Bix Beiderbecke & the Birth of Midwestern Jazz
In 1910, a piece in the Davenport Democrat announced the discovery of a musical prodigy: "Leon Bix Beiderbecke, age seven years, is the most unusual and the most remarkably talented child in music that there is in the city... [H]e can play in completeness any selection, the air or tune of which he knows."
Bix Beiderbecke was a uniquely Midwestern figure. His father’s family were German immigrants with a strong interest in classical music; his grandfather, a local grocer, had organized a German men’s choir in Davenport in the 1860's. His mother was the daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain, and a trained pianist and organist.
Bix was picking out tunes on the piano by age four. At first, he imitated the parlor and classical pieces familiar around his home. Then, in 1918, his older brother Charles returned from the First World War with some cash in hand and bought a record player and a bunch of records, including the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s "Tiger Rag." Bix was an immediate convert. He borrowed a cornet from a friend, and spent weeks sitting by the phonograph, learning every lick.
He was not alone. The ODJB had set off a revolution, and soon Bix was showing off his embryonic jazz chops with a group of fellow students at Davenport High. The local kids had an advantage shared by few other northern Americans. Along with records, they could hear jazz as it came up the river on the big pleasure boats from New Orleans. In 1919, the stern-wheeler Capitol brought Fate Marable’s band to Davenport, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, and both Armstrong and Bix would later recall their meeting. By the time he was eighteen, Bix was himself working on the boats, playing for summer excursions on the Capitol and Majestic.
Davenport, however, was still a small town, and Bix’s music would not come to fruition until his parents sent him off to school near Chicago. They had hoped to get him away where he could concentrate on schoolwork, but instead they had placed him at the heart of the jazz world. The city was becoming home to a wave of New Orleans expatriates, including Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. Young white enthusiasts were soon picking up their licks and, in 1924, the first of these homegrown Midwestern groups went into the recording studio. Called the Wolverines, it featured Bix on cornet, and he was on his way to becoming a jazz legend, a status that only grew as he moved into the popular bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman, and recorded small-group sessions with a circulating bunch of young players among whom his choruses virtually always stood out as exceptional moments of magic.
The legend, as it happened, would often obscure the music. Especially after his premature death in 1931, many white musicians and historians, eager for a figure they could identify with, would canonize Bix as the ultimate jazz soloist. In reaction, others would write him off as good for a white player, but not a real contender alongside the likes of Armstrong.
By now, the exaggerations have mostly run their course, and most people agree that Bix, while not of Armstrong’s stature, was a massively influential player and helped bring a new approach to jazz. His Davenport youth had allowed him to absorb two widely disparate traditions, giving his playing a unique flavor. He retained the complex harmonic influences of his family’s German concert music but, unlike most other white "progressives," he had grown up hearing the masters as they came north on the boats, and was a real jazzman. At his best, he played with gorgeous tone, infectious swing, and a range of melodic and harmonic ideas that would help point the way to much of the later course of jazz.
These days, when jazz is centered in a handful of major cities, musicians rarely have a sound that can be identified as regional. In earlier years, though, every region from Texas to San Francisco to Kansas City had their local favorites, and spawned their own styles and imitators. Bix Beiderbecke would draw from many sources, but Davenport provided his roots, and to a great extent he would always remain a product of his hometown on the Iowa riverfront.
- From River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi, by Elijah Wald and John Junkerman, St. Martin's Press, 1998