to hear. So, where a player like Louis Armstrong, obviously a legendary cornetist in his own right — which is an understatement. Right? — we have a lifetime of recordings to go through. Tons of Hot Fives and Sevens from the 1920s, then his big band, his stuff that he was recording in the 50s and 60s. I mean, the guy performed a song for a James Bond film. With Bix, you have a much smaller slice of life to go through.
And that leads to the second point, which is the tragedy of his life. He died at a very young age. One of those models for the tragic cornetist or trumpet player. Very similar, in many ways, to Buddy Bolden, who died before really anything was recorded (at least that survives). In Bix’s case, we have a little more to go on, but there’s the mystery and the tragedy of his life, and they kind of go hand-in-hand.
Adding to the mystery, beyond just the recordings that are out there and the limits to what we get to hear, is that his compatriots —the Hoagy Carmichaels and the Eddie Condons — said that recordings never captured his sound, which was supposed to have an amazing clarity. Is that true? I'd like to believe it, certainly, but I think, like we learned in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there's a point where you go with the legend. And with Bix, certainly, that is part of the legend.
When you do get to hear him play on his own in smaller groups, the recordings he made — particularly with Frank Trumbauer and Eddie Lang — it's obvious that this was a man who was ahead of his time musically. And I think part of what we feel is that we were robbed of hearing what he would become. Perhaps he would have faded into the woodwork, unable to adapt like a lot of players. Like the trombonist Miff Mole, who was eclipsed and disappeared into the background in his later years, but I tend not to think that. While I don't think he was ever going to be a band leader, I think that he would have found something in the future and adapted. I think of his piano playing, because on top of being a cornetist, he was an amazing composer and piano player, and how inspired he was by folks like Debussy, Ravel, and the little-heard-of-today Eastwood Lane, and I hear and see things that I think he would have adapted. He would have flourished in other eras as music developed, I think of the solo on Barnacle Bill the Sailor, where he rips into a hot solo where you can hear the echoes of what would become swing, much of the same way I hear that in Jimmy Dorsey’s playing of the same era. These guys were working it out on the stand, just like Bop guys were years later, working it out within the confines of where they were playing at that time.
But, he is, as I say, a tragic figure, as well. He drank himself to death. Why? There are any number of facts or fictions that have been written. Fictions in the form of Young Man With a Horn, the book that inspired the great movie with Kirk Douglas — that he was trying to reach some mystical note that you can’t touch, or something. I think that’s silly, but, that’s the player in me. What do I think? I think it's hardly possible, if I were to armchair it, that he wanted to say something with his music, and as good a player as he was, his fingers couldn’t work it. His tone couldn’t work that sound out of his head and come out the same way that he envisioned it. I run into that with music all the time, and writing, as well, with the way you envision something, and what ends up — the end product — it can be horribly disappointing. And I think he medicated it the way that many people do medicate things that are hard with something that is easily accessible. In this case, liquor, and at the worst time. Prohibition, where no one was regulating what product was being made out there. The tragedy makes him legendary. The wanting for more makes him exceptional.
And so, I guess that I feel and see with Bix and his music, and. why I'll sit there and analyze things that he recorded and listen to the little nuances trying to discover that “something different” that I’ve never heard before. It's always there, it's always there.
So many of our trumpet and cornet greats were taken from us at young ages. At least, my favorites. I think of people like Clifford Brown and Bunny Berigan, it seems to go hand-in-hand with the horn. Which, if we look at the number of players from all different instruments who have died young, it has a lot more to do with how we treat ourselves than what instrument we choose, but, it's all part of the romance, isn’t it?
What I'm going to do is, I’m going to celebrate Bix by listening to Bix music. Things that he recorded all across the board, from his time with the Wolverines in the early ‘20s when he was making his interpretations and developments of what he heard in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and the Friars Inn crowd who became the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. I'm gonna listen straight through to his final recordings with his own band when he play was to a point where he was so embarrassed by it he was playing into a mute. And I’m going to be listening for that which I haven't heard before.
I’ll sum up by paraphrasing something that Louis Armstrong said, because I don’t have the exact text in front of me. He said a lot of people try to sound like Bix. And, ain't none of them, managed it yet. That sounds like high praise and what greater authority than Louis Armstrong?
Chris has been involved with big band, jazz and dance bands for over 30 years in central and southeastern Pennsylvania, the Washington DC metro region and the four-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. A multi-instrumentalist, Chris has also performed in symphonic bands, brass quintets, orchestras and pit orchestras. He has served as a featured vocalist with the Swing Fever Dance Band and Brooks Tegler Big Band. Chris served as president of the Swing Fever Dance Band in 2002 and was a founding member of the Sound Advice Big Band. Chris is open to all opportunities and genres of music, and is happy playing any book in a section.
WITH THE SWING FEVER DANCE BAND
Instruments: Trombone, trumpet, vocals, valve trombone, superbone, flugelhorn, mellophone and euphonium.
Interests/Experience: Big Band, Dance Band, Lab Band, Small Group Jazz, Swing, Trad/Hot Jazz, Western Swing, Great American Songbook, Barbershop, Harmony Groups, Rock, R&B, Soul, Funk, Country, Eclectic, Symphonic Bands, Orchestras, Pit Orchestra
Selected venues and events:
Recordings: Swing Fever Dance Band: Something to Swing About: 20 Years of Swing Fever
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