Analyses by Music Critics and Writers
The Influence of Bix (under construction)
Bix's Fellow Musicians (under construction)
Additional Compositions by Bix: Authentic or Apocryphal?
What places Bix apart from - and above - most jazz musicians? What is therein Bix's cornet playing that elicits in fans such admiration and devotion? What distinguishes Bix's style from that of so many other cornet or trumpet players? These are difficult questions to answer. Fortunately, many of Bix's contemporaries have described Bix's cornet work and, in particular, music critics and writers have provided insightful analyses that give us an awareness and a good understanding of Bix's unique musical gift and legacy.
The following quotes from jazz musicians are taken from "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It", edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Rinehart and C., Inc., New York, 1955.
"What beautiful tone, sense of melody, great drive, poise, everything."
"His style, the cleanliness and feeling, was lovely. His technique was
excellent, his intonation was great. So was his harmonic sense."
Hoagy Carmichael: "Bix's breaks were not as wild as Armstrong's, but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care. He showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful, as well as hot. He showed me that tempo doesn't mean fast."
George Johnson: "Bix was a fountain of ideas that were spontaneous, as unexpected to himself as they were to us."
Russ Morgan: "Bix would fill out his part with some of the most beautiful notes you ever heard."
Pee Wee Russell: "The thing about Bix's music is that he drove a band. If you had any talent at all he made you play better. It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. It had to do with his whole feeling for ensemble playing." "Bix had a miraculous ear."
Louis Armstrong: "You take a man with a pure tone like Bix's and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure cornet or trumpet tone will cut through it all."
George Avakian in "The Art of Jazz", edited by Martin T. Williams, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1959. "Before we get into the life story, let's consider the big thing: Bix's horn. It's something that will never quite fade away, as long as there's a record around. Once heard, it's a sound you'll never forget: the warm, mellow cornet tone, sometimes with almost no vibrato at all; the attack that was sure, with every note brought out as clearly as a padded mallet striking a chime; the flow of ideas, sometimes bursting with spontaneous energy and yet always sounding coolly calculated, as neatly arranged as though a composer had carefully organized each phrase and then plotted all the little inflections and dynamics. He was one of the most exciting musicians who ever lived, but he did it by the individuality of his tone and the imaginativeness of his improvisations."
Robert Dupuis in "Bunny Berigan, Elusive Legend of Jazz", Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1993. "Throughout his recorded music, Bix exhibits a fluid, legato style, one that Sudhalter likens to a vocal quality. Much of the difference between Bix and his predecessors lies in his harmonic approach to playing. His ear heard, and his horn played, elegant, graceful lines that danced in and out of the melody. In those instances in which he accompanied another soloist or vocalist, Bix displayed a beautiful, almost baroque complementary counterpoint that, instead of repeating a stated melody, spun a harmonic framework for it. Bix's cornet tone was pure, warm, flannel. It possessed a matte, rather than brass finish. Rarely venturing outside the middle range of the horn, Bix relied on his choice of notes and skillful sense of dynamics, often creating interest within a single measure by varying from loud to soft, or soft to loud. Each solo, however brief, stood on its own as a complete musical statement and offered its own sense of musical logic. Once Bix had played a jazz solo he frequently disowned it, eschewing requests to repeat it as recorded and looking for a new means of expression the next time around. Individual notes were most often attacked in soft, legato manner, rather than percussively. Bix's solo playing is relaxed, laid-back, unhurried, exuding a sense of control."
James Lincoln Collier in "The Making of Jazz", Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1978."What was it that thrilled them (his friends) and still calls forth our admiration? To begin with, there was the compelling tone. His attack was sharp-edged and firm, his intonation impeccable, and his tone warm, but possessed a certain metallic resonance that can indeed be described as bell-like. On the strength of sound production alone, Bix would have earned a place in the history of jazz. But he had much more than that. His grasp of melodic principle continued to grow through his life. Long before other jazz players, he understood the critical importance in melody of moving from dissonance to consonance. He was also using higher degrees of the scale - elevens, thirteenths, and even the more dissonant raised fourths and fifths suggested by the whole-tone scale - and he was using these notes not experimentally or for occasional color, but as an integral part of his work. All of these things - rhythmic competence, an expressive tone, rich harmonies - are only part of what it takes to be a great jazz player. A man is a master melodist because of the way he sculpts his musical lines, and at this Beiderbecke had few peers. He used as his theory of composition the correlated chorus he thought he had found in Armstrong's playing: play two measures, play two more related, and follow these four bars with four related, and so on. It was not Armstrong, we should remember, but Beiderbecke who articulated the theory, and in his best work he seems to be following quite explicitly. Bix was, more than any of his contemporaries and indeed most jazz musicians since, a conscious artist. There was no question of his simply standing up and blowing. He knew precisely what he was doing - or attempting, at least. He knew why he was choosing the notes he selected; why he was placing them where he did. His placement of notes was exact and delicate. He is always economical, never playing an unnecessary note; but he is not spare. Less is not more, but enough is just exactly enough. Bix's influence on his contemporaries was both direct and pervasive. But more important than this direct influence on many players was the fact that Bix showed trumpet players of the day that Armstrong's road was not the only way to go. Instead of the bravura operatic performance that Armstrong favored, it was possible, as Bix proved, to play within a narrower physical and emotional compass, paying close attention to detail - calligraphy rather than great, sweeping strokes; the sonnet rather than the epic."
Gunther Schuller in "Early Jazz, Its Roots and Musical Development", Oxford University Press, New York, 1968. "Though his beautiful golden tone was to become even richer in subsequent years, it already stands out as a unique attribute, not equaled even by Armstrong. Bix's tone had a lovely, unhurried quality, perfectly centered, with natural breath support and a relaxed vibrato. Here, in fact, Bix showed his independence from Armstrong. Comparing the two, we note the extra daring in Louis' solos, the almost uncontrollable drive, the rhythmic tension - in short, playing in which all technical maters are subservient to the expansion of an instrumental conception, to the exploration of new musical ideas. By comparison, Bix was a conservative. His ideas and techniques combined into a perfect equation in that the demands of the former never exceeded the potential of the latter. His sense of timing ... was almost flawless. He showed a sure attack and a natural feeling for swing. Thus, each tone, apart from its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic relationships, was a thing of beauty: an attack perfectly timed and initiated followed by a pure, mellow cornet timbre. Bix had a quality extremely rare in early jazz: lyricism. His crowning achievements were the superbly timed, relaxed, mellifluous solos on Singin' the Blues and I'm Coming Virginia. Here is the essential Bix, unspectacular, poignant, with a touch of reserve and sadness shining through."
Hugues Panassie in "Hot Jazz, The Guide to Swing Music", M. Witmark and Sons, New York, 1936."Bix's personality was filled with subtle nuances which he projected in his playing so sweetly and vehemently. And he projected it by means of his tone, which was strong and exceptionally pure (we may well ask if anyone ever played the cornet with so ravishing a tone); by means of his vibrato, which was restrained but passionate, faster than the usual vibrato but slower than the usual Negro vibrato - a vibrato no one has been able to imitate, so subtle it is; for it seems to come not so much from the lips as from the heart itself; and above all by means of his musical conceptions with the sequence of his full and powerful phrases, so fine as if to be almost transparent, embodied with utmost fidelity. His imagination was extraordinary fertile. He could invent long phrases delicious in line. Among his numerous high qualities, let me note that instinct which taught him how to use the harmonies of a tune as a basis for variations on that tune. Phrases were never thrown together haphazardly; they were organized into a totality as solid as that of the original tune. Bix's improvisations were constructed in such perfect proportions that I would be quite ready to think he had plotted them out in advance, were they not so obviously spontaneous. He threw his entire being into everyone of his choruses. His style was totally different from that of other famous hot musicians - different in power of melodic invention, in the contrast between those of his phrases which soared up brilliantly and those which subsided slowly to soft tones; different, as well, in its delicate intonations."
Wilder Hobson in "American Jazz Music", W. W. Norton and Co. New York, 1939. "Beiderbecke, like Louis Armstrong, dominated the jazz bands with which he played, but with quite different music. Instead of the hot luxuriance of Armstrong's invention, Beiderbecke's playing was usually characterized by a graceful economy, a buoyant, jetting, melodic line, and he had perhaps as bodiless and golden a tone, suffused with veilings and demi-tints, as ever came from a brass instrument."
Otis Ferguson in "Jam Session, An Anthology of Jazz", edited by Ralph J. Gleason, The Jazz Book Club, 1961. "An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of most of the best elements of jazz. He played a full easy note, no forcing, faking or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch - it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at. You see, this is the sort of thing that is almost wholly improvised, starting from a simple theme, taking off from that into a different and unpredictable melodic line, spontaneous, personal - almost a new tune but still shadowing the old one, anchored in its chord sequence. Obviously, without lyric invention and a perfect instinct for harmony, this is no go for a minute, let alone chorus after chorus, night after night. And yet there is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs - everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself. Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring. Bix had a rhythmic invention that seemed inexhaustible, variety without straining; and in all his cross-rhythms and flights of phrasing, retarding the beat or flying on ahead of it, there was always the insistent implication of the steady one-two-three-four drive that usually has its base in the rhythm section."
Martin Williams in "The Jazz Tradition", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983."In its own time, Bix's work came at the right moment. When jazz was irrevocably becoming a soloist's art, he made crucial steps away from simple embellishments and arpeggios toward melodic invention. He gave jazz harmonic and linear enrichments , and showed how lyric it might become. He also affirmed from his own perspective, something that many jazz melodies affirm: that melodic completeness need not obey traditional ideas of form, that a melody can be a continuous linear invention, without the mechanical melodic repeats of popular songs, and still be a satisfying esthetic entity. Bix's personal melodic intervals, his warm tone, his handling of sound, his plaintive bent notes, and his easy phrasing are a part of his contribution too. But they are all only manifestations of the real import of his playing, which was emotional. It suggested that there was a largely neglected kind of lyric feeling which might also find expression in jazz."
Benny Green in "The Reluctant Art", MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1962. "When he played Bix was consciously thinking, as all jazz musicians do, no matter what the psychologists may say, only of the movement of the harmonies from resolution to resolution. Whatever emotional or dramatic effects we may care to observe in the result are the product of the intuitive powers of the soloist, not his reasoning intelligence at work. But examples like this do illustrate Bix's curious individuality as a jazz musician, and his rare ability to evoke in the listener a range of emotions not so common in jazz as one might think. The very nature of the melancholia he conjures is distinctly Bixian, sensitive and reflective, quite devoid of the element of self-pity which obtrudes in so much later jazz aiming consciously at the same effects Bix produced instinctively."
Bixophiles with musical training can better appreciate Bix's musical genius by studying transcriptions of his recordings. Some transcriptions are available commercially; others are found in scholarly works. Here is a list of what I found is available. I include arrangements of Bix's compositions for other instruments.
The process whereby these transcriptions are created is painstaking and time consuming. The transcriber must repeatedly listen to an original recording, and write out, note by note, each musical line. This is not too difficult in a solo section, but in the ensemble portions of a composition, it may be almost impossible to discern with accuracy all details of middle parts or the precise voicing of piano or guitar chords. Much depends upon the quality of the recording. A musically sensitive transcriber can generally supply the hidden elements with fidelity to the style of the original performers. All in all, the effort expended is quite considerable; but the results are of inestimable value, not only to modern orchestras wishing to recreate the sounds of the past, but also to musical scholars and researchers.
Compositions by Bix: Authentic or Apocryphal?
Whenever Bix had spare time and there was a piano around, he would sit and play "beautiful chords". His genius for improvisation was remarkable, and it is likely that he "composed" numerous pieces in this manner. It is also likely that these "compositions" were not quite organized and finished. Since they were not written down or recorded, they were ephemeral. There are two possible exceptions.
Cloudy. In the documentary "Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet", Charlie Davis, band leader and composer of "Copenhagen", states that he heard Bix play a composition that he called "Cloudy". Davis claims that he recorded that tune in his mind and played it in the documentary. A transcription of the tune (music and lyrics) was published as the last page of the book "That Band from Indiana" by Charlie Davies, Mathom Publishing Company, Oswego, NY, 1982. The tune was recorded by Randy Sandke and is available in the CD Awakening (Concord CD 42049-2). Randy Sandke made an arrangement for trumpet and orchestra and gives it the subtitle "Homage to Bix". According to Randy Sandke (Bix Beiderbecke: Observing a Genius at Work, 1996), this may be the same tune called "Clouds" and described by Chip Deffaa in his book "Voices of the Jazz Age", University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1990. "Stacy, who adored Beiderbecke's work, remembered him playing a piece called "Clouds" in a jam session once."
In the documentary, Davis states that Bix was a "black key man". This is incorrect. I take the expression "black key man" to describe a musician who prefers to play predominantly in keys, that, on the piano, include numerous black keys in the scale. All of Bix's piano music was written in the key of C. As a matter of fact, Bill Challis and Paul Mertz were quite upset when they heard Davies' comment about the black keys. Bill Challis, who worked with Bix and transcribed all of Bix's piano compositions, knew well that Bix was not a "black key man". (I am grateful to Joe Giordano, Bixophile, collector, and writer, who knew Bill Challis, for this information.)
Betcha I Getcha. On December 13, 1973, Dick Hyman, Joe Venuti and drummer Panama Francis recorded "Shreveport Stomp" and "The Perfect Rag" as part of a Columbia album of Jelly Roll Morton pieces specially arranged by Dick Hyman. In an article that he published in the June 1985 issue of "Keyboard", Dick Hyman writes: "After a bit Joe himself sat down at the piano and astonished me by playing what he claimed was an unpublished composition by Bix Beiderbecke. He said it was called "Betcha I Getcha." "Whether what he played is in fact something of Beiderbecke's or merely another of the great Venuti gags cannot be determined". "The eight opening bars sound Bixian, without a doubt, but on the other hand Joe was perfectly familiar with Bix's style, and might have been able to replicate it with a theme of his own." "The middle strain is most likely Joe marking time, and the title sounds like a Venuti invention. However, the possible validity of the main theme is tantalizing."
A transcription of "Betcha I Getcha" is available in the article mentioned above and in Dick Hyman's book "Piano Pro" (1992, Ekay Music).
Brooklets. In the June 5, 1996 issue of the Princeton Recollector, under the Class Notes for '32, there is an excerpt of a letter dated April 17, 1992 from Charles L. Smith: "In the late Spring of 1931, I remember, Bix Beiderbecke came down as a member of a professional dance band to play at a local dance, and the next morning, a Sunday morning, he and Bill Priestley, a 'pupil' of his, my brother Shelley of Triangle Club fame, and Doug McNamee and others gathered at Doug's house. Bix played some piano for us, but his lip was 'gone' from the night before, so he did not play cornet. He played a piano piece that he told us had just recently been named 'Brooklets' by a bartender of his acquaintance in Greenwich Village."
Chip Deffaa also mentions "Brooklets" in his book "Voices of the Jazz Age. On the basis of a 1983 interview with Charles Smith, Deffaa writes "(Smith) recalled Beiderbecke playing a new piano composition called "Brooklets", which he had not yet put on paper."
There is no transcription of this alleged composition by Bix.
Bix's active musical career spanned only a six-year period almost 70 years ago, but his luminous playing has left an indelible mark in the world of jazz. Today, most record stores carry CD's with reissues of his classic recordings. The jazz trade magazines carry stories about him. The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society keeps the presence of Bix alive and meets every year in Davenport, Iowa to honor his memory and perpetuate his music.
Through His Music, Bix Is
BRIEF TABLE OF CONTENTS
|A Brief Biography||Articles in Magazines||The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society|
|Bix's Musical Genius||Video Tapes||Items of Special Interest|
|Biographies||Audio Tapes||Information of Related Interest|
|Chapters in Books||Museums||A Stamp for Bix in 2003|
|Scholarly Dissertations||Miscellaneous||Links to Related Sites|
|Obituaries||Readers' Queries and Remarks||Celebration of Bix's Musical Legacy|
The Original 78's
Analysis of Some Recordings: Is It Bix or Not ?
Complete Compilations of Bix's Recordings
Tributes to Bix
Miscellaneous Recordings Related to Bix
In A Mist