One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?
– Bix Beiderbecke
A great symbol of the Jazz Age, Bix Beiderbecke was one of the era’s most influential soloists, and remains one of jazz music’s most enduring and colorful personalities.
This short biography of Beiderbecke (followed by a fantastic listening guide of his performance on “Singin’ the Blues”) as published in the most complete and entertaining history on jazz music, Jazz, by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, tells a concise, interesting story of Beiderbecke’s life.
Leon Beiderbecke, known throughout his life as Bix (a corruption of his middle name, Bismark), was born in Davenport, Iowa. His mother played church organ and encouraged her son to pick out melodies on the family piano. Bix took a few lessons but relied on his exceptional musical ear. The piano influenced his harmonic thinking as he started on cornet (here, he was entirely self-taught), and he never abandoned it: he auditioned for the musicians’ union as a pianist and composed his most ambitious music for piano, specifically four short pieces (“In a Mist” is the most accomplished) that have been much adapted and orchestrated.
Beiderbecke belonged to the first generation of musicians who learned about jazz from recordings. This kind of introduction had an immediate threefold influence. First, young people were exposed to jazz without having to live in a particular area or sneak into off-limits places (saloons) where it was performed. Second, owning records encouraged, through repeated plays, study and memorization. Third, records freed the imagination of young listeners to interpret jazz as they pleased, without the constricting influence of tradition. In the era before network radio, recordings could bring a New Orleans jazz ensemble, and the faraway world it represented, into non-Southern towns like the stolid German-American community of Davenport.
Bix was fourteen when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band issued its first records, and they affected [Beiderbecke] deeply – much to the vexation of his parents, whose abhorrence of jazz and Beiderbecke’s association with it never abated. He taught himself cornet by mimicking and harmonizing with recorded performances. Live jazz played by Southern black musicians also came his way, thanks to the Streckfus steamers that regularly docked at Davenport, one of the northernmost ports on the Mississippi River. Without knowing it, he may have heard the teenage [Louis] Armstrong at a riverboat musicians’ serenade, though there is no evidence to support that romantic image.
While Bix was haunting jazz clubs, he neglected his schoolwork and even suffered a humiliating run-in with the police. As a result, in 1921 his parents sent him to Lake Forrest Academy in Illinois, a move that Bix experienced with anguish as an exile from his family, but one that put him within train-hopping distance of Chicago. Soon he was making regular visits to Lincoln Gardens and other Chicago nightclubs, soaking up the music of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and other bands that passed through town. More truancies led to his expulsion from Lake Forrest, and in 1923 he joined the Wolverines – the first band of Northern whites formed in imitation of the New Orleans style. A year later, they recorded for Gennett; their thirteen numbers, often awkwardly played, would be forgotten today except for the clarity and supple drive of Beiderbecke’s cornet, which suggests a highly individual, almost detached temper, like none other in that period.
Late in 1924, Beiderbecke also recorded with the Sioux City Six, alongside C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer (1901 – 1956) – the beginning of a lifelong association. The C-melody saxophone enjoyed popularity in the early years of the twentieth century for its strong limber sound – suggesting a cross between an alto and a tenor – and because it’s in the key of C, the same as the piano. It never made much headway in jazz; Trumbauer was its only important exponent. He presided over the most admired white small-group jazz records of the 1920s, and his sweet-without-being-corny timbre, lyricism, phrasing, and songlike use of smears and glides (or portamentos) introduced a delicacy to saxophone playing that made an indelible impression on several major black saxophonists, notably Lester Young and Benny Carter.
Beiderbecke and Trumbauer became the figureheads for a generation of white jazz musicians (almost all born between 1904 and 1909) often referred to as the Austin High Gang, after those who had attended Chicago’s Austin High School: pianist Joe Sullivan, drummer Dave Tough, tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, and clarinetist Frank Teschmacher. Their associates, white musicians who had either grown up in Chicago or, like Beiderbecke, gravitated there from other points in the Midwest, included clarinetists Benny Goodman, Pee Wee Russell, and Don Murray, guitarist Eddie Condon, bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, and drummer Gene Krupa. Collectively, they created the Chicago style, which began by imitating New Orleans bands and evolved into a more slapdash, aggressively rhythmic school that combined expansive solos with polyphonic theme statements. Their music represented both homage to black jazz and a rebellion against the gentility of the white middle class.
Paul WhitemanWhile some black musicians came from homes where the saxophone was considered “the devil’s instrument” and the blues decried as vulgar, the majority were committed professionals, devoted to perfecting their art and honing their careers. The neighborhoods in which they flourished (New Orleans, Chicago’s Southside, and New York’s Harlem) gave them little reason to think of themselves as youthful rebels. But for white musicians of Bix’s generation to align themselves with African Americans and their music was a daring act, a gauntlet thrown down to their disapproving parents. As Eddie Condon, the most verbal and obstinate proponent of the Chicago school (sometimes referred to as Condon-style jazz) boasted, they were out to rile “the Republicans.” He proudly recalled of an early performance: “One of the ladies told me it was just like having the Indians in town again.”
Beiderbecke’s flamelike career, cut short at twenty-eight, chiefly from alcoholism, strengthened their rebellious conviction, despite the financial security Bix had achieved in his last years as featured soloist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Largely unknown to the public during his life, his gentle genius accrued in death the lineaments of martyrdom. Bix recorded between 1924 and 1930, and the high-water mark of his legacy is the series of sessions made in 1927 with Trumbauer (they were initially released as Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra) and the influential and serenely capable guitarist Eddie Lang. “Singin’ the Blues,” one of the most imitated of all recordings, is generally considered their masterpiece, but it’s only one of several imperishable gems.
“Singin’ The Blues”
Three things to keep in mind while listening to this recording: (1) the source material is a popular song, introduced in 1920;; (2) the song is never actually played as written except in the eight-bar ensemble passage following the cornet solo; (3) the temp and feeling of the performance are indicative of a ballad. These aspects were considered novel in 1927, when jazz musicians rarely drew on Tin Pan Alley songs, when improvisers embellished the written melody instead of displacing it with original variations, and when contemplative tempos were usually reserved for the blues.
This performance is dominated by full-chorus solos by Trumbauer and Beiderbecke, accompanied by Lang, whose second- and fourth-beat accents and fluid, responsive arpeggios give it much of its propulsion and charm. Trumbauer’s virtues are beautifully displayed in this, his most famous solo. Beiderbecke’s endlessly celebrated solo conveys instantly the qualities that so startled his contemporaries. Jazz is a music of individuality and, therefore, of sensibility. Beiderbecke introduced a new sensibility, quite different from the extroverted Armstrong. There is a shy politeness to Bix’s playing, as he rings each note with the precision of a percussionist hitting chimes. He plots his variations with great care – as Lang does his accompaniment, playing with greater harmonic daring to match Bix’s melodies.
The two long solos on “Singin’ the Blues” quickly entered the lexicon of jazz, and have since been incessantly studied and imitated. Fletcher Henderson recorded a version in which his reed section played the Trumbauer solo and cornetist Rex Stewart played Bix’s improvisation, as though they were composed of pieces of music, which in this instance they were (by virtue of being played from a written score). These solos are also believed to be the first to which lyrics were written (a process that came to be known as “vocalese” when it blossomed in the 1950s). In 1935, Marion Harris made a very fine recording singing the Beiderbecke and Trumbauer solos.
Singin’ the Blues, by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
Frankie Trumbauer, C-melody saxophone; Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; Bill Rank, trombone; Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet; Doc Ryker, alto saxophone; Paul Mertz, piano; Eddie Lang, guitar; Chauncey Morehouse, drums
Label: OKeh 40772; Bix Beiderbecke, vol. 1: Singin’ the Blues (Sony/BMG 723808)
Style: Chicago-style jazz
Form: 32-bar popular song (ABA’C)
0:00 In a passage arranged by Bill Challis, the horns enter in block-chord texture, accompanied by fills on the cymbals.
0:07 A Trumbauer begins his solo on C-melody saxophone, swooping up to his first note, accompanied by Lang on guitar (with the pianist distantly in the background).
0:16 Lang’s accompaniment occasionally provides improvised countermelodies.
0:21 B Trumbauer’s high note is preceded by a lengthy scooped entrance.
0:31 A two-measure break features Trumbauer’s subtle phrases. The break ends with guitar chords and a cymbal crash.
0:41 A passage by Trumbauer in rapid triplets is neatly extended by Lang’s guitar.
0:59 Trumbauer’s concluding break is fast and unpredictable.
1:03 A Beiderbecke enters on cornet. He plays with a cool, introverted feeling, pulling back in volume at the end of each phrase.
1:17 B His melody features the hint of a blue note.
1:28 On his break, Beiderbecke improvises a fast passage that ends with delicately played repeated notes.
1:31 A’ He suddenly erupts into a dramatic upward rip. This heated emotion quickly subsides, as if he were letting off a bit of steam.
1:52 To bring his solo to a close, he adds touches of the blues.
2:00 A The band states the original melody of the song, disguised by a mild version of New Orleans polyphony. The drummer adds accents on the cymbals.
2:15 B Dorsey’s clarinet solo loosely suggests Beiderbecke’s restrained style.
2:26 Dorsey’s break ends almost in a whisper.
2:29 A The band returns with collective improvisation, with Beiderbecke’s cornet on top.
2:46 A one-measure break features Lang playing a rapid upward arpeggio on guitar.
2:51 Beiderbecke begins his last line with another aggressive rip, followed by short riffs on a repeated note.
2:58 A cymbal stroke brings the piece to a close.
Book excerpt from Jazz, by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux
Read our conversation with Gary Giddins about his book, Jazz