Born in 1903 to a well-off German American couple in Davenport, Iowa, Leon Bismark Biederbecke was the youngest of three children. He was playing the piano by ear at the age of three; according to his sister, he would play it standing up with his arms up over his head to reach the keys. His ability to mimic almost any melody he heard was noted in the local paper when he was just seven years old, and he would often go to the cinema as a child not to enjoy the films, but rather to dash home afterwards to see if he could accurately play what he had just heard from the silent films’ piano accompaniment. His older brother had returned home from military service in 1918 with a Victrola in tow, thus giving Leon—now known by all by his nickname “Bix”—the opportunity to hear his first jazz records. Supposedly, he taught himself to play Cornet by copying The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s recordings of “Tiger Rag” and “Skeleton Jangle.”
Bix was not the best student, and his parents sent him off to the Lake Forest Academy in hopes that he would be taught discipline and direction. They didn’t account for the fact that the Academy was a short train ride away from Chicago, where Bix would escape to listen to bands like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. For reasons both academic and alcoholic, Bix was expelled from the academy. He returned to Davenport to work for his father in 1923, but soon enough jumped at the opportunity to join The Wolverine Orchestra. Here he is with his recording debut, playing cornet on a beautifully restored recording of “Fidgety Feet.”
Bix left the Wolverines by the end of 1924. One last attempt at college lasted all of one semester, and by the summer of 1925, he was playing in a summer resort band run by Jean Goldkette; it was here that he would first work with Frank Trumbauer, with whom he’d share a most productive musical relationship. By the spring of 1926 the two friends had moved up to Goldkette’s headlining orchestra in Detroit. Jaunty, “sweet” (as opposed to “hot”) numbers like “Sunny Disposish” followed.
Goldkette fell on hard financial times, and the majority of his now disbanded ochestra was scooped up Paul Whiteman, who ran the most popular band in the country at the time. His group was even more mainstream than Goldkette’s, something that a number of the new recruits had a hard time living with. But apparently Bix loved it—he had never studied music formally, and learning how to play outside of his preferred hot jazz mode was, by some accounts, a revelatory experience for him. Besides, he was allowed to record with his own bands for other labels. For example, we now come to the disc in question: Okeh 40923. Here’s “At the Jazz Band Ball.”
Bix plays wonderfully here, laying down a fluid melody that Don Murray’s clarinet dances with like an eager—albeit, extremely graceful—schoolboy. The B side, “The Jazz Me Blues,” also highlights that great cornet/clarinet interplay, as well as a few nice moments from Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone.
That was actually a re-recording of a song Bix had originally down with the Wolverines; click here for their version.
“Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down” is classic Bix—melodic, yet improvisationally daring, with fun shifts in tempo in places that aren’t expected but make perfect sense in the context of the song. A lot of jazz purists get heated over who was the better cornet player—Bix or Louis Armstrong. The savvy listener simply recognizes that both players came up around the same time and they both greatly admired each other’s work. That’s good enough for me.
“Rhythm King” features sporadic bass drum hits that sound positively huge for a 1928 recording—remember, it was all done with the whole band gathered around one very carefully placed microphone. That could be Chauncey Morehouse, Harold MacDonald, or Harry Gale with the mighty right leg on this recording. Either way, enjoy the loving juxtaposition with Steamboat Willie before Disney’s lawyers send a drone after me and the poor sap who was kind enough to post the video.
Bix only recorded one of his four solo piano compositions, but it’s loveliness was said to have been a big influence on the balladry of the 1950’s “Cool Jazz” of Chet Baker and the like. Here’s 1927’s “In a Mist.”
Bix’s troubles with alcohol interfered with his usually razor sharp musical ability, so he left Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and returned to Iowa to dry out. Much to his credit, Whiteman not only kept Bix on the payroll, but made sure there was an empty chair on stage, showing the world that Beiderbecke always had a place there.
Bix returned to New York in 1930. In may of that year, he played with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra for the very first recording of “Georgia on My Mind.” That’s Bix at the 2:46 mark.
By September, Bix had assembled his own orchestra. The amount of nascent talent in this group makes one wonder if the man had a crystal ball—it featured both Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Gene Krupa and some four-eyed nerd named Benny Goodman. The results are a bit lackluster, though, showing that Bix had fully returned to drinking. Here’s “Deep Down South.”
That would prove to be Bix Beiderbecke’s last recording session. His drinking got worse, and he died in Sunnyside, Queens on August 6, 1931, of lobar pneumonia that was likely exacerbated by his weakened immune system. He was relatively unknown when he died, but the respect that he had earned from fellow musicians inspired Otis Ferguson to sing his praises in a 1936 New Republic article entitled “Young Man With a Horn.” This served in renewing interest in Beiderbecke’s musical genius. It is also commonly regarded as the beginning of the romantic lionization of the tragically addicted jazz genius, a template that would be stamped on to the memories of Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and eventually a huge number of Blues and Rock artists. One wonders what Bix himself would have thought of such a legacy.