A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
The Early Years
The Middle Years The
Success Years The Final
Early Years. Davenport and Lake Forest.
Leon Bix Beiderbecke
was born in Davenport, Iowa on March 10, 1903. His father, Bismark Herman
Beiderbecke, operated a successful fuel and lumber company. His mother,
nee Agatha Jane Hilton, was a gifted pianist. Bix
was raised in a comfortable middle class environment and learned to play
the piano at an early age. His musical ear was so amazing that he did not
learn to read music. He would ask his music teacher to play a piece "to
hear how it sounded", and was able to repeat it note by note.
In 1919, Bix's
brother, Charles (Burnie), purchased a Victrola which came with a few of
the recordings of the Original
Dixieland Jass Band. Bix was immediately taken by the music
coming out of the horn. He listened carefully to the recording of Tiger
Rag and reproduced what he heard at the piano. Soon after, Bix turned to
the cornet and taught himself how to play it. First, he played with a cornet
that he borrowed from a neighbor. In September of 1919, Bix purchased his
first cornet, a Conn Victor, and played in school events and with local
groups. By the summer of 1921 he was fairly active and played locally with
several bands, including his own Bix Beiderbecke Five.
In common with
other amazingly gifted individuals, Bix's academic performance in high
school was inadequate. As a consequence, his parents decided to enroll
him in Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, 35 miles northwest of Chicago.
Bix arrived in September of 1921 and soon after started playing with several
bands, mostly in school functions, but occasionally sitting in with bands
in Chicago. Bix's escapades to Chicago after hours and poor grades contributed
to his dismissal from the Academy in May 1922.
During the remaining
part of 1922 and most of 1923, Bix divided his time between playing jazz
at several locations in and around Chicago, a gig in Syracuse, and a conventional
job in Davenport. In April 1923, the Benson Orchestra, including Frankie
Trumbauer (generally known as Tram; he was a saxophone player), played
in the Davenport Coliseum (known today as the "Col Ballroom"). This was
an important occasion, because Bix
and Tram met for the first time. By the
end of 1923, Bix returned to Chicago and his life as a professional musician
began in earnest.
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The Wolverine Orchestra and the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra.
Orchestra was organized at the end of 1923 and had its heyday during 1924.
Several dates in various locations in the midwest, a phenomenal success
at Indiana University, an appearance at the Cinderella Ballroom in New
York City, and several historic recordings for the Gennett
Recording Company marked a year of intensive activity. Bix's first recording
was cut in February of 1924 and released in May of 1924. The record had
Feet on one side and Jazz Me Blues on the other.
This recording was followed by several more. The legendary recordings of
the Wolverine Orchestra became the basis of Bix's growing reputation among
In October of
1924, Bix left the Wolverine Orchestra to join the Jean
Goldkette Orchestra. Goldkette was a pianist
and music entrepreneur with headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. His premier
band was the Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra. Bix's first experience
with the Goldkette group lasted less than two months and was rather frustrating.
Unlike the situation with the Wolverine Orchestra where memorized arrangements
were common, the Goldkette musicians were trained professionals and the
ability to read scores was essential. Bix failed in this respect. This
deficiency was compounded because of Goldkette's contract with the Victor
recording director, Eddie King, had a distaste for hot jazz and apparently
developed a strong dislike of Bix. Thus, by December of 1924, and to the
disappointment of his fellow musicians in the band, Bix had to leave the
In January of
1925, Bix returned to Richmond, Indiana and recorded, again for Gennett
Records, his first composition, the immortal Davenport Blues.The
record (flip side was Toddlin' Blues) was issued under the
name of Bix Beiderbecke and His Rhythm Jugglers and included Don
Murray (clarinet), Tommy
Dorsey (trombone), Paul Mertz (piano),
and Tommy Gargano (drums).
to take up his musical education and enrolled in the University of
Iowa in the 1925 Spring semester. He wanted to major in music, but there
were other academic requirements which he was unwilling to fulfill. To
make things worse, Bix was embroiled in a fight in a local bar. Thus, Bix's
college career lasted exactly 18 days.
to August 1925, Bix drifted around. He spent a couple of months in New
York, where he stayed with Red
Nichols, a cornet player who recorded
prolifically in the 1920's and 30's, notable for his group the Five Pennies
and for his association with the great trombone player Miff
Mole. Bix sat with the California
Ramblers, which included the Dorsey brothers
and the great bass saxophone player Adrian
Rollini. In Chicago, he joined the
Charlie Straight Orchestra and stayed with that group until July. Bix then
joined the Breeze Blowers in Island Lake, Michigan. Some of the names in
the band included musicians who, in the next few years, were going to play
often with Bix in various bands: Bill Rank (trombone), Don Murray
(reeds), Frankie Trumbauer (C-melody sax), and Steve Brown (string bass).
In August 1925, Bix joined the Trumbauer orchestra in St. Louis and remained
with the orchestra until May 1926, when both Bix and Tram joined the Jean
Goldkette orchestra. In
September of 1926, Bill
Challis joined the orchestra as arranger.
Challis turns out to be a key figure in Bix's life. His arrangements, both
with the Goldkette and the Whiteman orchestras, provided plenty of room
for Bix's inventiveness and gift of improvisation.
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Success Years. The
Jean Goldkette and the Paul Whiteman Orchestras.
of 1926 was a battle of the bands between the Jean Goldkette Orchestra
and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, in the Roseland Ballroom in New York
City. The Henderson band included such luminaries as Rex Stewart,
Coleman Hawkins, and Buster Bailey. The outcome of the battle was quite
surprising. In the words of Rex Stewart (Jazz Masters of the Thirties,
page 11) "This proved to be a most humiliating experience for us,
since, after all, we were supposed to be the world's greatest dance orchestra."
"The facts were that we simply could not compete with Jean Goldkette's
Victor Recording Orchestra. Their arrangements were too imaginative and
their rhythm too strong."
During the year
1927, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra had a busy schedule. They played at
the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit, traveled throughout
the Midwest and the Northeast, recorded for the Victor Company, and made
several radio broadcasts. This is also the year in which Bix reached the
apex of his musical creativity. Small contingents of the larger Goldkette
Orchestra, with the addition of some first-class musicians (such as the
great bass saxophone player Adrian Rollini), and led either by Frankie
Trumbauer or by Bix produced a series of legendary recordings in 1927.
On February 4, Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra, with Bix, Jimmy Dorsey
(clarinet), Bill Rank (trombone), Paul Mertz (piano), Eddie
Lang (guitar) and Chauncey Morehouse (drums)
recorded Singin' the Blues. This recording is, in
my opinion, one of the two greatest jazz recordings of all times (the other
one is Armstrong's
End Blues). Clarinet Marmalade, another Bix classic,
was on the flip side. In May, Frankie Trumbauer and his orchestra, including
Bix, recorded four additional sides, including Ostrich Walk,
Down Yonder in New Orleans and Hoagy Carmichael's
Shuffle. The fourth recording, I'm Coming Virginia,
is probably the most outstanding example of Bix's profound lyrical improvisation.
In October, Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang (Bill Rank, Don Murray, Adrian
Rollini, Frank Signorelli and Chauncey Morehouse) recorded
Jazz Band Ball, Royal Garden Blues, Jazz Me Blues, Goose Pimples, Sorry,
My Best Girl Turned Me Down. These recordings, together with those
of Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra, exemplify some of Bix's most creative
work and represent a major component of his musical legacy.
1927 witnessed another milestone in Bix's career. He recorded, for the
Okeh Record Co., a piano solo of his own composition, In A Mist.
Undoubtedly, this is the best-known and most significant of Bix's compositions.
A year later, on October 7, 1928, Bix played In A Mist as
part of the concert presented by Paul Whiteman in Carnegie Hall. In
A Mist, together with Davenport Blues and his other
piano compositions, Candlelights, Flashes,
and In the Dark, were published in 1938 by the Robbins Music
Corporation of America as the creations of a "world-famed composer" and
"The Foremost Exponent of Modern American Music".
By the middle
of 1927, the Goldkette organization was running a substantial deficit -
the end of the orchestra was in sight. The last recording of the Jean Goldkette
Orchestra, Clementine, took place on September 15 and
turned out to be one of their best. Richard Sudhalter and Philip Evans
in their book Bix: Man and Legend , p. 212, provide an insightful
analysis of the recording. "By any standard, "Clementine" is an extraordinary
record, and a departure from all Goldkette performances before it. The
band, lifted by (Eddie) Lang's guitar, sings along with a freshness and
rich tonal balance rare on any recording of the 1920's and a rhythmic relaxation
looking a good decade into the future. Bix fills in during the ensembles
with the charm of a high-spirited schoolboy, and his solo, simple in construction,
refashions a new tune out of the old with the same natural grace which
turned "Singin' the Blues" into a piece of jazz history."
When the Goldkette
band dissolved, Bix joined Adrian Rollini and the New Yorkers, a group
of highly talented jazz musicians which included, in addition to Bix and
Rollini (bass sax), Sylvester Ahola (trumpet), Bobby Davis (reeds), Eddie
Lang (guitar), Frank Trumbauer (C-melody sax), Chauncey Morehouse
(drums), Don Murray (clarinet), Bill Rank (trombone), Frank Signorelli
(piano) and Joe
Venuti (violin). We get a glimpse of white
jazz at its best from recordings that
the band made on September 28 and 30, 1927 under the Frankie Trumbauer
name. Although the choice of songs was not the most felicitous (Humpty
Dumpty, Krazy Kat, The Baltimore, Just an Hour of Love, and I'm Wondering
Who), we are treated to the musical inventiveness of a group of
gifted and skillful jazz musicians doing outstanding ensemble work and
playing highly imaginative solos. Unfortunately, the New Yorkers lasted
for only a few weeks and on October 27, Bix and Tram joined the Paul Whiteman
Whiteman and his Orchestra had been playing
in New York since 1920. By the mid 20's Whiteman was known (and imitated)
around the world. In 1924, Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin
to compose Rhapsody
in Blue, and performed it with
his orchestra and the composer on piano at Aeolian Hall. By the time Bix
and Tram joined the Whiteman organization, Paul Whiteman was the King
of 1927 and all of 1928 represented a period of high activity for Bix,
with engagements throughout the Midwest
and the Northeast, parts of the South and the Southwest, recording
dates of the full band, and recording dates of small groups led by Trumbauer
or by Bix. Among the most notable recordings of 1928, I cite Changes,
San, Mississippi Mud (two versions, one by Whiteman and one by Tram), There
Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears, Dardanella, From
Monday On, Somebody Stole My Gal, Louisiana, You Took Advantage of Me,
That's My Weakness Now, Concerto in F, and Sweet Sue. From the
songs in this list, I highlight From Monday On, one of my
personal favorites. An excellent analysis of this recording is given by
Stephen M. Stroff in his article Bix Beiderbecke: A 50th Anniversary
Evaluation of a Legend (Classic Wax, August, 1981, page 9). "Yet
the best examples of Beiderbecke at his improvising best are the three
existing takes of "From Monday On" with Whiteman. Not only did Matty Malneck
arrange two full choruses of Bix leading the brasses, but he also adapted
one of Bix's improvs to the string section - for the first and last time
in a Whiteman recording - and gave him a 32-bar solo at the outset. The
earliest take (3), with Jimmy Dorsey playing third trumpet and Steve Brown
slappin' the bass for all it's worth, was the best (Dorsey and Brown were
replaced two weeks later by Rank on trombone and Min Leibrook on tuba [bass
sax, really]). Still, we must count ourselves lucky to have three
takes of an extended Bix solo - for each is entirely different. Splicing
the three solos together, in whatever order you choose (though -4, -6,
-3 works the best), you will get 96 bars of uninterrupted Beiderbecke cornet,
finding new paths in the song's trite melody, bringing us closer to the
Bix of legend."
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Final Years. The Descent and the End.
The years 1929
to 1931 were marked by a deterioration of Bix's health. Years of excessive
consumption of bootleg gin ravaged his young body. He spent a lot of time
in hospitals and at home attempting to regain his health. But whatever
progress Bix made while recovering, was quickly reversed - and
more - when he returned to New York and resumed his unhealthy habits. In
spite of the erosion of his health, Bix still managed to participate in
Whiteman's Old Gold radio broadcasts and to produce some good recordings
such as China Boy and Oh, Miss Hannah. The
last recording of Bix with the Whiteman band (however, see the discussion
It Bix or Not?") in September of 1929,
presciently entitled Waiting at the End of the Road, is worthy
of special mention because of Bix's subdued and moving solo anticipating
what was to come.
Bix had a couple
of recording dates of consequence in 1930. In May, he joined Hoagy
Carmichael and other jazz giants - Benny
Goodman, Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Bud Freeman, among others
- and recorded a couple of tunes. For eight months, since the session that
had produced "Waiting at the End of the Road", Bix had not
made any recordings. Thus, it was important to know if Bix still "had it".
Indeed, he did, as witness his solo in Barnacle Bill, the Sailor,
nothing more than a novelty song. As discussed by Edward J. Nichols in
Jazzmen, edited by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. and Charles E. Smith:
says Bix was very happy that afternoon and to hear his cornet on Barnacle
Bill is to know that for at least one day Bix had it again the way he liked
it. Thirty two bars of his music stemming back to the greatest days and
no doubt about it." On September 8, 1930, Bix, under his own name,
put together a group which included some of the musicians who participated
in the May date with Hoagy, and recorded three sides, one of which, I'll
Be a Friend with Pleasure, should be viewed as one of Bix's best
recordings. It is anticipatory of the swing era in its rhythmic construction
and its orchestration. Bix's solo, using a derby hat as a partial mute,
must rank as one of his most melodic and poignant.
Up to 1930,
Bix had to his credit only two compositions, Davenport Blues
and In A Mist. Of course, his extemporaneous improvisations
on the cornet were also compositions, but perhaps not in a formal sense.
In 1930 and 1931, Bix worked in earnest at the piano and crystallized the
musical ideas that he had been developing for a number of years. Bill Challis'
help was invaluable in transcribing the compositions. As a result of the
collaboration, Bix copyrighted Candlelights with the Robbins
Music Company on August 29, 1930 and Flashes and In
the Dark on April 18, 1931.
During the summer
of 1931, Bix had occasional college dates, playing mostly with musicians
who would become extremely successful in the mid- to late thirties - Benny
Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Jack Teagarden, Artie
Shaw, Gene Krupa. At the end of June, Bix moved from his usual address
in New York City, the 44th Street Hotel, to apartment 1G of a new apartment
building at 43-30 46th Street in Sunnyside, Queens. By August, the end
was in sight. Bix had had a cold throughout the summer and was extremely
weak. Finally, Bix's body could not cope with years of excessive drinking
and little nourishment. He died on August 6, 1931 at 9:30 P.M., and was
buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa on August 11, 1931.
By all accounts,
Bix was a kind, gentle, and generous man. He was an individual of few words,
introspective, and unconcerned by the superficial details and demands of
daily routine. Music was the all-consuming focus of his life, the essence
of his being; and in music, he wrought his everlasting legacy.
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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
of Some Recordings: Is It Bix or Not ?
Compilations of Bix's Recordings
Recordings Related to Bix