Monday, February 2, 2015

Bix Beiderbecke: The First Great White Jazzman

Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903, is generally regarded as the greatest white jazz cornettist of all time. His playing was soft and lyrical, unlike the “hot” playing of contemporaries such as Louis Armstrong. His tragic death from the effects of alcoholism at the age of 28 would see him become the archetype of the self-destructive jazz genius. That archetype would be seen in the coming decades with the early demises of jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and others.

Beiderbecke started playing cornet in his teens. At this early point in the development of jazz, the trumpet, now so ubiquitous in jazz, was rarely used. Early horn players were generally cornetists or trombonists.

As Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport was situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, young Bix was afforded the opportunity to witness paddlesteamers pulling into Davenport as they headed north up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Often these riverboats featured jazz bands playing on the decks. These bands virtually poured out their music from the decks and could be heard far ashore.

On one occasion, Beiderbecke was within earshot of the arrival of a riverboat which featured Fate Marable’s band and its young, brilliant cornetist, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was still just a local New Orleans legend at this time. Hearing Armstrong’s playing aboard that riverboat filled Beiderbecke with awe and inspiration, and he dedicated himself to the mastery of his instrument as a result.

After a short stay in college, Beiderbecke, now in Chicago, joined a band called “The Wolverines” with which he made his first recording, in 1924. He then moved on to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra for a short stint. Shortly thereafter, he met his future collaborator, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, and joined his band. In 1926, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke would both join the Goldkette band. It was in 1927, with the Frankie Trumbauer band, that Bix would record his classics, “Ostrich Walk,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Singing the Blues.”

Following his stints with Goldkette and Trumbauer, Beiderbecke moved onto the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The pressure of the constant touring and recording with Whiteman and his worsening alcoholism culminated in Beiderbecke’s death at age 28 in his New York City apartment.

In addition to being a superb cornetist, Beiderbecke was also a talented pianist and recorded solo piano pieces such as the terrific, “In a Mist.”

Among many fine compilations of Beiderbecke’s music are “Bix Beiderbecke Vol 1-Singing the Blues” (1990), Bix Beiderbecke Vol. 2-At the Jazz Band Ball” (1990), and “Riverboat Shuffle: Original 1924-1929 Recordings” (2001).