Bix Beiderbecke in 1924
|Birth name||Leon Bismark Beiderbecke|
|Born||March 10, 1903|
|Origin||Davenport, Iowa, U.S.|
|Died||August 6, 1931 (aged 28)|
Leon Bismark "Bix" Beiderbecke (March 10, 1903 – August 6, 1931) was an American jazz cornetist, jazz pianist, and composer. With Louis Armstrong, Beiderbecke was one of the two most influential jazz soloists of the 1920s. His turns on "Singin' the Blues" (1927) and "I'm Coming, Virginia" (1927), in particular, demonstrated an unusual purity of tone and a gift for improvisation. They helped to invent the jazz ballad style and hinted at what, in the 1950s, would become cool jazz. "In a Mist" (1927), one of a handful of his piano compositions but the only one he recorded, mixed classical influences with jazz syncopation; its complex harmonic structure served as a preview of the bebop revolution. Beiderbecke has also been credited for his influence, directly, on Bing Crosby and, indirectly, on Lester Young.
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke taught himself to play cornet largely by ear, leading him to adopt a non-standard fingering that some critics have connected to his original sound. He first recorded with the Midwestern jazz ensemble the Wolverines in 1924, after which he played briefly for the Detroit-based Jean Goldkette Orchestra before joining Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer for an extended gig at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, Missouri. Beiderbecke and Trumbauer both joined Goldkette in 1926. The band toured widely and famously played a set opposite Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in October 1926. The following year, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke left Detroit to join the best-known and most prestigious dance orchestra in the country: the New York–based Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Beiderbecke's most influential recordings date from his time with Goldkette and Whiteman, although they were generally recorded under his own name or Trumbauer's. The Whiteman period also marked a precipitous decline in Beiderbecke's health, brought on by the demand of the bandleader's relentless touring and recording schedule and Beiderbecke's persistent alcoholism. Multiple stints in rehabilitation centers, as well as the support of Whiteman and the Beiderbecke family in Davenport, did not check Beiderbecke's fall. He left the Whiteman band in 1930 and the following summer died in his Queens apartment at the age of twenty-eight.
His death, in turn, gave rise to one of the original legends of jazz. In magazine articles, musicians' memoirs, novels, and Hollywood films, Bix Beiderbecke has been reincarnated as a Romantic hero, the "Young Man with a Horn." His life has been portrayed as a battle against such bourgeois obstacles to art as family, commerce, even hygiene, while his death has been seen as a kind of martyrdom. The musician-critic Benny Green has sarcastically called Beiderbecke "jazz's Number One Saint," while Ralph Berton has more earnestly compared him to Jesus. The historical Beiderbecke, meanwhile, has often been the subject of scholarly controversy regarding his true name, his sexual orientation, the cause of his death, and the importance of his contributions to jazz in relation to those of African American players of the same period.
Bix Beiderbecke was born on March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, the son of Bismark Herman and Agatha Jane (Hilton) Beiderbecke. There is disagreement over whether Beiderbecke was christened Leon Bismark (and nicknamed "Bix") or Leon Bix. His father was nicknamed "Bix," as, for a time, was his older brother, Charles Burnette "Burnie" Beiderbecke. Burnie Beiderbecke claimed that the boy was named Leon Bix and subsequent biographers have reproduced birth certificates to that effect. However, more recent research—which takes into account church and school records in addition to the will of a relative—has suggested that he was originally named Leon Bismark. Regardless, his parents called him Bix, which seems to have been his preference. In a letter to his mother when he was nine years old, Beiderbecke signed off, "frome [sic] your Leon Bix Beiderbecke not Bismark Remeber" [sic].
Beiderbecke's father, a moderately successful businessman, was the son of German immigrants; his mother was the daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain and played the organ at Davenport's First Presbyterian Church. Bix Beiderbecke was the youngest of three children. His brother, Burnie, was born in 1895, and his sister, Mary Louise, in 1898. When Burnie returned to Davenport at the end of 1918 after serving stateside during World War I, he brought with him a Victrola phonograph machine and several records, including "Tiger Rag" and "Skeleton Jangle" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. From these records Bix Beiderbecke first learned to love hot jazz; he taught himself to play cornet by listening to Nick LaRocca's horn lines. Beiderbecke also listened to jazz music off the riverboats that docked in downtown Davenport. Louis Armstrong and the drummer Baby Dodds claimed to have met Beiderbecke when their New Orleans-based excursion boat stopped in Davenport. Historians disagree over whether that's true.
Beiderbecke attended Davenport High School, performing in the spring of 1920 for the school's Vaudeville Night. He sang in a vocal quintet called the Black Jazz Babies in addition to playing his horn. He also performed, at the invitation of his friend Fritz Putzier, in Neal Buckley's Novelty Orchestra. The group was hired for a gig in December 1920, but a complaint was lodged with the American Federation of Musicians, Local 67, that the boys did not have union cards. In an audition before a union executive, Beiderbecke was forced to sight read and failed. He did not earn his card.
On April 22, 1921, a month after he turned eighteen, Beiderbecke was arrested by two Davenport police officers on a charge brought by the father of a young girl. According to biographer Jean Pierre Lion, "Bix was accused of having taken this man's five-year-old daughter into a garage and committing on her an act qualified by the police report as 'lewd and lascivious.'" Although Beiderbecke was briefly taken into custody and held on a $1,500 bond, the charge was dropped because, according to an affidavit submitted by the father, "of the child's age and the harm that would result to her in going over this case." Until recently, biographers have largely ignored this incident in Beiderbecke's life, and Lion was the first, in 2005, to print the police blotter and affidavit associated with the arrest. He dismissed the seriousness of the charge, but speculated that the arrest might nevertheless have led Beiderbecke to "feel abandoned and ashamed: he saw himself as suspect of perversion." Beiderbecke fans and scholars continue to argue over this incident's relevance and importance.
Beiderbecke's parents enrolled him in the exclusive Lake Forest Academy, north of Chicago in Lake Forest, Illinois. They felt that a boarding school would provide their son with both the necessary faculty attention and discipline to improve his academic performance. However, his grades did not improve, and his interests remained limited to music and sports. In pursuit of the former, Beiderbecke began taking the train into Chicago to catch the hot jazz bands at clubs and speakeasies, including the infamous Friar's Inn, where he listened to and sometimes sat in with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Beiderbecke often failed to return to his dormitory before curfew, and sometimes stayed off-campus the next day. He was expelled from Lake Forest on May 21, 1922, due both to his academic failings and his extracurricular activities. (The headmaster went so far as to inform Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke, about Bix, "that certain parents have objected strenuously to their sons' association with him.") Soon after, Beiderbecke began pursuing a career in music.
Beiderbecke joined the Wolverine Orchestra late in 1923, and the seven-man group first played a gangster hangout called the Stockton Club near Hamilton, Ohio. Specializing in hot jazz and recoiling from so-called sweet music, the band took its name from one of its most frequent numbers, Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues." During this time, Beiderbecke also took piano lessons from a young woman who introduced him to the works of Eastwood Lane. Lane's piano suites and orchestral arrangements were both self-consciously American and influenced by the French Impressionists, and it is said to have greatly influenced Beiderbecke's style, especially on "In a Mist." A subsequent gig at Doyle's Dance Academy in Cincinnati became the occasion for a series of band and individual photographs that resulted in the most famous image of Beiderbecke—sitting fresh-faced, his hair perfectly combed, his horn resting on his right knee.
On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines first recorded at Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. Their two sides that day included "Fidgety Feet," written by Nick LaRocca and Larry Shields from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and "Jazz Me Blues." Beiderbecke's solo on the latter suggested something new and significant in jazz, according to biographers Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans:
Both qualities—complementary or "correlated" phrasing and cultivation of the vocal, "singing" middle-range of the cornet—are on display in Bix's "Jazz Me Blues" solo, along with an already discernible inclination for unusual accidentals and inner chordal voices. It is a pioneer record, introducing a musician of great originality with a pace-setting band. And it astonished even the Wolverines themselves.
Beiderbecke's style was very different from that of Louis Armstrong, who made his first recordings at almost exactly the same time. Where Armstrong emphasized showmanship and virtuosity, Beiderbecke emphasized melody, even when improvising, and—different from Armstrong and contrary to how the Bix Beiderbecke of legend would be portrayed—he rarely strayed into the upper reaches of the register. Paul Mares of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings insisted that Beiderbecke's chief influence was the New Orleans cornetist Emmett Hardy, who died in 1925 at the age of twenty-three. Indeed, Beiderbecke had met Hardy and the clarinetist Leon Roppolo in Davenport in 1921 when the two joined a local band and played in town for three months. Beiderbecke apparently hung out with them, but the degree to which Hardy's style influenced Beiderbecke's is difficult to know because Hardy never recorded. In some respects, Beiderbecke's playing was sui generis, but he nevertheless listened to and studied the music around him: from Armstrong and Joe "King" Oliver to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
Soon, he was listening to Hoagy Carmichael, too. A law student and aspiring pianist and songwriter, Carmichael invited the Wolverines to Bloomington, Indiana, late in April 1924. Beiderbecke had met Carmichael a couple of times before and the two became friends. On May 6, 1924, the Wolverines recorded a tune Carmichael had written especially for Beiderbecke and his colleagues: "Riverboat Shuffle."
Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in October 1924 for a spot with Jean Goldkette in Detroit, but the job didn't last long. Goldkette recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company, whose musical director, Eddie King, objected to Beiderbecke's hot-jazz style of soloing; it wasn't copacetic with the commercial obligations that came with the band's recording contract. King also was frustrated by the cornetist's inability to deftly sight read. After a few weeks, Beiderbecke was bounced from the Goldkette band, but soon arranged a recording session back in Richmond with some of its members. On January 26, 1925, Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers set two tunes to wax: "Toddlin' Blues," another number by LaRocca and Shields, and Beiderbecke's own composition, "Davenport Blues." Beiderbecke biographer Lion has complained that the second number was marred by the alcohol consumed by the musicians. In subsequent years, "Davenport Blues" has been recorded by musicians from Bunny Berigan to Ry Cooder to Geoff Muldaur.
The following month, Beiderbecke enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. His stint in academia was even briefer than his time in Detroit, however. When he attempted to pack his course schedule with music, his guidance counselor forced him instead to take religion, ethics, physical education, and military training. It was an institutional blunder that Benny Green described as being, in retrospect, "comical," "fatuous," and "a parody." Beiderbecke promptly began to skip classes, and after he participated in a drunken bar fight, he was expelled. That summer he played with his friends Don Murray and Howdy Quicksell at a lake resort in Michigan. The band was run by Goldkette, and it put Beiderbecke in touch with another musician he had met before: the C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer. The two hit it off, both personally and musically, despite Trumbauer having been warned by other musicians: "Look out, he's trouble. He drinks and you'll have a hard time handling him." They were inseparable for much of the rest of Beiderbecke's career. When Trumbauer organized a band for an extended run at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, Beiderbecke joined him. There he also played alongside the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, who praised Beiderbecke's ability to drive the band. "He more or less made you play whether you wanted to or not," Russell said. "If you had any talent at all he made you play better."
In the spring of 1926, Trumbauer closed up shop in St. Louis and, with Beiderbecke, moved to Detroit, this time to play with Goldkette's headline ensemble. They played the summer at Hudson Lake, a resort in northern Indiana, and split the next year between touring, recording, and performing at Detroit's Graystone Ballroom. In October 1926, Goldkette's "Famous Fourteen," as they came to be called, opened at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, one of the East Coast's outstanding African American big bands. The Roseland promoted a "Battle of the Bands" in the local press and, on October 12, after a night of furious playing, Goldkette's men were declared the winners. "We … were amazed, angry, morose, and bewildered," Stewart said of listening to Beiderbecke and his colleagues play. He called the experience "most humiliating."
Although the band recorded numerous sides for Victor during this period, none of them showcases Beiderbecke's most famous solos. Much of Goldkette's money was made through these records, but they were subject—as Eddie King had well understood—to the forces of the commercial market. As a result, their sound was often "sweeter" than what many of the hot jazz musicians would have preferred. In addition to their sessions with Goldkette, Beiderbecke and his friends recorded under their own names for the Okeh label. For instance, on February 4, 1927, Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra recorded "Trumbology," "Clarinet Marmalade," and "Singin' the Blues," all three of which featured some of Beiderbecke's best work. Again with Trumbauer, Beiderbecke re-recorded Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle" in May and delivered two of his best known solos a few days later on "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." Beiderbecke earned co-writing credit with Trumbauer on "For No Reason at All in C," recorded under the name Tram, Bix and Eddie (in their Three Piece Band). Beiderbecke switched between cornet and piano on that number, and then in September played only piano for his recording of "In a Mist." This was perhaps the most fruitful year of his short career.
Under financial pressure, Goldkette folded his premier band in September in New York. Paul Whiteman hoped to snatch up Goldkette's best musicians for his traveling orchestra, but Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, Murray, Rank, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Chauncey Morehouse, and Frank Signorelli instead joined the bass saxophone player Adrian Rollini at the Club New Yorker. When that job ended sooner than expected, in October 1927, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer signed on with Whiteman. They joined his orchestra in Indianapolis on October 27.
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was the most popular and highest paid band of the day. In spite of Whiteman's nickname, "The King of Jazz," his was not a jazz ensemble, but a popular music outfit that played bits of jazz and classical music according to the demands of its record-buying and concert-going audience. Whiteman was perhaps best known for having premiered George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in New York in 1924, and the orchestrator of that piece, Ferde Grofé, continued to be an important part of the band in 1928. At three hundred pounds, Whiteman was huge both physically and culturally—"a man flabby, virile, quick, coarse, untidy and sleek, with a hard core of shrewdness in an envelope of sentimentalism," according to a 1926 New Yorker profile. And many Beiderbecke partisans have turned Whiteman into a villain in the years since.
Benny Green, in particular, derided Whiteman for being a mere "mediocre vaudeville act," and suggesting that "today we only tolerate the horrors of Whiteman's recordings at all in the hope that here and there a Bixian fragment will redeem the mess." Richard Sudhalter has responded by suggesting that Beiderbecke saw Whiteman as an opportunity to pursue musical ambitions that did not stop at jazz:
Colleagues have testified that, far from feeling bound or stifled by the Whiteman orchestra, as Green and others have suggested, Bix often felt a sense of exhilaration. It was like attending a music school, learning and broadening: formal music, especially the synthesis of the American vernacular idiom with a more classical orientation, so much sought-after in the 1920s, were calling out to him.
The education that Beiderbecke did not receive from the University of Iowa, in other words, he sought through Whiteman. In the meantime, Beiderbecke played on four number-one records in 1928, all under the Whiteman name: "Together," "Ramona," "My Angel," and "Ol' Man River," which featured Bing Crosby on vocals. This accomplishment says less about the jazz excellence of these records than it does about the tastes of the largely white, record-buying public to which Whiteman (and Goldkette before him) catered.
For Beiderbecke, the downside of being with Whiteman was the relentless touring and recording schedule, exacerbated by Beiderbecke's alcoholism. On November 30, 1928, in Cleveland, Beiderbecke suffered what Lion terms "a severe nervous crisis" and Sudhalter and Evans suggest "was in all probability an acute attack of delirium tremens," presumably triggered by Beiderbecke's attempt to curb his alcohol intake. "He cracked up, that's all," trombonist Bill Rank said. "Just went to pieces; broke up a roomful of furniture in the hotel."
In February 1929, Beiderbecke returned home to Davenport to convalesce and was hailed by the local press as "the world's hottest cornetist." He then spent the summer with Whiteman's band in Hollywood in preparation for the shooting of a new talking picture, The King of Jazz. Production delays prevented any real work from being done on the film, leaving Beiderbecke and his pals plenty of time to drink heavily. By September, he was back in Davenport, where his parents helped him to seek treatment. He spent a month, from October 14 until November 18, at the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois.
While he was away, Whiteman famously kept a chair empty in Beiderbecke's honor. But when he returned to New York at the end of January 1930, the renowned soloist performed only sparingly. On his last recording session, in New York, on September 15, 1930, Beiderbecke played on a recording of Hoagy Carmichael's new song, "Georgia on My Mind," with Carmichael on vocals, Lang on guitar, Venuti on violin, Russell on alto saxophone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, Jack Teagarden on trombone, and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone. The song would go on to become a jazz and popular music standard.
Two years earlier, Beiderbecke had influenced another Carmichael standard, "Star Dust." A Beiderbecke riff caught in Carmichael's head and became the tune's chorus. Bing Crosby, who sang with Whiteman, also cited Beiderbecke as an important influence. "Bix and all the rest would play and exchange ideas on the piano," he said.
With all the noise [of a New York pub] going on, I don't know how they heard themselves, but they did. I didn't contribute anything, but I listened and learned … I was now being influenced by these musicians, particularly horn men. I could hum and sing all of the jazz choruses from the recordings made by Bix, Phil Napoleon, and the rest.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the once-booming music industry contracted and work became more difficult to find. For a while, Beiderbecke's only income came from a radio show booked by Whiteman, The Camel Pleasure Hour. However, during a live broadcast on October 8, 1930, Beiderbecke's seemingly limitless gift for improvisation finally failed him: "He stood up to take his solo, but his mind went blank and nothing happened," recalled a fellow musician, Frankie Cush. Whiteman finally let Beiderbecke go. The cornetist spent the rest of the year at home in Davenport and then, in February 1931, he returned to New York one last time. Hoagy Carmichael kept in touch, but Beiderbecke's Whiteman buddies were busy touring and recording.
Beiderbecke died in his apartment, #1G, 43-30 46th Street, in Sunnyside, Queens, on Thursday, August 6, 1931. The week had been quite hot, making sleep difficult, and late into the evenings, Beiderbecke had played piano, both to the annoyance and the delight of his neighbors. On the evening of the sixth, at about nine-thirty, his rental agent, George Kraslow, heard noises coming from across the hallway. "His hysterical shouts brought me to his apartment on the run," Kraslow told Philip Evans in 1959.
He pulled me in and pointed to the bed. His whole body was trembling violently. He was screaming there were two Mexicans hiding under his bed with long daggers. To humor him, I looked under the bed and when I rose to assure him there was no one hiding there, he staggered and fell, a dead weight, in my arms. I ran across the hall and called in a woman doctor, Dr. Haberski, to examine him. She pronounced him dead.
Historians have disagreed over the identity of the doctor who pronounced Beiderbecke dead. The official cause of death, meanwhile, was lobar pneumonia, with scholars continuing to debate the extent to which his alcoholism was also a factor. What isn't disputed is that Beiderbecke's mother and brother took the train to New York and brought his body home to Davenport. He was buried there on August 11 in the family plot at Oakdale Cemetery.
When he died, Beiderbecke was little known except among fellow musicians, and for several years critics paid his music little mind. As Jean Pierre Lion has pointed out, "the only serious and analytical obituary to have been published in the months" after his death was by a Frenchman, Hugues Panassié. The notice appeared in October 1931 and began with a bit of hyperbole and an incorrect fact, two hallmarks of much of the subsequent writing about Beiderbecke: "The announcement of Bix Beiderbecke's death plunged all jazz musicians into despair. We first believed it was a false alarm, as we had heard so often before about Bix. Unfortunately, precise information has been forthcoming, and we even know the day—August 7—when he passed away."
The New Republic critic Otis Ferguson wrote two short articles for the magazine, "Young Man with a Horn" (July 29, 1936) and "Young Man with a Horn Again" (November 18, 1940), that worked to revive interest not only in Beiderbecke's music but also in his biography. Beiderbecke "lived very briefly … in what might be called the servants' entrance to art," Ferguson wrote. "His story is a good story, quite humble and right."
Ferguson's sense of what was "right" became the basis for the Beiderbecke Romantic legend, which has traditionally emphasized the musician's Iowa roots, his often careless dress, his difficulty sight reading, the purity of his tone, his drinking, and his early death. These themes were repeated by Beiderbecke's friends in various memoirs, including The Stardust Road (1946) and Sometimes I Wonder (1965) by Hoagy Carmichael, Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow, and We Called It Music (1947) by Eddie Condon. Beiderbecke was portrayed as a tragic genius along the lines of Ludwig van Beethoven, but without the high-culture pretensions. "For his talent there were no conservatories to get stuffy in, no high-trumpet didoes to be learned doggedly, note-perfect as written," Ferguson wrote, "because in his chosen form the only writing of any account was traced in the close shouting air of Royal Gardens, Grand Pavilions, honkeytonks, etc."
He was "this big overgrown kid, who looked like he'd been snatched out of a cradle in the cornfields," Mezzrow wrote. "The guy didn't have an enemy in the world," recalled Beiderbecke's friend Russ Morgan. "But he was out of this world most of the time. According to Ralph Berton, he was "as usual gazing off into his private astronomy," but his cornet, Condon famously quipped, sounded "like a girl saying yes."
In 1938, Dorothy Baker borrowed the titles of her friend Otis Ferguson's two articles and published the novel Young Man with a Horn. Her story of the doomed trumpet player Rick Martin was inspired, she wrote, by "the music, but not the life" of Beiderbecke, but the image of Martin quickly became the image of Beiderbecke: His story is about "the gap between the man's musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life." In 1950, Michael Curtiz directed the film Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. In this version, in which Hoagy Carmichael also plays a role, the Rick Martin character lives.
In Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 film starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, Beiderbecke's music is briefly featured, but as a symbol of cultural conservatism in a nation on the cusp of the rock and roll revolution. Still, the Beiderbecke of legend came to represent a certain kind of cool character that was omnipresent in 1950s popular culture: the alienated young white man rebelling against white culture and willing to engage black culture in pursuit of his art.
In 1971, on the fortieth anniversary of Beiderbecke's death, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival was founded in Davenport, Iowa, to honor the musician. Three years later, Ralph Berton, whose brother Vic Berton played for a time with Beiderbecke in the Wolverines, published a memoir, Remembering Bix, in which he claimed that Beiderbecke had had a brief fling with another of Berton's brothers, Eugene. This has led to speculation that Beiderbecke was gay, accompanied by vehement denials. Also in 1974, Sudhalter and Evans published their biography, Bix: Man and Legend, which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1977, the Beiderbecke childhood home at 1934 Grand Avenue in Davenport was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Beiderbecke's music was featured in three British comedy drama television series, all written by Alan Plater: The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987), and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988). In 1991, the Italian director Pupi Avati released Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend. Filmed partially in the Beiderbecke home, which Avati had purchased and renovated, Bix was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beiderbecke's music continues to reside mostly out of the mainstream and some of the facts of his life are still debated, but scholars largely agree—due in part to the influence of Sudhalter and Evans—that he was an important innovator in early jazz; jazz cornetists, including Sudhalter (before his death in 2008), and Tom Pletcher, closely emulate his style. In 2003, to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Greater Astoria Historical Society and other community organizations, spearheaded by Paul Maringelli and The Bix Beiderbecke Sunnyside Memorial Committee, erected a plaque in Beiderbecke's honor at the apartment building in which he died in Queens. That same year, Frederick Turner published his novel 1929, which followed the facts of Beiderbecke's life fairly closely, focusing on his summer in Hollywood and featuring appearances by Al Capone and Clara Bow.
Bix Beiderbecke and his friend Louis Armstrong were among jazz's first soloists. In New Orleans, jazz had been ensemble playing, with the various instruments weaving their parts into a single and coherent aural tapestry. There had been soloists, to be sure, with the clarinetist Sidney Bechet the best known among them, but these players "lacked the technical resources and, even more, the creative depth to make the solo the compelling centerpiece of jazz music." That changed in 1924 when Beiderbecke and Armstrong began to make their most important records. According to the critic Terry Teachout, they are "the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz" and "the twin lines of descent from which most of today's jazz can be traced."
Beiderbecke's cornet style is often described by contrasting it with Armstrong's markedly different approach. Armstrong was a virtuoso on his instrument, and his solos often took advantage of that fact. Beiderbecke was largely, although not completely, self-taught, and the constraints imposed by that fact were evident in his music. While Armstrong often soared into the upper register, Beiderbecke stayed in the middle range, more interested in exploring the melody and harmonies than in dazzling the audience. Armstrong often emphasized the performance aspect of his playing, while Beiderbecke tended to stare at his feet while playing, uninterested in personally engaging his listeners. Armstrong was deeply influenced by the blues, while Beiderbecke was influenced as much by modernist composers such as Debussy and Ravel as by his fellow jazzmen.
Beiderbecke's most famous solo was on "Singin' the Blues," recorded February 4, 1927. It has been hailed as an important example of the "jazz ballad style"—"a slow or medium-tempo piece played gently and sweetly, but not cloyingly, with no loss of muscle." The tune's laid-back emotions hinted at what would become, in the 1950s, the cool jazz style, personified by Chet Baker and Bill Evans. More than that, though, "Singin' the Blues" has been noted for the way its improvisations feel less improvised than composed, with each phrase building on the last in a logical fashion. Benny Green describes the solo's effect on practiced ears:
When a musician hears Bix's solo on 'Singing the Blues', he becomes aware after two bars that the soloist knows exactly what he is doing and that he has an exquisite sense of discord and resolution. He knows also that this player is endowed with the rarest jazz gift of all, a sense of form which lends to an improvised performance a coherence which no amount of teaching can produce. The listening musician, whatever his generation or his style, recognizes Bix as a modern, modernism being not a style but an attitude.
Like Green, who made particular mention of Beiderbecke's "amount of teaching," the jazz historian Ted Gioia also has emphasized Beiderbecke's lack of formal instruction, suggesting that it caused him to adopt "an unusual, dry embouchure" and "unconventional fingerings," which he retained for the rest of his life. Gioia points to "a characteristic streak of obstinacy" in Beiderbecke that provokes "this chronic disregard of the tried-and-true." He argues that this stubbornness was behind Beiderbecke's decision not to switch from cornet to trumpet when many other musicians, including Armstrong, did so.
In addition, Gioia highlights Beiderbecke's precise timing, relaxed delivery, and pure tone, which contrasted with "the dirty, rough-edged sound" of King Oliver and his protégé Armstrong, whose playing was often more energetic and whose style held more sway early in the 1920s than Beiderbecke's. Gioia further wonders whether the many hyperbolic and quasi-poetic descriptions of Beiderbecke’s style—most notably Condon's "like a girl saying yes"—may indicate that Beiderbecke's sound was muddled on recordings.
Eddie Condon, Hoagy Carmichael, and Mezz Mezzrow, all of whom hyperbolically raved about his playing, also saw Beiderbecke play live or performed alongside him. Condon, for instance, wrote of being amazed by Beiderbecke's piano playing: "All my life I had been listening to music … But I had never heard anything remotely like what Beiderbecke played. For the first time I realized music isn't all the same, it had become an entirely new set of sounds …"
"I tried to explain Bix to the gang," Carmichael wrote. "… It was no good, like the telling of a vivid, personal dream … the emotion couldn't be transmitted."
Mezzrow described Beiderbecke's tone as being "pickled in alcohol … I have never heard a tone like he got before or since. He played mostly open horn, every note full, big, rich and round, standing out like a pearl, loud but never irritating or jangling, with a powerful drive that few white musicians had in those days."
Some critics have highlighted "Jazz Me Blues," recorded with the Wolverines on February 18, 1924, as being particularly important to understanding Beiderbecke's style. Although it was one of his earliest recordings, the hallmarks of his playing were evident. "The overall impression we get from this solo, as in all of Bix at his best," writes the trumpeter Randy Sandke, "is that every note is spontaneous yet inevitable." Richard Hadlock describes Beiderbecke's contribution to "Jazz Me Blues" as "an ordered solo that seems more inspired by clarinetists Larry Shields of the ODJB and Leon Roppolo of the NORK than by other trumpet players." He goes on to suggest that clarinetists, by virtue of their not being tied to the melody as much as cornetists and trumpet players, could explore harmonies.
"Jazz Me Blues" was also important because it introduced what has been called the "correlated chorus," a method of improvising that Beiderbecke's Davenport friend Esten Spurrier attributed to both Beiderbecke and Armstrong. "Louis departed greatly from all cornet players in his ability to compose a close-knit individual 32 measures with all phrases compatible with each other …," Spurrier told the biographers Sudhalter and Evans, "so Bix and I always credited Louis as being the father of the correlated chorus: play two measures, then two related, making four measures, on which you played another four measures related to the first four, and so on ad infinitum to the end of the chorus. So the secret was simple—a series of related phrases."
Beiderbecke's piano playing, meanwhile, can be considered on his recordings "Big Boy" (October 8, 1924), "For No Reason at All in C" (May 13, 1927), "Wringin' and Twistin'" (September 17, 1927)—all with ensembles—and his only solo recorded work, "In a Mist" (September 8, 1927). Critic Frank Murphy argues that many of the same characteristics that mark Beiderbecke on the cornet mark him on the keyboard: the uncharacteristic fingering, the emphasis on inventive harmonies, and the correlated choruses. Those inventive harmonies, on both cornet and piano, eventually helped point the way to bebop, which abandoned melody almost entirely.
Bix Beiderbecke wrote or co-wrote six instrumental compositions during his career:
"Candlelights," "Flashes," and "In the Dark" are piano compositions transcribed with the help of Bill Challis but never recorded by Beiderbecke.
In 2008 Dick Hyman, released a solo piano CD entitled "Thinking About Bix," including all five original pieces Bix wrote for piano. Hyman also arranged other numbers Bix performed with various groups, and plays and improvises upon these.
Two additional compositions were attributed to him by two other jazz composers:
Bix Beiderbecke's first recordings were as a member of the Wolverine Orchestra:
As Bix Beiderbecke and his Rhythm Jugglers, Beiderbecke recorded:
With the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in 1926–1927, Beiderbecke recorded:
With Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra and guitarist Eddie Lang, Beiderbecke recorded:
As Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang, he recorded:
With the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, he recorded:
As Bix Beiderbecke and His Orchestra, he recorded:
With Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra, he recorded: