Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Leon Bix Beiderbecke, 10 March 1903, Davenport IA; d 6 August 1931, Queens, NYC) Cornet, piano, composer. The first great white jazz musician, he became adistorted legend after death (alcoholism), a 'young man with a horn'. Began learning piano age three; his brother brought home records including the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 'Tiger Rag'. Fascinated by improvised music, Bix slowed the turntable speed to pick out cornet part on piano; soon took up cornet. Played in high school band; expelled from military academy '22; gigged in Chicago, played Lake Michigan excursion boats, joined Wolverines '23 and made his first records '24. He continued studying piano, the first important jazzman to be influenced by contemporary 'classical' music. His technique unorthodox, his intonation perfect, he never read music well but had a faultless ear; he knew little about the blues but was a lyrical, linear soloist; unlike Louis Armstrong he avoided bravura, experimenting harmonically from the start, but like Louis was a natural melodist, one of the first to be able to solo for 32 bars using logically compatible phrases, recomposing as he went along rather than improvising close to the melody. Of his unusually beautiful tone and his perfect attack, contemporaries said his notes sounded as if they had been struck, as with a mallet on a chime. He was the first white jazzman significantly to influence blacks.

The Wolverines were not a great band and were poorly recorded, Bix's sound described as piercing a curtain of fudge, but they were recommended by Hoagy Carmichael and played Indiana U, becoming a sensation on campuses. In NYC Bix was hired away by Jean Goldkette. He made two sides with the Sioux City Six, including Frank Trumbauer and Miff Mole, lost the Goldkette job because of poor reading but returned, made many records with Goldkette and later with Paul Whiteman. The Goldkette records were spoiled by the label's choice of songs and singers; a Victor recording engineer liked neither Bix's horn nor Bill Challis's arrangements, so a legendary band was not well represented on record. Whiteman's was a big, precise band that sometimes played ponderous music, but in its heyday it was admired by all the musicians black and white, because it made scores of delightful pop records for listening or dancing, its rhythmic smoothness belying its size and the arrangements always charming and often modern-sounding (see entries for Goldkette, Challis and Whiteman).

The legend is not true that Bix was frustrated by his position in that band; he was at the top of his trade and knew it, and Whiteman kept a chair open for him until the end. But his most famous records were made with small groups from '27 led by Trumbauer, often including Eddie Lang, J. Dorsey and Adrian Rollini; the best known are 'I'm Comin' Virginia' and 'Singin' The Blues'. Bix's compositions included 'In The Dark', 'Candlelight', 'Flashes', 'In A Mist' (he recorded the last as a piano solo). He had his first breakdown with delirium tremens '29.

Despite his personal success he never had confidence in himself or in the value of his work. It was said that he sent copies of his records home, but the family did not even open the parcels; that story has been disputed (but Ornette Coleman had that experience many years later). Bix's admiration of Armstrong was mutual: Louis allegedly lent Bix his his horn so he could sit in, something he rarely if ever did for anyone else. He inflluenced Red Nichols and Bobby Hackett, who influenced Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis respectively; Eldridge was the greatest influence on Dizzy Gillespie. Some scholars find links between Bix's advanced harmonic thinking and that of Charlie Parker; the beauty of his tone and phrasing can stand alone. Carmichael's songs 'Stardust' and 'Skylark' may have been based on Bix solos; Carmichael carried Bix's mouthpiece in his pocket the rest of his life. Bix: Man And Legend by Sudhalter and Evans '74 was one of the first great biographies in jazz; documentary film Bix: 'ain't none of them play like him yet' '81 was directed by Brigette Berman. Many CD compilations included Singin' The Blues and At The Jazz Band Ball on Columbia; Bix Lives! on Bluebird (including Goldkette and Whiteman).