Tag Archives: Bix Beiderbecke

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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What Bix Means to Me: Bent Persson

The renowned Swedish jazz king may be best known for his love of Louis Armstrong’s music but (contrary to some folks’ opinions) that doesn’t preclude being bonkers about Bix Beiderbecke.

He says: “I sure am a Bix devotee – I became one the first time I heard a record with him playing. I guess I was about 16 at the time, and I think it was his entry into his short solo on Humpty Dumpty that hit me.

“I can listen to that part over and over and feel the magic (and sadness) it expresses. Never was there a more beautiful (and more perfectly timed) cornet tone played than the one that starts his solo…

“Alongside Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, he was the most important jazz personality in the classic jazz of the 1920s. Of course you could describe his style as lyrical, melancholy, jubilant etc but there’s also a lot of other things in his music  – for instance, humour and an indescribable mystic quality, which turned everything he played into art.

“Above all, he was a true improviser – there are no solos in alternative takes that have any resemblance to each other in terms of choices of notes or approach. With Bix, hearing a second take for the first time is always a total surprise….”

Tomorrow: Duke Heitger.

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What Bix Means to Me: Alain Bouchet

The wonderful French trumpeter, pictured above (with me, a long time ago!) recalls his first impressions of  “l’ami” Bix:

“When I was a young jazz musician, I – of course – listened to the records by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, but also the ones by Bix Beiderbecke. His music was different, very individual and recognisable; as was his style of phrasing. I’d go so far as to say that for the time, his music was “modern”, advanced.

“He was surrounded by marvellous musicians like Frankie Trumbauer and Hoagy Carmichael. I was lucky enough to appear in a French TV movie To Bix or Not To Bix, in which I played his friend, Emmett Hardy.

“He only lived a short time but 80 years after his death, Bix’s music is always with us. Two of his compositions sum up the musician: In a Mist (Bix was an excellent pianist) and the beautiful Davenport Blues.”

* For more information on Alain Bouchet, visit www.alainbouchet.com . Tomorrow: Bent Persson.

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What Bix Means to Me: Warren Vache

The great US cornettist shares his feelings about Bix:

“Bix Beiderbecke expressed such profound emotion in such a natural way, it still speaks to us 80 years after his death.

“He was a unique stylist, one whose playing continues to influence me and almost all players to the current day – either directly or indirectly. His recordings – like those of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis and others – have become an integral part of the lexicon of the trumpet. Those of us who listen carefully can only do so in awe and wonder.

“Bix made music that rewards careful attention in a world that constantly looks away – and he paid a fearful price for his courage. For me, it would be a much bleaker world without Bix’s inspiration.

“My choice of Bix track? Singin’ the Blues. I’m not interested in telling people what to think about it – listen to it and let it take you where it may.. I think music that profound should be listened to – not talked about. The value in the experience is deciding what it means to you personally…”

Warren Vache’s new CD, Ballads and Other Cautionary Tales (Arbors Records), is out now. Tomorrow: Alain Bouchet.

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Our Boy Bix

Few jazz musicians inspire as much warmth and affection as Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornettist who died exactly 80 years ago.

Bix – it’s impossible not to refer to him by his first name, because those of us who love his music are also mad about this lost boy wonder – was one of jazz music’s first major casualties; a glorious talent which flared briefly but was burned out before his 30th birthday.

Nevertheless, in less than a decade’s worth of recordings, Bix made an indelible mark on the music.  His cornet sound is utterly unique and instantly identifiable: bright, golden and beguiling. Listen to any of the tunes which feature him and, even when he’s playing with an already impressive band, he lifts the whole sound when he comes in, and drives the ensemble.

I can’t think of a better example of the wonder of Bix in that context than the jubilant 1927 recording of Sorry (scroll down to hear it). It sounds great before Bix comes in, but when he does it’s like a light has been switched on and everything is illuminated.

His solos – which should be required listening for every jazz musician – are works of art, nothing less. Does it get any better than his spots on Jazz Me Blues and the exquisitely melancholy I’m Coming Virginia? I doubt it.

And then there are the piano pieces. You can’t talk about Bix without it being personal, and you certainly can’t talk about the piano pieces without noting that
Bix was an ahead-of-his-time composer with an ear for unusual harmonies, and a deep love of the music of Ravel and Debussy. And yet, he never did learn to read and write music – and he always remained a little at odds with convention, a rebellious figure who regularly tried, and failed (thankfully), to conform and fit in.

His individuality, which some tried to suppress, also drew fans and admirers to him like a magnet. “He opened roads to us – and brought forwards so much melody and harmony in his solo work that it opened all of our eyes,” said the trumpeter Doc Cheatham. At one point in the 1920s, as Doc recalled: “We all chased around trying to play like Bix, every one of us.” Louis Armstrong agreed, adding: “Ain’t none of them played like him yet. He was a born genius. They crowded him with love.”

Bix was an alcoholic from early in his career, when the bootleg gin flowed freely despite (or perhaps because of) Prohibition. He died on August 6, 1931 – at the age of just 28, having spent the last couple of years of his life either unwell, drying out or unfulfilled and frustrated in the Paul Whiteman band.

Almost immediately the legend of Bix sprang up, in books and on film. It’s difficult to gauge, through eight decades’ worth of cliches, hyperbole and mythology, exactly what Bix the man was like. All you can do is listen to the music and hear for yourself.

Some writers have bemoaned the fact that his premature death deprived us of more recordings; frankly, that thought has never occurred to me – his body of work comprises so many moments of sheer joy and heartbreaking loveliness, all of them endlessly appealing …

Each day this week, I’ll be posting the thoughts of a series of  Bix fans – musicians and writers –  about what Bix means to them, along with their favourite Bix tracks. Tomorrow: Warren Vache.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra with Cecile McLorin Salvant

Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra, Spiegeltent, Sunday July 24th ****

Whether it was the Spiegeltent audience’s enthusiastic reception or the fact that they were able to play their favourite tunes – as opposed to being limited to one or two composers’ output – the musicians of the Classic Jazz Orchestra were in especially fine form for their Sunday night session.

As leader Ken Mathieson has often explained, this band draws its repertoire from right across the first half-century of jazz, from the 1920s through to the 1960s – and Sunday’s varied programme was effectively a musical version of this manifesto. Both sets kicked off with numbers recorded definitively by cornettist Bix Beiderbecke in the years running up to his 1931 death (it was a treat to hear Way Down Yonder in New Orleans again, with the band playing Beiderbecke’s glorious solo as part of the arrangement) before moving on to tunes ranging from Jelly Roll Morton to Gerry Mulligan, with one of their new party pieces- Antonio Carlos Jobim’s slithery Waters of March a particular highlight.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, the young American singer who made her debut in Edinburgh this weekend, joined the band for a handful of songs – and blew the audience away. Her lovely, bright voice and habit of paring down the tune and holding back on the beat recalled Billie Holiday on the bouncier tunes, yet she displayed Sarah Vaughan’s ugly-beauty approach when it came to her stand-out song, the ballad Born to Be Blue.

(First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday July 26th)

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