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.”
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.