What Bix Means to Me: Andy Schumm

The young trumpeter doesn’t just wax lyrical about Bix Beiderbecke for Jazz Matters; he’s written us a (controversial in parts) essay…

Bix Beiderbecke is quite possibly the most influential figure in the entire history of jazz. In this distinction, Bix joins the ranks of early jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby.  Countless books and articles have been written on these musicians, dealing with both their music and their personas.  While much as been written about Bix as both man and musician, I always find myself coming back to the music much more than the personality. Bix stands alone in this list of influential musicians in that he was simply concerned with music more than much of anything else.

When we think of Louis Armstrong, one of the images that comes to mind is the showman and entertainer.  That is not to take anything away from his music. The same goes for Jelly Roll Morton, who was known to be an extremely active self-promoter.  We also hear of Benny Goodman’s colorful personality.  We envision the man who wields his 18 piece big band as effortlessly as his clarinet, yet was known to skimp on reeds.  I’ve heard stories about Benny picking up used reeds off the floor rather than buying a pack on his own.

Bing Crosby was also no slouch when it came to self-promotion.  That’s quite a toupée Bing’s wearing from the 1930s on.  When it comes to Bix, I really believe that there wasn’t much there besides the music.  Can you imagine Bix wearing a toupée?

Maybe this is the heart of why there is such as fascination for Bix as the man.  I’ll admit I wish I could have an hour with Bix, and ask him all of the burning questions I have about the records he made, the people he played with, and experiences on the road.  However, I think I’d be sorely disappointed.  Here’s how I envision it going down:

Andy: Did you intend to play that figure going into the piano solo on “Goose Pimples? Why did you blow sharp on the out chorus?

Bix: _ (shrugs)

Bix was certainly a kind person for the most part.  He was good to kids who would meet him backstage.  He would help other musicians having a bit of a hard time.  He loved his family in his own way.  However, I’m sure his first love was music.  We’ve all read the stories about Bix going to fool around on the piano on set breaks rather than going out back to smoke a joint or chase a girl.  I also think that he would sit at that piano all night regardless if the room was packed with alligators or if he was all alone.  It’s not enough to say that Bix was modest.  He just didn’t care.

Bix was also alone in his approach to music.  I believe that Bix was the first important jazz musician to be born out of records.  Today we take it for granted. If I want to go hear Red Nichols, I pull out one of my Brunswick 78s or a CD reissue, grab a beer, listen, and study.  When Louis Armstrong first got a cornet at the Waifs’ Home in New Orleans, there was no such thing as jazz in the sense we would understand.  He learned the to play the horn from a trained instructor in an appreticeship-like situation.  He played everything from marches to mazurkas.

Louis eventually found jazz playing alongside musicians such as Joe Oliver.  While Bix did receive intermittent instruction on the piano from a young age, it wasn’t until he heard those Original Dixieland Jazz Band records in the late 1910s that he went out and bought a cheap cornet and began imitating those other-worldly sounds eminating from the phonograph horn.

While someone with the innate talent of Bix’s would no doubt have ended up doing something in music, it was these first records that instantly changed his life, thereby becoming the first major jazz musician influenced mainly from records.

For evidence of this, refer to the majority of the “Bix and his Gang” records on the OKeh label.  Many of the tunes were pulled from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s library, rather than the current tunes of the day.  In 1928, he’s still using the “silent cowbell” ending found on the ODJB records of 10 years prior.  This ending had effectively gone out of fashion in the early 1920s.  Are these some of the first jazz repertory recordings?  Either way, it’s a major sea-change in the development of jazz.

Bix had such an unbelievable intensity in his music.  Contemporaries speak of it often.  Yet, when it comes to his personality, he’s passive.  Looking back 80 years since the time of his death, it’s hard to imagine such incredible music coming out of that meek-looking kid with the skinny fingers.  Admit it.  When I first saw that Fox Movietone film showing Bix standing up to play along with the Whiteman trumpet section, I couldn’t believe that this guy who cuts out early at the end of the phrase could be responsible for At the Jazz Band Ball or Sorry. Aside from the shock of seeing Bix move on film, I’m left even more puzzled as to how Bix really came to be.

Maybe that’s just how it is.  Bix was really just a guy who was obsessed with good music.  He made no airs about his stature in the jazz world, nor did he intentionally portray himself as the stereotypical struggling, socially-inept jazz musician who drinks too much.  All of us musicians get sidetracked from our music by other interests and distractions.  Bix had such a pure ideal about music.  As a musician, I can only try my best to live up to it.  When it comes down to it, Bix just was.  A rarity.  Something unattainable.

We sure could use a Bix Beiderbecke today.

****

If I had to recommend two tracks the first would be Sorry – by Bix and his Gang. Listen to how effectively Bix leads the ensemble.  This is the characteristic that is most often lost today.  Bix was a better ensemble player than soloist, which is saying something!

And the other would be Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra’s recording of Gypsy. While this is not my overall favorite recording, it is one of my favorite Bix solo examples.  Listen for the economy of notes he uses in expressing the melody. It’s a rather obscure Bix cut, and I’d recommend you listen to the entire recording to get the full effect.  Don’t cheat and jump to the Bix solo…

Tomorrow: Marty Grosz.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What Bix Means to Me: Andy Schumm

  1. Glenda Childress

    I like the initial distinction you make about Bix V. Armstrong, Morton, Goodman, and Crosby. As good as Louis, and there’s no argument about that, when you listen to his recordings from the Hot Fives on, IT’S ALL ABOUT LOUIS: he’s always right in front of the mike, he solos long and often, sometimes in the same song, and even when there are great solos by the others here and there, he just dominates the listener’s attention with his energy and drive. That’s just him.

    Meanwhile, in Bix’s earlier recordings and some later ones, we have to strain a little to hear him way back in his section or turn up the volume to hear that tone. Louis made sure that full, rich sound of his went right into the recording device; we wish Bix had done so, but often he doesn’t. Louis almost stops the tune in its tracks; Bix somehow seeks out the essence of the song and tailors his little solos to show off that essence. You’re right. It wasn’t all about him; it was all about the music at hand at the moment.

  2. Very thoughtful analysis of Bix’s music and personality. Concise, well-written and, using an “economy of words” just like Bix used an “economy of notes,” packed with information. Perhaps there are two key sentences in Andy’s essay that tell us about Bix’s unique characteristics which are not often recognized.

    1. “Bix was a better ensemble player than soloist.” Indeed, Bix had a remarkable ability to lead ensemble performances. When he played with small groups, Bix’s cornet work is easily discerned throughout the recording. His sense of rhythm, his dynamism, and his unsurpassed drive inspire the other performers to attain new heights, and add another dimension to each performance. However, I do not agree that Bix’s ensemble work was superior to his work as soloist. Each and every one of his solos were masterpieces of extemporaneous composition. Bix created his melodic variations with an intuitive feeling for the harmonic progressions. With deliberation and a powerful creative imagination, Bix chose each particular note, determined how those notes were to be played individually, and judged how they were to be connected to each other. What makes Bix unique among all jazz players is that his instrument was not an end in itself, but rather, it was a means by which he could express his musical ideas, his unlimited creativity. The melody and the underlying harmony, not a display of virtuosity, were the essence of Bix’s cornet work. Bix’s solos are masterpieces of composition.

    2. “When it comes to Bix, I really believe that there wasn’t much there besides the music.” Indeed, Bix lived for music and in music. As I said in the concluding sentence of my brief Bix biography (http://ms.cc.sunysb.edu/~alhaim/brief.htm), “Music was the all-consuming focus of his life, the essence of his being; and in music he wrought his everlasting legacy.”

    Well done, Andy!

  3. Good thoughts Andy, interesting points of view. I agree Bix was all about the music. For that reason, he continues to be a hero!

  4. Jamaica Knauer

    Excellent essay, Andy. I don’t see anything controversial about it. You hit the nail on the head.

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