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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