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Bix Beiderbecke

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Leon Bix (1903 -1931) Cornetist

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Morning Edition: Bix Beiderbecke
Robin Finesmith presents this profile of the legendary coronet player from the 1920s, who died of pneumonia in 1931 at the age of 28.

Bix Beiderbecke
Image courtesy of
Frank Driggs Collection

As a boy, Bix Beiderbecke had a few piano lessons, but he was self-taught on cornet and developed an unorthodox technique by playing along with recordings. His family disapproved of his interest in jazz and sent him to Lake Forest Academy in 1921, but the opportunity to play and hear jazz in nearby Chicago caused frequent truancy and eventually his expulsion. After several months working for his father in Davenport, he turned to a career in music.

Based in Chicago, he became known through his playing and recordings with the Wolverines in 1924. In the same year, he began a long association with Frankie Trumbauer , recording with him in New York; after working with Jean Goldkette's dance band (1924), he played with Trumbauer's group in St. Louis (1925-6). His association with Trumbauer broadened his musical experience and improved his music reading, in which, however, he was never to become adept. In late 1926, he and Trumbauer joined Goldkette and were prominent members of his group in New York until it disbanded in September 1927. They then joined Paul Whiteman's band, with which, and with various groups under their own names, they made a series of influential recordings.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On the importance of Beiderbecke to young white musicians
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Beiderbecke's alcoholism caused his health to deteriorate, and he was frequently unable to perform. He left Whiteman in September 1929; his hopes of rejoining the group after recuperation were not realized. Until his death, he worked in New York in a radio series with the Dorsey brothers a few times, with the Casa Lorna Orchestra, and with Benny Goodman.

From relatively undistinguished influences, Beiderbecke developed a beautiful and original style. His distinctive, bell like tone (his friend Hoagy Carmichael described it as resembling a chime struck by a mallet) achieved additional intensity through his unorthodox fingering, which often led him to play certain notes as higher partials in lower overtone series, imparting a slightly different timbre and intonation to successive pitches. With his basically unchanging tone as a foil, Beiderbecke relied for expressiveness on pitch choice, pacing, and rhythmic placement (as opposed to Louis Armstrong, who systematically used variety of timbre). Beiderbecke played and composed at the piano throughout his working life, his famous pieces include In a Mist, Flashes, Candlelights, and In the Dark (his published piano compositions). Their use of pandiatonicism, whole-tone scales, and parallel 7th and 9th chords reflect his interest in impressionist harmonic language. However, his cornet playing, nearly always in settings over which he had no control, had to conform to the harmonic usage of contemporary jazz and popular music. His playing was largely diatonic and made sparing use of nondiatonic 9ths and 13ths as accompaniment without contradicting them, as his solo on Royal Garden Blues of 1927 shows. This characteristic, together with his unique timbre, gave his work a restrained, introspective manner and often set his playing apart from its surroundings.

Beiderbecke's originality made him one of the first white jazz musicians to be admired by black performers. Louis Armstrong recognized in him a kindred spirit, and Rex Stewart exactly reproduced some of his solos on recordings. Beiderbecke's influence on such white players as Red Nichols and Bunny Berigan was decisive. Although he was largely unknown to the general public at the time of his death, he acquired an almost legendary aura among jazz musicians and enthusiasts. On account of such popularized tales as Dorothy Baker's novel Young Man with a Horn (Boston, 1938), based very loosely on his life and career, he soon came to symbolize the "Roaring Twenties" in the popular imagination. Only in recent years have legend and fact become clearly separated and Beiderbecke's career and achievement has been seen in a true perspective.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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