Personalities | Bix Beiderbecke | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

The most strikingly original and authoritative voice on cornet since Louis Armstrong, Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke set the example for a generation of aspiring white jazz players during the 1920s. His meteoric rise to fame was followed by a dramatic fall from grace that led to his ultimate death from alcoholism at the age of just 28 in 1931.

A Self-Taught Genius

Born in Davenport, Iowa on 10 March 1903, Beiderbecke rebelled against his strait-laced parents and his own upper-middle-class upbringing by becoming a jazz musician, a path that his parents found abhorrent. Inspired by recordings of the Original Dixieland Jass Band from New Orleans (and particularly the playing of the group’s trumpeter and bandleader Nick LaRocca), Beiderbecke began playing cornet aged 15. Completely self-taught, he developed a distinctive tone and biting attack along with flawless intonation, a natural sense of swing and an uncanny command of blue notes. Contemporaries such as Hoagy Carmichael later said that the notes coming out of Beiderbecke’s horn sounded like they were hit rather than blown, like a mallet striking a chime.

In 1923 Bix joined the Indiana-based Wolverines (named after Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Wolverine Blues’), and in 1924 they cut a series of classic sides for the Gennett label, including ‘Tiger Rag’, ‘Royal Garden Blues’, ‘Jazz Me Blues’, ‘Copenhagen’ and Hoagy Carmichael’s first tune, ‘Free Wheeling’. Those recordings were absorbed and analyzed note for note by a group of jazz-hungry young Chicagoans collectively known as the Austin High School Gang, whose ranks included cornettist Jimmy McPartland, saxophonist Bud Freeman, clarinetist Frank Teschemacher, drummer Dave Tough and trombonist Jim Lannigan. It also included other young Windy City players such as trumpeter Muggsy Spanier, drummer Gene Krupa, clarinetist Benny Goodman and banjoist Eddie Condon.

Bix And Tram

In 1925 Beiderbecke moved to Chicago and began sitting in with all the great New Orleans players there, including King Oliver, Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong, whom Beiderbecke had first heard playing on a riverboat in 1920 with Fate Marable’s band, in his hometown of Davenport. In the early part of 1926, Bix joined a band led by C-melody saxophonist Frankie ‘Tram’ Trumbauer at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, and by summer of that year the two were playing in Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. In late 1927, Bix and Tram were recruited by Paul Whiteman, who led the most successful dance band of the day. Though unworthy of his moniker ‘King of Jazz’, Whiteman did respect the superb artistry that Beiderbecke demonstrated with his horn and featured him frequently on recordings from 1927–29. Bix’s brief eight-bar statements within the context of popular Whiteman fare such as ‘Marie’, ‘Louisiana’, ‘Sweet Sue’ and ‘Mississippi Mud’ were brilliant gems of well-constructed, lyrical improvisation.

At his peak, around 1927–28, Bix was fêted by his fellow jazz musicians, white and black alike. Perhaps his most famous and most widely imitated solo came on a 1927 Trumbauer-led small...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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