Monthly Archives: August 2011

What Bix Means to Me: Marty Grosz

The inimitable guitarist and singer has trumpeted the music of Bix Beiderbecke since early in his career: one of his early LPs was entitled Hooray for Bix, and celebrated the spirit of Bix’s small groups while avoiding replicating their recordings. He is currently working on arrangements of five Bix tunes – “nothing to do with the records; no recreation of solos” – for a set at the Chautauqua Jazz Weekend in September. He says:

“I first heard Bix when I was about 14, and Columbia reissued some of his recordings. This was about 1944. The rest of the kids were were into Glenn Miller and the hits of the day – and the big record that everyone in that generation had was Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started which was a sort of anthem.

“Bix’s band had a bass sax. It sounded strange; quite odd actually – that’s what I liked. I felt – and still feel – that there’s something very affecting about Bix, something touching about his sound. People still haven’t put their finger on it, and I wonder if my impression of it isn’t tinged by his story, like Berigan’s is. You know: the alcoholic whose parents didn’t want him to be a musician – the romance of that story. There’s been more bullshit written about him than about Marilyn Monroe … His life filled the role of unappreciated genius and the public loves that. The best thing you can do for your career is die early.

“This cult sprang up about Bix in the 1930s – the Young Man With a Horn and he became a sort of romantic figure. But when you talked to Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon – guys who knew him – they said simply that he was a great guy, a great player, but he drank too much. They didn’t get it – why people wanted that kind of romantic story.

“Listen to how Bix plays In a Mist – it’s like a stomp. I wish he hadn’t called it In a Mist – it encouraged people to talk about Bix ‘the dreamer’. It’s extrapolation after the fact – but the myth will go on. People need it.

“Nevertheless, I’ve always been touched by the melancholy aspect in his cornet playing – Louis Armstrong had that tinge of melancholy too, and profundity. Listen to Tight Like This. When he plays in the minor, it’s Wagnerian.

“I discovered Louis and Bix at the same point in my life since Bix’s recordings and Louis’s Hot 5 recordings were reissued at pretty much the same time. Whereas the Hot 5 tunes weren’t pop tunes – Louis didn’t really start playing pop tunes till the 1930s – Bix’s tunes were ones that people were still singing and playing when I was a kid: Margie, Somebody Stole My Gal etc. It helped us to assimilate them – it was the pop tunes  that got us first, though I’m Coming Virginia was probably the recording that really hooked me.

“I grew up listening to a couple of New York DJs who played a total mixture of jazz – you’d have Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko, recorded in 1940, followed by something by Bessie Smith – and I didn’t realise for a long time that her stuff was much older. It was all mixed in together. I was drawn to improvised ensembles, like Bix’s and the Eddie Condon records – things that played with a kind of wild abandon that you really couldn’t hear anywhere else because the fashion at the time was for mostly smooth, suave, arranged stuff. And of course Louis got to me – there was a raucous aspect to him which was missing to the arranged things of the day.

“I love the bittersweet quality to Bix’s sound – Berigan had that too. I love Bix’s solos on Sweet Sue – Just You and China Boy, both with Paul Whiteman. Whatever he did, within two bars, you know who it was. That’s the stamp of a very strong musical personality. The most important thing about a jazz musician is that you can tell who it is instantly.

“Years ago, I was writing about Frank Teschemacher for Time Life and I was sent some clippings of interviews with jazz musicians that had been done by a guy in Chicago during the WPA (Works Progress Administration, which ran relief projects).  This guy had interviewed Muggsy Spanier who told him that he and Bix played duets together. He also interviewed George Barnes,  just 18 at the time, who told him that the first time he understood what swing was was when Jimmy McPartland lent him the record of Bix playing Singin’ the Blues.

“If I had to choose one track, it would be I’m Coming Virginia. Why? The sound! The sound and the note choices he makes. It’s a fully realised performance. It’s just beautiful, that’s all.

“I’d be hard-pressed to choose a second – I love bits in all his recordings but I’ve been enjoying Clementine recently …”

As a tantalising postscript, Marty added that Bud Freeman told him that in 1930, there were plans afoot for a tour of Europe by a group comprising himself, Bix, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, Dick McDonough and a bass player whose name Freeman couldn’t recall .. It never happened.

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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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What Bix Means to Me: Bernd Lhotzky

The German pianist (pictured on the far right, with Rossano Sportiello) shares with Dick Hyman a love of the piano music of Bix Beiderbecke, and has also recorded some of it (on his solo album Stridewalk and the duo CD Tandem). Nevertheless, he only came to it after he had already been seduced by Bix’s recordings on cornet.

Bernd says: “The first two Bix Beiderbecke recordings I heard were I’m Coming Virginia and Singin’ The Blues at the age of 14. The quality and incomparable beauty of the cornet tone were overwhelming. Some notes are so rich in overtones that they ring like a bell. I especially love those he attacks with a sforzato followed by a fast vibrato. What nobel clarity of the phrases, the use of dynamics and the immense creativity in the melodic lines!

“With maximum efficiency Bix uses the harmonic material  of the era and creates a music full of joy and excitement.

“When I met Ralph Sutton in my early twenties, I learned to know Bix’s piano music and immediately fell in love with it. A couple of years after Ralph Sutton had passed away, his widow Sunny took me to their home in Bailey, Colorado and showed me Ralph’s music room exactly in the state he had left it in, with a copy of the four famous piano solos on the upright’s music stand. Candlelights is probably my favorite among them.”

Due to the interest in this series, I’m extending it indefinitely. Tomorrow: Andy Schumm.

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What Bix Means to Me: Dick Hyman

The piano wizard spent last weekend co-directing The Statesman of Jazz band at the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Weekend in Davenport, Iowa. Not surprising, really, since Dick has been a fan of Bix for most of his life – and has celebrated it in numerous ways, most recently on the CDs If Bix Played Gershwin (Arbors Records) and Thinking About Bix (Reference Recordings). He’s also a wonderful ambassador for Bix’s piano compositions.

He says: “Bix’s music had a powerful effect on me from the first records of his which my big  brother brought home from college. They were ’78 reissues  of Somebody Stole My Gal, Rhythm King, I’m Coming Virginia and Singin’ the Blues. Those titles  remain precious to me among the 200 or so recordings which Bix played on.

“It is not only the notes, which are Mozartian  in their mixture of the perfect melodic sequence  and then the astonishing unexpected turns of phrase,  but the way the notes are played: at times boldly and fortissimo, then tender and imploring, dead center on pitch or  with a  blues-inflected quaver. It is difficult and finally impossible to describe music in words, but these are some of the things I hear in his playing …”

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What Bix Means to Me: Jon-Erik Kellso

The American trumpeter has just returned from the annual Bix Fest in Beiderbecke’s home town of Davenport,  but found time to talk to Jazz Matters about his love of Bix.

“I discovered the joys of Bix as a wee lad in elementary school, thanks to my musician pal Mike Karoub. We were strange kids, hunting for hot jazz on 78s in second hand shops, inspired by our parents’ record collections. We were lucky to have parents who had (have) good taste in music, and Mike’s dad was the local junior high school band director, and a professional musician and conductor, and he helped steer us towards some good stuff.

“Mike called me one day, and said: ‘Get your ass over here right now – you gotta hear this LP I picked up. It’s of a cornet man named Bix Beiderbecke.’ We were 10 or 11 years old at the time, and we were blown away by what we heard, just as I am today, every time I listen to Bix. We put together a jazz band around this time, and saved up allowance and newspaper route money to buy arrangements to get the band rolling.

“As a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks since I moved to New York City in ’89, I have the dubious honor of playing the Bix parts on several arrangements and transcriptions. I have to tell you, trying to fill his shoes is a neat trick! But it’s been a great way to delve further into studying his playing, and I’ve learned a lot from it.

“One of the things I find fascinating about Bix’s playing is that he could sound so relaxed, and yet so driving at the same time. His time, rhythmic sense, attack and articulation, sense of timing and musicality all played a part in this. He was somehow able to play hot and cool at the same time! And what a tone! Instantly recognizable, and so beautiful.

“Not only did he play gorgeous and ingenious solos, but he was also a wonderful ensemble player, and always played a hot and clear lead when it was time to do so. His chemistry with Frankie Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, Adrian Rollini and the like was fantastic. I feel like he made those around him play even better than they might otherwise, and have read first-hand accounts that corroborated my theory.

“It’s hard to single out a favorite recording, but Riverboat Shuffle with Frank Trumbauer’s Orchestra is one of the first I heard, and it illustrates his masterful ensemble playing, confident leads and brilliant solo work. I also love his piano compositions dearly.”

Tomorrow: Dick Hyman.

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What Bix Means to Me: Jim Galloway

(c) Alison Kerr, 2011

The Scottish-born, Toronto-based soprano saxophonist has always loved the legendary Bix Beiderbecke‘s “beautiful tone and great melodic and harmonic sense” – and first heard his music as a youngster listening to BBC radio.

He was lucky enough to get to know older musicians, such as the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, who were colleagues of Bix during his heyday. Indeed, Jim paid tribute to both during this year’s Norwich Jazz Party when he played I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, a beautiful ballad which Russell told Jim he liked to play “because it was a favourite of Bix’s”.

Typically, Jim has a funny Bix-related story:  “A few years ago I was in LA, and Betty O’Hara, a very good horn player and singer was also on the gig. One morning, I came out of the elevator just as Betty came out of another one just opposite. We said our hellos, and then Betty said: ‘Did I tell you that I bought a parrot?’ I said that she hadn’t mentioned it so then she said: ‘Guess what his name is?’ I had no idea, and then she hit me with it … ‘Beaks Bite or Peck!’

“Two of my favourite tracks are Singin’ the Blues (it was Eddie Higgins’s favourite too) and, for great hot ensemble playing, the first chorus of San, recorded in 1928 with Paul Whiteman. And we must not forget his remarkably modern piano compositions – In a Mist, In the Dark, Flashes, Cloudy and Candlelights.”

Tomorrow: Jon-Erik Kellso.

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What Bix Means to Me: Duke Heitger

The New Orleans-based trumpeter shares his feelings about Bix Beiderbecke:

“I was fortunate that Bix Beiderbecke recordings were a part of my earliest jazz memories. When I finally decided to take up the cornet seriously, I tried to copy Bix’s solo on I’m Coming Virginia. Even at the age of 12, I knew there was something special about this recording. What I didn’t completely understand was how special and influential the player on that recording was.

“In Bix, the world was introduced to a truly unique jazz musician whose approach influenced countless jazz musicians, many of whom became legends themselves. Between his sound, harmonic choices and lyricism, Bix provided us with some of the most hauntingingly beautiful music to date. We should all celebrate the life of this great genius.”

Tomorrow: Jim Galloway.

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