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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Bix And His Gang - The Bix Beiderbecke Story - Volume 1


The Jazz Me Blues

The Big Beiderbecke Story
Bix And His Gang
Volume 1
Columbia CL 844

From the back cover: The Bix Beiderbecke story is the great romantic legend of American jazz. It has everything: a sensitive young man who just had to play that horn, after-hour sessions in smoky cellars, gin, more gin and enough crazy stories to fill several books. And the setting was just right: a Scott Fitzgerald atmosphere with John Held illustrations, complete to Stutz bearcats and raccoon coats.

Bix outlived those times, but not by much. Like the stock market, he was riding high but shaky by 1929. He died on August 7, 1931, his health shot, all but washed up professionally at the ripe age of 28. The standard story of his death, which has been printed over and over again (as opposed to the whispers involving gangsters) is that Bix, sick in bed with a cold, got up to go to Princeton for a club date which would have been called off if he didn't show. He drove down in an open car, the story runs, developed pneumonia and died.

Somehow, until now, no one (the present writer included) ever questioned the anachronism of a Princeton dance in mid-summer. One of Box's fans, Frank Norris, who had gone to Lake Forrest Academy with him ten years earlier, recalls that Bix caught a beauty of a cold at the last of the week-ends that spring, and never did shake it off. "But diet a cold? Bix didn't die of a cold," say Norris, "He died of everything." Eddie Condon, who saw a great deal of Bix in 1931 when both were proving that one transplant hamburger a day can keep a man alive, confirms that Bix just gave out. "He was broke, run down and living in one stuffy room out in Jackson Heights. He had this cold that you or I – well, you, anyway – could shake off in a few days, but with Bix it was a case of having to stay in bed. It was the end of July, and so hot that he rigged up a couple of fans to blow on the bed. Two days of that and he had pneumonia, but good." By the time Bix got to a hospital, he couldn't have fought his way through a wet beer label.

So the legend got started faster than the biographers did. But before we get into the life story, let's consider the big thing: Bix's horn. It's something that will never quite fade away, as long as there's a record around. (Bix collectors are really avid about their boy. There's one in the middle west who rubber stamps all his letters Bix Lives.) Once heard, it's a sound you'll never forget: the warm, mellow cornet tone, sometimes with almost no vibrato at all; the attack that was as sure as Tris Speaker going after a long fly, with every note brought out as clearly as a padded mallet striking a chime; the flow of ideas, sometimes bursting with spontaneous energy and yet always sounding cooly calculated, as neatly arranged as though a composer had carefully organized each phrase and then plotted all the little inflections and dynamics.

Bix always played a cornet rather than a trumpet. This gave him a rounder, warmer, more intimate tone, as opposed to the more penetrating trumpet tone. There is always a reserved quality to Box's cornet sound; it's as though he never quite lets himself go all-out emotionally, even on a barrelhouse dixieland performance like At The Jam Band Ball. He was one of the most exciting musicians who ever lived, but he did it by the individuality of his toned the imaginativeness of his improvisations. Though his work was emotionally rich, it was always tempered by discipline which makes his work seem restrained alongside the freedom of the great New Orleans Negro musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds. To many, this quality enhances the spiritual excitement of Bix; it's like capping a geyser to get more kick out of it when it lets go.

Bix had an inborn feeling for chords, and all his improvisations make full use of the harmonic subtleties of whatever tune he's playing. An untrained rebel at the start, he was quick to sense the harmonic revolution of the early jazzmen. But as he learned more and probed deeper into modern harmony his dissatisfaction with jazz grew, and toward the end of his life he was in the throes of a musical dilemma (to say nothing of a physical struggle to overcome the effects of a youth strewn with Prohibition-time jugs). Some musicians have felt that Bix, in concentrating on kicking over the traces of conventional music and studying the why's of his revolt, got bogged down in more theory than he could handle.

Bix, who inherited the nickname from an older brother, was born Leon Bismarck Beiderbecke in Davenport, Iowa, on March 10, 1903. The Beiderbeckes were well-to-do and musical, but Bix never studied music much, although jazz fascinated him from an early age. His mother recalls young Bix playing cornet to a record of Tiger Rag, which internal evidence show pretty clearly to have been the 1918 Original Dixieland Jazz Band version. He certainly heard jazz bands on the riverboats that came north as far as Davenport, although the story that he heard Louis Armstrong is not confirmed by Louis, and is probably part of the legend.

In 1921, after two and a half undistinguished years at Davenport High School, Bix was sent to Lake Forrest Military Academy in the hopes that firmer discipline would keep him harder at his books. But the school had a liberal week-end policy, and Bix constantly found himself getting down to Chicago's South Side, where the first New Orleans jazzmen had begun to find work. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a fine white band, hit town that year, too. It didn't help Box's homework, but his cornet took on a new sound while he was at the academy.

Bix naturally gravitated into the student band that played for dances and during reel changes of movies in the gym. Social life was pleasant; a nearby girls' school, Ferry Hall, provided partners for the dances. (Jean Harlow was a Ferry student about the time Bix was at Lake Forrest.) The band played on a balcony which was reached by a trapdoor, and Frank Norris recalls the time that Bix was heating it up for the kids down on the gym floor and the headmaster, John Wayne Richards, poked his head through the trapdoor to call out, "Tone it down, Bix, tone it down!"

A year and a half of Lake Forrest, and Bix had convinced the faculty that it was no use keeping him around any longer. Bix (who always was to have a reputation as a self-taught musician and a poor reader) continued to play cornet his own way. Not knowing that he first two valves of the horn are the principal ones, he used all three equally and habitually played many notes "the hard way." This dependency on the third valve, however, probably helped more than not. Eventually he was able to play with ease fantastic passages that would have been tough going in orthodox fingering.

Bit's apprenticeship among the New Orleans migrants in Chicago paid off in late 1923, when with a group of other youngsters with whom he had been jobbing around he landed a steady job at the Stockton Club, a roadhouse in Hamilton, Ohio. This was the debut of the Wolverines, the first good white jazz band consisting entirely of non-New Orleans musicians. For a pioneer group, they played remarkably well, and Bix made the band swing almost as much as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (which, oddly enough, included four musicians from southern Indiana and Illinois). Those who criticize early-jazz sound of the Wolverines from the vantage point of a quarter-century would do well to consider that they gave Bix more of a jazz setting for his horn than any group of musicians he ever worked with. Bill Priestley adds: "I know of no other band that relied less for ideas on the other bands they were hearing."

Squirrel Ashcraft, another Princetonian and a good pianist who frequently sat in with the Wolverines, points out that "the band pioneered ideas which meant so much to Bix that as long as he lived he repeated variations of things he played with them, or which other members of the band played." The tenor saxophone, George Johnson, was especially an influence on Bix. He set the rhythm of the band, and is was from Johnson that Bix first picked up one of his most striking characteristics: a strong dependency on the whole-tone scale.

An Indiana University student name Hoagy Carmichael heard about the Wolverines that winter and brought them to the campus for a spring dance. There is a classic description, quoted by Eddie Nichols in his illuminating chapter on Bix in Jazzmen, Of The Wolverines' arrival in an old phaeton, six musicians beat-up instruments spilling over the sides. Even Hoagy, who hadn't heard them play, was worried, but they were a sensation and came back for ten weekends in a row. Hoagy became one of Box's closest friends, and wrote a number for the Wolverines called Free Wheeling, which the boys went for in a big way because it gave them four breaks to blow in every chorus. Box changed the name to Riverboat Shuffle; you van hear it in Vol. 2.

The Wolverines had no lack of jobs that year, although there was a lull during the summer of 1924 which Bix filled in with Mezz Mezzrow's band at the Martinique Inn at Indiana Harbor, a tough mill town near Gary. The owner of the joint was a former welterweight named Monkey Pollack, who had studied English literature and later became a newspaperman. His bartender was a still stranger combination: he came from the Texas panhandle and had been both a cowboy and a rabbi. He always carried a pair of loaded pistols and could shoot dimes off beer bottles at fifty paces. Mezzrow, who was also Jewish, used to carry on in Yiddish with the bartender, just to hear him speak it with a broad Texas drawl. His boss called the ex-rabbi Yiddle, and in honor of his crack marksmanship Mezz wrote a tune which the band sometimes played and sang: Don't Fiddle With Fiddle – He'll Riddle Your Middle.

Early 1925 saw the gradual breaking-up of the Wolverines. Bix joined Charlie Straight's band in Chicago, where he could once more hear the great Negro musicians who were pouring into town. He even heard Bessie Smith, who usually toured the south, and they say he was so moved that he gave her his week's pay to keep on singing.

In September of that year Bix joined Frank Trumbauer's band in St. Louis. When Tram broke up the band in 1926 to join Gene Goldkette in Detroit, Bix went along. Goldkette had an all-star crew that was pretty expensive to keep up, and when he had to let the boys go in the fall of 1927, most of them (including Bix and Tram) went with Paul Whiteman. The pace there got to be pretty tough on Bix, who always drank a lot and solved his problems by drinking more. It caught up with him, made him semi-invalid, and when the chips were down he didn't have the strength to pull through.

The Bix and His Gang selections on this record are the freest and least inhibited Bix ever made. They are in a loose, improvisational style which the public accepts as dixieland. Good solos and solid ensemble work by other musicians are frequent, but Bix alone carries the stamp of greatness, and it is his playing that makes these records go.

In all twelve performances, Bix does the work of three of four men, often playing responsive phrases to his own melodic lines and blowing purely rhythmic explosions in this eagerness to kick the band along. With strictly jazz musicians on hand, Bix would not have had to work so hard, for the holes he plugs up himself would have been stopped up for him, but it is a special thrill to hear how he handles the shortcomings which he senses in his support as he plays. It wasn't just a fertile imagination and a lovely tone that made Bix a legend even before his romantically-timed demise. – George Avakian

Dates and Personnel 

October 5, 1927L The Jazz Me Blues, At The Jazz Band Ball, Royal Garden Blues, Bix Beiderbecke - Cornet; Bill Rank - Trombone; Don Murray - Clarinet; Adrain Rollini - Bass Sax; Frank Signorelli - Piano; Howdy Quicksell -Banjo and Chauncey Morehouse - Drums

October 25, 1927: Sorry, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down, Goose Pimples. Same personnel. The last title of each of these sessions was issued originally under the name of the New Orleans Lucky Seven.

April 178, 1928: Somebody Stole My Gal, Thou Swell. Beiderbecke" Rank; Izzy Friedman - Clarinet; Min Leibrook - Bass Sax; Lennie Hayton - Piano and Harry Gale - Drums

July 7, 1928: Ol' Man River, Wa-Da-Da. September 21, 1928. Rhythm King, Louisiana. Same personnel except that Singnorelli replaces Hayton.

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