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Category Archives: Bix
Otis Ferguson (1907-1943) was a brilliant American writer and critic who wrote for The New Republic from 1930 until his death – he was killed by a German bomb in the Gulf of Salerno. I first came across his work when I was a film student – and quoted his film essays in my dissertation on the screwball comedy. But we also share a love of jazz, and, in particular, of Bix Beiderbecke‘s music. Ferguson wrote no fewer than four essays on Bix – and his descriptions of his playing are inspired. Here are some of my favourite extracts.
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (The New Republic, July 1936)
“An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of the best elements in jazz …. Briefly, he played a full easy tone, no forcing, faking, or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch – it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at…..
“Here is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs – everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself.
“Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring.
“Bix Beiderbecke is to be found at his highest and best in a few of the early Goldkette and Whiteman sides (Clementine, San, etc) and especially in the small all-star outfits he and Trumbauer used to get together from larger personnels …. I could mutter and whistle the general idea of of the big full solo in Riverboat Shuffle, which was on the back of Ostrich Walk, which coupling just about represents the peak of a high and wonderful career – but why waste time with words and poor copies? One hears it, and is moved and made strangely proud; or one does not, and misses one of the fine natural resources of this American country.”
BIX BEIDERBECKE’S MUSIC (unpublished essay, 1940)
“You will know him by the little ringing shout he can get into a struck note; by the way each note seems to draw the others after it like a string of cars, giving the positive effect of speed even in his artful lags and deliberation, a sort of reckless and gay roll; and by the way, starting on the ground, he will throw a phrase straight up like a rope in the air, where it seems to hang after he has passed along, shaking gently. Above all (and this comes out best in the non-Dixieland numbers, where he remained subdued but getting the feel of it right up to the release and then putting it all in eight or 16 bars), above all there is his singing quality – over the chord and melodic structure of the tune and against the steady four-four beat, he made a little song of his own, sometimes shouting and sometimes very sweet, and often both at once …
“.. And there is exactly no-one who has kept this pure lyric quality which the best men begin to bring out only in the slow, haunting jump of the blues, in the kind of ride Bix used to take it in, on numbers with the tear and rush of an express train. To hear him is to have the feeling of being present at the original spring music comes from.
“Between Bix and whoever has the ear to listen there was none of the usual blocking effect of a set score and a difficult instrument; he simply delivered music, easy and direct. It is this intense but free personal language of his that explains such mysteries as, say, the effect of fierce open attack he gets in From Monday On – that first trumpet blast – without using the volume some can work up, and he gets it out of a horn much milder than a trumpet, at that. ..
“He taught himself ways of doing it that couldn’t have come from anyone else; for example, his trick of setting off the key note of a phrase by brushing a false – or grace – note just below it, so that he could rip up to it. An economy of emphasis, and at the same time a sharp underlining of where it falls, that leads the ear the way his phrase wants it to go. It was partly this that Hoagy Carmichael meant when he said: ‘The notes weren’t blown – they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime’; it was this that Whiteman meant when he said Bix could get more music into three notes than the whole band would get all night.”
NOTES ON BIX BEIDERBECKE (unpublished essay, 1940)
“He ran best when he had no care for the general effect, on the Whiteman and Goldkette records where you can almost see him sitting back there and laying for the four-, eight- or 16-bar chance he’d have at that tune, when he would light a fire under it and burn a few notes of variation on its theme down to a scatter of hard and bouncing gems. He had time to sit there and think out the musical possibilities, and then a single shot at bringing them together to confound fools (Felix the Cat).
“You can hear him on a hundred records, and most of the way through the records, you can hear that he is being held back, even when the arrangement calls for trumpets. But at some point on all the records that carry his signature, you will hear him come out from behind with something that is more than noise or tone or new phrase or anything definable, something that amounts to a dedication to all and any music, and a joy in it, a joy. When, for example, the old Whiteman number of Felix the Cat is over, and the word is given to take it out, Bix lifts his horn over the band from the back row in the close studio and the whole heavy organization seems to trail after him like banners.
“…He could leave a break (as in Lazy Daddy) on two low notes dropping roundly, just with that insolence and skill of a pool shark dropping the last two balls of the rack into the far-corner pocket, or he could hold a note and tease it through the better part of a two-bar break, and just out of his go-to-hell exuberance squeeze it up another half tone to come out on the chord.
“… Even if there weren’t people around to tell you you could guess it from the music: Bix never had to reach for a note. They were all lying right there in the drawer before him.”
* All extracts from In the Spirit of Jazz – The Otis Ferguson Reader (Da Capo Press, 1997).
The great English poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a passionate jazz fan and advocate of pre-bop jazz. Indeed, in 1965, he showed just where his priorities lay when he said: “I can live a week without poetry, but not a day without jazz.”
His book All What Jazz – A Record Library (faber & faber) revealed him to be a Bix devotee – one who, like other especially eloquent fans, came up with marvellous analogies for Bix’s playing.
He wrote: “There is no doubt of Bix’s originality: the astonishingly flighted solo on the Wolverines’ Royal Garden Blues shows him able, even at 21, to produce triumphs owing nothing to Armstrong. And there is no doubt it was wasted: to hear him explode like Judgement Day out of the Whiteman Orchestra (as on No Sweet Man) only to retire at the end of his 16 bars into his genteel surroundings like a clock-cuckoo is an exhibition of artistic impotence painful to witness. Bix should have been dominating his own group, not decorating the Whiteman cake. …. One is left miserable at the utter waste of the most original talent jazz ever produced.”
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.
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.
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.
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 …”