Sunday, August 24, 2008


Cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) was one of the great jazz musicians of his or any other time. His contemporaries always first mentioned his sound: "Like shooting bullets at a bell;" "Like a girl saying yes." He was the first modernist of jazz, exploring chord extensions and alterations years before Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. He was perhaps the first master of the ballad in jazz, although his ballad tempos were not as slow we would later come to expect. His playing was a largely successful search for beauty in the heat of 1920s jazz.

But how does one make that case 77 years after his death? What tracks do we play for the nonbeliever to convince him of Bix's genius? It's not so easy - Bix arguably never recorded in a truly appropriate, sympathetic setting. Some of his greatest solos are gems set in plaster - he emerges from the depths of Jean Goldkette's or Paul Whiteman's dance bands for four, eight, sixteen, or (if we're lucky) thirty-two sparkling measures, only to disappear again into the morass. Before and after Bix's improvisations, we are treated to clunky rhythms, androgynous countertenors, and painfully earnest "symphonic" jazz.

But it can be argued that the large bands Bix played with were better settings for him that those small recording groups with which he tried to play pure jazz. On those records Bix is a racehorse yoked to a wagon; no one else is in his league. At times it is clear that his colleagues on these records are not just unable to keep up with Bix, they are incapable of swinging at all.

All of this, coupled with the sometimes archaic recording technology of the 1920s, makes for somewhat rough sledding for the contemporary listener. A potential convert to Bixism needs to come to the table with open ears and a sense of historical context. When I first heard Bix with the Wolverines, I was familiar with the Armstrong Hot Fives, so I had no problems with the style of the band or the sound of the records. The Beiderbecke solo on "Jazz Me Blues" knocked me out the first time I heard it - relaxed, flowing, and with impeccable note selection. It probably didn't hurt that I had read Ralph Berton's Remembering Bix, so I was familiar with the Beiderbecke of legend - at least Berton's version.

Here are half a dozen great Bix recordings. They may or may not convince the non-believer.

"Jazz Me Blues" - Wolverine Orchestra (aka The Wolverines), 1924. It's hard to believe that Bix was just 20 when he improvised this masterful solo.

"Davenport Blues" - Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers, 1925. Beiderbecke overlays the basic chord progression with ninths, elevenths, flatted fifths, and whole tone scales, but it all flows together; it never sounds like an exercise.

"Singin' the Blues" - Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, 1927. Perhaps Bix's most brilliant solo, and the first great ballad performance in jazz. This record had a profound impact on the jazz musicians of the time, black and white. Lester Young is said to have carried a copy in his tenor case.

"In a Mist" - piano solo, 1927. One of the few piano recordings Bix made, this mostly composed piece blends jazz with the kind of advanced harmonies Bix was exploring at the time.

"Sweet Sue" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1928. It is an act of faith to listen to this recording. The first three and a half minutes of this portentous and pretentious arrangement are so bad that it's hard to believe that anything could be worth enduring them. Jack Fulton's singing is like nothing you're ever heard, and like nothing you'll ever want to hear again. But if you make it through all that, there is a magnificent 32-bar Bix solo that floats and dances over the rhythm section. It's one of the most "modern" and imaginative things he ever played.

"China Boy" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1929. The huge Whiteman band almost swings here, and Beiderbecke's 16 bars are on the level of "Sweet Sue."

I could list many more, but if you haven't heard Bix, check out some of those. The legend of Bix - youthful prodigy, single-minded devotion to music, alcohol abuse, early death - is probably more well-known than the actual music, but the music triumphs over it all. Long live Bix.

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