Born two years and half a continent apart, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz, emerged as major soloists on the same instrument (cornet) at the same time (early 1924). They were viewed with awe by their contemporaries, and their contrasting styles evolved over time into the twin lines of descent from which most of today's jazz can be traced. In addition, they knew, liked, and admired each other: Armstrong dedicated his first book, Swing That Music, to Beiderbecke, describing him on a later occasion as a “born genius,” and Beiderbecke is widely reported to have felt more or less the same way about his older colleague.
Yet musicologists, while recognizing and acknowledging Beiderbecke's enduring significance, have nonetheless been strangely reluctant to treat him in the same way they treat Armstrong. Significantly, there is almost no monographic literature on Beiderbecke—none, that is, by academic scholars—and he goes entirely unmentioned in the key article on jazz in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. To be sure, he has been written about extensively, but for the most part by amateurs, journalistic critics, and working musicians. The latest book to be published about his life, Jean Pierre Lion's Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, is the work of a French businessman who describes himself on the dust jacket as “a literature and music collector” and who appears to have had no musical training whatsoever.1
The most obvious reason for this difference in treatment is that Beiderbecke is white and Armstrong black. In the politically charged creation myth that still dominates much of the received thinking about jazz, it is taken for granted that black jazz is more “authentic” than white jazz and that all white jazz musicians are by definition derivative. But, unfortunately for those who seek to put together the puzzles of history according to the rules of politics, there are always pieces left over at the end. In jazz, the first and biggest of these pieces is Beiderbecke—born into a middle-class Iowa family, initially exposed to jazz through the early recordings of the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and propelled to fame as a soloist in the all-white orchestra of Paul Whiteman, where he played in a self-taught style whose unlikely source was the harmonic language of Debussy and Ravel.
The difficulty is only deepened by the fact that, almost without exception, black musicians of the 1920's and 30's were as quick as their white colleagues to acclaim Beiderbecke as a major innovator. “All of a sudden, comes this white boy from out west, playin' stuff all his own,” the black cornet player Rex Stewart would recall years later. “Didn't sound like Louis [Armstrong] or anybody else. But just so pretty. And that tone he got. Knocked us all out.” The great black bandleader Fletcher Henderson even went so far as to record in 1931 a “cover version” of “Singin' the Blues” on which Stewart, who later became one of Duke Ellington's best-known soloists, plays a note-for-note interpretation of Beiderbecke's solo from his celebrated 1927 recording of the same song.2
But racial politics is not the only reason why scholars have paid more attention to Armstrong than to Beiderbecke. Not only was Louis Armstrong a great musician, but he was also a gifted writer of prose who had a passion for self-revelation. In two published memoirs, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and hundreds of letters and other autobiographical documents, he gave free rein to his outgoing personality. Beiderbecke, by contrast, was a shy, comparatively inarticulate man whose 44 surviving letters are for the most part unrevealing, and his friends and colleagues all claimed to find him hard to know on anything beyond a purely casual basis.
Their puzzlement was understandable enough. An alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of twenty-eight, Beiderbecke shunned close personal relations of any kind: in the words of the cornetist Jimmy McPartland, “Bix was a mystery to us. We all knew him, admired him, thought he was a great guy. But, in a way, we didn't know him at all.” His letters suggest a man of no more than average intelligence, and he appears to have had no serious extramusical interests at all (though friends testified to his enthusiasm for the novels of P.G. Wodehouse).3 Though his musical gifts were prodigious, he resisted all attempts at formal instruction, and even as an adult he found it vexingly difficult to read and write music.
Small wonder that a figure so inexplicable—and one who left behind so little documentary evidence of his personality—should have held so little attraction for academic scholars, whose penchant for reductive “explanations” of the lives of creative artists is notorious. Perhaps, then, it is a paradoxical stroke of good fortune that a French businessman rather than an American musicologist has attempted to write the “definitive biography” of Bix Beiderbecke.
Needless to say, Bix is something less than definitive—and not merely because Lion lacks the musical knowledge that might have made it possible for him to comment other than superficially on Beiderbecke's style. Besides that deficiency, Bix is marred by its author's uncritical acceptance of the race-based thinking of certain of his American colleagues. (It is, for instance, absurd to say that Beiderbecke “comforted Americans with the idea that an original white jazz was possible, alongside the music of black musicians.”)
Nevertheless, considered solely as a narrative biography, Bix is an exemplary piece of work. Building on the pioneering research of Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, the co-authors of Bix: Man & Legend (1974), Lion has made extensive use of important documentary material discovered after Sudhalter and Evans wrote their book. In so doing, he has exploded numerous myths that long ago crept into the Beiderbecke literature, replacing them with a factually trustworthy account of the cornetist's life.
What Lion cannot explain is the compulsion that led Beiderbecke to continue drinking long after he knew that it would kill him. Nor is he capable of shedding any light on the sources of Beiderbecke's genius, since genius can never be explained, only described. But his Bix does more than any previous book to describe the circumstances of its subject's enigmatic life, and in the process brings us as close to understanding him as we are likely to come.
The basic facts of Beiderbecke's life and work are known to all jazz scholars. Born Leon Bismark Beiderbecke in 1903 (“Bix” was a childhood nickname that stuck), he was the youngest son of a conservative businessman from Davenport, Iowa. A prodigy who began playing piano at the age of five, he first heard the Original Dixieland Jazz Band on record early in 1919, wheedled a used cornet from a neighbor, and quickly taught himself how to play what he was hearing. Within a matter of months, he was performing jazz in public on both cornet and piano, and by 1920, when he heard Louis Armstrong on a New Orleans excursion boat that touched briefly at Davenport, he had shrugged off all his other interests to concentrate on music.
By 1922 Beiderbecke was playing professionally, and in 1924 he made his first recordings with the Wolverine Orchestra, a jazz combo that played in a pepped-up version of the classic New Orleans style. Two years later he joined the dance band of Jean Goldkette, and in 1927 he became a member of the brass section of Paul White-man's orchestra, then the best-known instrumental ensemble in popular music. At that point his small-group recordings, most of them made in collaboration with the like-minded saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, had already made him legendary within the tight-knit community of jazz musicians, and his appearances with Whiteman brought him to the attention of a still wider audience.
Beiderbecke's style, which was all but fully formed when he made his first recordings, was completely different from that of the New Orleans-born cornet and trumpet players who preceded him, Armstrong included. Unlike them, he played with precise, at times almost fussy articulation and a rounded, chime-like tone whose sound Eddie Condon famously likened to “a girl saying yes,” sticking mostly to the middle register and avoiding the interpolated high notes that became an Armstrong trademark. His improvised solos had an architectural balance similar to Armstrong's, but they were more subdued in their emotional impact. Instead of making them pivot on the flattened “blue” thirds and sevenths favored by most black musicians of the day, Beiderbecke preferred to incorporate unexpected “color” tones extracted from the same upper-interval chords used by the modern European composers whose music he knew and loved.4
Beiderbecke's “cool” lyricism was seen by his contemporaries as an alternative to Armstrong's “hot,” extroverted virtuosity. He and Trumbauer would wield great influence on musicians of similarly lyrical inclination, including the white trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Bobby Hackett and such noted black players as Rex Stewart and the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. But working with the Whiteman band had also introduced Beiderbecke to a wider range of musical possibilities—among other things, he played on the first recording of George Gershwin's Concerto in F—and he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with composition at the time of his death in 1931.
To what extent his lack of musical training might have interfered with his progress as a composer cannot be known. In any case, the question was made moot by his drinking, which by 1929 had become so uncontrolled that an incapacitating attack of delirium tremens forced him to withdraw from the Whiteman band and return to Davenport. His parents sent him to a sanitarium, where he told the doctors that he had been drinking three pints of whiskey a day for the past three years. Soon after his release, he began drinking again; although he resumed his musical career briefly, his rapid physical deterioration kept him from returning to the Whiteman band, whose rigorous touring schedule he feared. Instead, he moved back to New York, where he died of a severe case of lobar pneumonia.
Why did Bix Beiderbecke destroy himself with alcohol? Contrary to still-popular belief, he does not seem to have become a drunk out of frustration with the alleged musical commercialism of the Whiteman band. Not only was he drinking to excess long before that, but he saw his work with Whiteman's musically advanced ensemble as the high-water mark of his career to date.5
While there are no easy explanations of a complex psychological phenomenon like alcoholism, enough is now known about Beiderbecke's life to make more informed speculation possible. In 1921, for instance, when he was seventeen, his parents sent him off to Lake Forest Academy, a Chicago-area boarding school. It was long taken for granted that they did so in the hope of forcing him to attend to his non-musical studies, but Jean Pierre Lion has now confirmed a persistent rumor that he had been arrested by Davenport police on a morals charge. Although the case never went to trial, surviving documents prove that Beiderbecke molested a five-year-old girl whose father claimed in an affidavit that “[s]he said he asked [her] to show herself.”
It was four months later, probably in an informal deal with the authorities, that he left Davenport for Lake Forest, a quasi-military prep school intended for well-to-do boys with “learning difficulties.” Lion believes that Beiderbecke was tortured by lifelong guilt over this episode (which, so far as is known, was never repeated). Whatever the specifics, there can be little doubt that he was deeply ashamed of his arrest, which the Beiderbecke family covered up for eight decades.
Shame of this nature might well help to explain Beiderbecke's alcoholism, and certainly appears to explain his longstanding problems with intimacy. Aside from a habitual unwillingness to be emotionally forthcoming with his friends, he is known to have had only two physical relationships with other adults, one of them a woman and the other a man. The latter was not disclosed until 1974, and given the stigma attaching to homosexuality during Beiderbecke's lifetime, this, too, may have been more than his Iowa upbringing had prepared him to accept.
Evidence compiled by Lion also disproves another widespread myth about Beiderbecke, which is that his middle-class parents disapproved of jazz so violently that they disowned him when he began to play professionally. In truth, they were proud of his success, especially after he joined the much-admired Whiteman band.6 What worried them—with good reason—was that their undisciplined, emotionally troubled son would be unequal to the rigors of life in the music business, as indeed he was.
At any rate, Beiderbecke's downward spiral into uncontrollable alcoholism is amply documented in the pages of Bix, and the story is a pitiable one. The more he drank, the less confidence he had in his ability to play well, and so he drank still more to overcome his growing fear. “As a result,” his friend Bing Crosby would recall, “he generally felt pretty rough, so much so that if anybody asked him, ‘How do you feel?’ he answered, ‘I don't ask you how you feel. Why do you ask me how I feel? You know I feel bad. Just leave me alone.’ ”
In time, Beiderbecke's physical collapse left him with nothing but his fear. The trombonist Jack Tea-garden, who played on his last recording session in 1930, told this terrible tale:
I noticed Bix was sitting toward the back of the studio, against a dark covered drape. He was seated on a stool, and as I looked at him, I could see him repeatedly pushing the valves of his horn. I swear he was talking to the cornet, saying things like, “Don't let me down.”
Eleven months later, he was dead.
One understandably prefers to think of Beiderbecke as Louis Armstrong remembered him late in life. “The first time I heard Bix,” he recalled, “I said these words to myself: there's a man as serious about his music as I am.” This tribute from one great artist to another cuts all the way through legend to the irreducible core of fact. Pitiful as a personality, unknowable as a man, Beiderbecke was for a brief time capable of playing jazz with such individuality that his only true peer knew his worth on the spot.
That this recognition should not yet be adequately reflected in the writings of jazz historians is at once unforgivable and understandable. Beiderbecke's originality was of a kind few critics can grasp. One who does, the British writer Max Harrison, has called him “the most radical of the great jazz soloists of the 1920's.” Yet his radicalism has never prevented ordinary listeners from responding, intensely and personally, to Beiderbecke's music, just as his contemporaries, mystifying though they found him, unhesitatingly acknowledged his genius. This miraculous ability to leap across the barrier of imperfect comprehension is part of what genius is all about.
It is inexpressibly sad to know that Beiderbecke himself, early or late, had no such confidence in the value of his gifts. “I'm only a musical degenerate,” he told a fellow musician at the height of his fame. Three years later he wrote to Frank Trumbauer, “I guess I'm just a minus quality.” How one wishes he could have known that all of his records would still be in print three-quarters of a century after his death, and that a generation of young listeners would be hearing in them what the trumpeter Max Kaminsky heard when they were brand-new: “Bix's tone was so pure, so devoid of any tinge of sentimentality or personal ego, that it was the nearest thing to perfect beauty I have ever heard.”
1 Continuum, 348 pp., $26.95.
2 Beiderbecke's recording of “Singin' the Blues” is included on Bix Beiderbecke: The Quintessence, 1924-1930 (Fremeaux & Associés FA 215, two CD's), an imported 36-track anthology available from amazon.com that contains all but a few of his key recordings. The Henderson version has been reissued on Tidal Wave: The Original Decca Recordings (Decca Jazz/GRP GRD-643).
3 The jazz guitarist Eddie Condon claimed to have had a conversation with Beiderbecke in 1925 in which the cornetist described Marcel Proust as “a French writer who lived in a cork-lined room. His stuff is no good in translation.” Alas, Condon was a notorious embroiderer whose anecdotes can rarely be taken at face value.
4 This preference was even more pronounced in Beiderbecke's piano playing, documented in a 1927 recording of his own “In a Mist” and the three later piano miniatures, “Candlelights,” “In the Dark,” and “Flashes,” that were transcribed from his playing by Bill Challis.
5 See my “King of the Jazz Age” (COMMENTARY, March 2005) for a discussion of commonly held misconceptions about the Whiteman band.
6 During his two years with Whiteman, Beiderbecke is thought to have earned about $25,000, the equivalent of $270,000 today. (The inflation-corrected figure of $600,000 cited by Lion is incorrect.)