“Where Armstrong’s playing was bravura, regularly optimistic, and openly emotional, Beiderbecke’s conveyed a range of intellectual alternatives. Where Armstrong, at the head of an ensemble, played it hard, straight, and true, Beiderbecke, like a shadow boxer, invented his own way of phrasing “around the lead.” Where Armstrong’s superior strength delighted in the sheer power of what a cornet could produce, Beiderbecke’s cool approach invited rather than commanded you to listen.” ~The Oxford Companion to Jazz~
Born in Nineteen-hundred-and-three, in Davenport, Iowa, he was the grandson of German immigrants. Leon Bismarck “Bix” Beiderbecke, now considered one of the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz. The other, of course, was the grandson of slaves, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, out of New Orleans.
Beiderbecke was shown how to play the piano at the age of two by his church organist mother and by the age of ten he was sneaking aboard riverboats to play their calliopes. When his older brother came home from active duty in 1918 with a Victrola and an armload of early jazz records, Bix taught himself to pay cornet.
By the age of 20 he had joined the Midwestern Wolverines jazz ensemble, with whom he made his first records, prior joining the Detroit-based Victor Recording Orchestra with saxophonist Frankie “Tram” Trumbauer. In 1926 “Bix” and “Tram” leapt at the chance to join the most prestigious dance orchestra anywhere, the New York based Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Not long before, a crooner out of Tacoma, Washington named Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby had become one of Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys and in 1928 Beiderbecke played on four Number-One Records with Crosby featured on vocals. With scores of hindsight, those absorbing performances featuring “Bix” ‘n “Bing” still have a popular following to this day.
Meanwhile, Louis Armstrong who was then based in Chicago was also making a name for himself, recording with Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet and Fats Waller. But racial integration was unheard of in the 1920s and when the Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra was in town Armstrong would sit in the blacks-only balcony of the Chicago Theater to listen to Beiderbecke.
“When Bix started to play, I would let those notes just float over me, and I thought I was in heaven,” he said. The two had met years before, but now in their prime they each considered the other to be the best player out there. In fact (as most jazz critics now agree) Armstrong, who played both cornet and trumpet, was the virtuoso greatly influenced by the blues. While Beiderbecke, who was largely self-taught on cornet is remembered for his “unusual purity of tone” and improvisation “that presaged a ‘cooler’ age.” His greatest influences were Impressionist composers, like Ravel and Debussy.
Although they never performed together on stage (unlike Crosby, who had memorable appearances with each), Armstrong once admitted to catching up with Beiderbecke after a performance and ushering him to a warehouse that had been intentionally left unlocked. Once the coast was clear… “We blew and blew, all the way to dawn.”
Sadly the relentless touring and recording regimen, coupled with an unbridled consumption of booze that stretched back to his younger days of sneaking onto river boats, started to overtake Beiderbecke. By 1929 he was showing up drunk for performances and beginning to miss his cues.
Paul Whiteman, who at 300 pounds (according to a “New Yorker” profile) was “a man flabby, virile, quick, coarse, untidy and sleek, with a hard core of shrewdness in an envelope of sentimentalism,” instructed the horn player next to him to pencil in a note on the music score just before his solo that said “Wake up Bix.”
Still, by 1931 Bix Beiderbecke was dead at the age of twenty-eight. Louis Armstrong, who was two years his elder, would outlive him by 40 years.
But Bix’s story doesn’t quite end there. His early death soon became one of the original legends of jazz (…and of later popular music) and he was portrayed in print and on the silver screen as the romantic “Young Man with a Horn” dying as a martyr for the sake of his art.
Never mind the art; and even though it’s not “Bix ‘n Bing” today’s uplifting selection, recorded in 1929, at least features an instrumental by “Bix ‘n Tram.” If it’s new to your listen intently. Perhaps you too will sense the….allure.
LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Saturday 13 October
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