Tag Archives: Bix Beiderbecke
Five days into the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and even the most seasoned campaigner can begin to lag. Thank the lord, then, for Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra and its Beiderbecke-heavy Tuesday evening programme. There is nothing like a blast of Bix to buoy this girl’s flagging spirits – and the CJO obliged, in style, serving up so many uplifting and jubilant 1920s hits that it was almost impossible to resist the urge to rouge one’s knees, bob one’s hair and embark on a dance marathon with gay abandon (if not a gay friend).
The Beiderbecke repertoire is packed with gems which Mathieson has dusted off and lovingly arranged for his eight-piece band, and it’s always a delight to hear them being played with so much panache and enthusiasm – and especially by such terrific younger players as trombonist Phil O’Malley and tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski.
One of the particular joys of the CJO’s interpretations of Bix music is the way in which the cornettist’s unforgettable and often exquisite solos have been retained and arranged for the entire outfit to play, often in unison – and, on Tuesday, a highlight was the famous I’m Comin’ Virginia solo which trumpeter Billy Hunter began on his own before being joined by le tout ensemble.
Other stand-outs in this Bix bonanza were From Monday On, Ostrich Walk and There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears which featured a dazzling solo from Wiszniewski who was also memorably showcased on Buddy Tate’s Idlin’ – from the non-Beiderbecke part of the programme.
First published in The Herald on Thursday, July 26th
There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears
Old Stack O’Lee Blues
Big Butter and Egg Man
I’m Comin’ Virginia
Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down
Can’t We Be Friends
From Monday On
Jack the Bear
Singin’ the Blues
Published in The Herald, August 12, 1997
With the late addition to Nairn International Jazz Festival’s opening concert of one man, numerous jazz fans (this one included) were spurred into foregoing a recovery period after the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival in order to travel up north a day earlier than planned.
Cornettist Warren Vache (left), who had battled to be audible amid the chaos of Wednesday’s Usher Hall concert and whose Thursday set with Scott Hamilton suffered as a result of overwhelming heat and (justifiably) inflamed tempers, was to join singer Carol Kidd for her Friday-night concert. This was too enticing and inspired a musical match to miss.
Vache and Kidd have a great deal in common: both are capable of styling songs in the most subtle and imaginative ways and both regularly delight audiences with exquisite performances of ballads. Hell, they even have a favourite song – I Can’t Get Started – in common. The prospect of hearing them balladeering together was mouthwatering. The reality, however, was monumentally depressing.
All hopes for a meeting of two like musical minds were dashed as we waited and waited for Vache to be invited on stage. This world-class cornetist was totally marginalised by Carol Kidd, who was to keep him hanging around until the end of the show before inviting him on to the marquee stage, and introducing him as someone who ”had played with Rosemary Clooney”.
Vache was patronised, sidelined and allowed to play on only three numbers in total. A disgusting waste of his unparalleled talent As it was, Vache had the honour of playing on one Kidd ballad. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning hinted at what might have been, but it was followed by two raucous, uninspired songs during which the drummer was featured more than Mr Vache.
Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the busy marquee in the grounds of the stately hotel Boath House were altogether more uplifting experiences. Vache was teamed up – as he was at this event last year – with the veteran pianist Ralph
Sutton for two concerts of duets. The cornetist made up for lost time, with a virtuosic , powerhouse display of swinging, soulful and lyrical playing. The atmosphere was electric, and the affection and rapport between Sutton and Vache were unforced and very evident.
Vache stalked the stage as he played, periodically leaning into Sutton’s piano, and was clearly more at ease than he had been in any other recent gig. The choice of numbers was perfect (Home, Old Folks, I Want a Little Girl), and every one was a thrill; Sutton’s classy but warm pianistics provided the perfect balance with Vache’s eloquent cornet.
Highlights – and there were many – included Sutton’s brilliant boogie woogie on St Louis Blues, his lightning-fast stride on I Found a New Baby and his evocative interpretation of Bix Beiderbecke’s In A Mist. Again, the Beiderbecke connection continued with a spellbinding, heart-melting Vache-Sutton duet on Singin’ the Blues.
Indeed, if – as Hoagy Carmichael famously said – Beiderbecke’s sound was like a girl saying yes, then Warren Vache’s is the boy asking . . . in the most romantic way. Witness his beguiling playing on Sleepy Time Down South, Nobody Knows, I Can’t Get Started and the divine This Is All I Ask.
Sutton and Vache were a tough double act to follow, but young pianist Benny Green did an impressive job on Sunday night. While the first half of his trio’s concert perhaps overdid the self-indulgent abstraction, the second offered more soulful, lyrical musings, with a sumptuously slow The Very Thought Of You, an extended blues, and Stolen Moments being the most memorable numbers.
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.