Our Boy Bix

Few jazz musicians inspire as much warmth and affection as Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornettist who died exactly 80 years ago.

Bix – it’s impossible not to refer to him by his first name, because those of us who love his music are also mad about this lost boy wonder – was one of jazz music’s first major casualties; a glorious talent which flared briefly but was burned out before his 30th birthday.

Nevertheless, in less than a decade’s worth of recordings, Bix made an indelible mark on the music.  His cornet sound is utterly unique and instantly identifiable: bright, golden and beguiling. Listen to any of the tunes which feature him and, even when he’s playing with an already impressive band, he lifts the whole sound when he comes in, and drives the ensemble.

I can’t think of a better example of the wonder of Bix in that context than the jubilant 1927 recording of Sorry (scroll down to hear it). It sounds great before Bix comes in, but when he does it’s like a light has been switched on and everything is illuminated.

His solos – which should be required listening for every jazz musician – are works of art, nothing less. Does it get any better than his spots on Jazz Me Blues and the exquisitely melancholy I’m Coming Virginia? I doubt it.

And then there are the piano pieces. You can’t talk about Bix without it being personal, and you certainly can’t talk about the piano pieces without noting that
Bix was an ahead-of-his-time composer with an ear for unusual harmonies, and a deep love of the music of Ravel and Debussy. And yet, he never did learn to read and write music – and he always remained a little at odds with convention, a rebellious figure who regularly tried, and failed (thankfully), to conform and fit in.

His individuality, which some tried to suppress, also drew fans and admirers to him like a magnet. “He opened roads to us – and brought forwards so much melody and harmony in his solo work that it opened all of our eyes,” said the trumpeter Doc Cheatham. At one point in the 1920s, as Doc recalled: “We all chased around trying to play like Bix, every one of us.” Louis Armstrong agreed, adding: “Ain’t none of them played like him yet. He was a born genius. They crowded him with love.”

Bix was an alcoholic from early in his career, when the bootleg gin flowed freely despite (or perhaps because of) Prohibition. He died on August 6, 1931 – at the age of just 28, having spent the last couple of years of his life either unwell, drying out or unfulfilled and frustrated in the Paul Whiteman band.

Almost immediately the legend of Bix sprang up, in books and on film. It’s difficult to gauge, through eight decades’ worth of cliches, hyperbole and mythology, exactly what Bix the man was like. All you can do is listen to the music and hear for yourself.

Some writers have bemoaned the fact that his premature death deprived us of more recordings; frankly, that thought has never occurred to me – his body of work comprises so many moments of sheer joy and heartbreaking loveliness, all of them endlessly appealing …

Each day this week, I’ll be posting the thoughts of a series of  Bix fans – musicians and writers –  about what Bix means to them, along with their favourite Bix tracks. Tomorrow: Warren Vache.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Our Boy Bix

  1. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Warren Vache | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  2. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Alain Bouchet | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  3. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Bent Persson | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  4. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Duke Heitger | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  5. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Jim Galloway | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  6. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Jon-Erik Kellso | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  7. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Dick Hyman | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  8. Alison,
    “What Bix Means To Me” is a terrific series. Excellent idea!.
    I understand that you are going to publish an essay by Andy Schumm.
    Other first-class Bix specialists whose comments would be highly illuminating are Jim Cullum, Vince Giordano, Tom Pletcher and Randy Sandke.
    Cheers
    Albert

  9. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Bernd Lhotzky | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  10. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Andy Schumm | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  11. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Marty Grosz | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

  12. Pingback: What Bix Means to Me: Otis Ferguson | Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

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