In this article we turn back time to discover the life and music of one of jazz’s earliest icons: cornet-player and American jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke.
Bix Beiderbecke was considered a jazz legend by many even before his early death.
The cornetist had a beautiful tone, a cool (as opposed to hot) style, harmonically advanced ideas that still sound modern today, and an up and down life that paralleled the Roaring ’20s.
It was not long after his passing that he became jazz’s first cult hero, a musician whose every recorded note was treasured and analyzed.
His name was as unique as his life.
Leon Beiderbecke, who was born on March 10, 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, was called “Bix” (a family nickname that had also been applied to his father and grandfather) from an early age.
When he was four, he began playing songs by ear on his family’s piano and soon he was considered a child prodigy.
While he had some early piano lessons, Beiderbecke preferred “improving” classical melodies by improvising rather than learning how to read music and sticking to the composer’s notes.
While he liked classical music, he never seriously considered becoming a classical pianist. When he was 15, he heard a record that one of his older brothers brought home: “Tiger Rag” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
Inspired by the playing of Nick La Rocca, Bix purchased a cornet (a smaller, ‘fatter’ version of a trumpet) and taught himself the instrument, developing quickly and becoming determined to work as a jazz musician.
His parents were not pleased.
Hoping that he would eventually enter a respectable profession, they enrolled the 18-year old at Lake Forest Military Academy in 1921. But ironically, the academy was located just 35 miles north of Chicago which at the time was the center of jazz.
It was only a matter of time before Bix was spending most evenings hanging out at local nightclubs including having opportunities to sit in with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
The late hours resulted in him missing classes and Beiderbecke was expelled from the academy after less than a year.
Now he was on his own, and not unhappy about it.
Early Career & The Wolverines
Bix freelanced in the Midwest during 1922-23, playing with a variety of pickup bands.
He heard and was reportedly influenced by the short-lived Emmett Hardy, a cornetist from New Orleans who unfortunately never recorded.
He met the young Louis Armstrong on a riverboat and they were very impressed by each other’s playing. And in Oct. 1923, he joined a new band called the Wolverines.
The Wolverines was an up-and-coming jazz band that could hold its own with any other group in the Midwest. Beiderbecke made his recording debut with the group on Feb. 18, 1924 and one can trace his rapid development in the recordings that the band made during the next eight months.
His solos became longer and more personal throughout the year and he made classic statements on such numbers as “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “Big Boy,” also taking a fine piano solo on the latter piece.
On the Wolverines recordings, Bix became arguably the first significant white jazz soloist in a music whose pacesetters had been exclusively African-American.
His tone and ideas were quite original and showed the music was having an impact not just on black communities but throughout the world.
Bix & The Jean Goldkette Orchestra
In Sept. 1924, the Wolverines traveled to New York and made a strong impression. However at that point, Beiderbecke was offered a job with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra.
It looked like his big break, but his inability to read music resulted in him soon being let go with the promise that he would be rehired if he could greatly improve his sight reading abilities.
Other than one record date in Jan. 1925, a rather loose affair but one that did result in the debut of his composition “Davenport Blues,” nothing was heard of Bix on records for another year and a half.
During this period he played jobs in the Midwest, learned to read music on a decent level thanks to the tutoring of C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, and became an alcoholic.
In March 1926, Goldkette kept his promise and rehired Beiderbecke.
While the Jean Goldkette Orchestra was potentially a great jazz band, difficulties with their record label (Victor) resulted in most of the Goldkette recordings being commercial dance band performances rather than freewheeling jazz.
Bix, who was the band’s solo star, was greatly underutilized on the recordings, usually just leading the ensembles and taking a few short breaks.
Only “Clementine” from the band’s final record date hints strongly at the potential of both the cornetist and the group.
Bix Beiderbecke’s Best Recordings
1927 was Bix Beiderbecke’s greatest year.
While still with Goldkette, he began recording regularly with groups led by Trumbauer.
“Singin’ The Blues” from Feb. 4 has Beiderbecke’s most famous solo and, with Trumbauer’s beautiful melody statement and Eddie Lang’s superior guitar playing, it is the rare recording where every note fit.
Other gems from the Bix & Tram collaborations include “I’m Coming Virginia,” “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” “Clarinet Marmalade,’ “Ostrich Walk,” and a remake of “Riverboat Shuffle.” Beiderbecke also had the opportunity to lead a series of sessions under the name of Bix and his Gang.
Those Dixieland-oriented performances include superior versions of “Jazz Me Blues,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “At The Jazz Band Ball” among others Beiderbecke, who at this point in his life was playing piano mostly for the fun of it, composed four impressionistic piano pieces.
He recorded the futuristic “In A Mist” that year although the other adventurous compositions (“Candlelights,” “Flashes,” and “In The Dark”) would have to wait for later pianists to record after Bix’s death.
It was also in 1927 that the Jean Goldkette Orchestra broke up and, after a few months of working with the unrecorded Adrian Rollini Orchestra, Beiderbecke became a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Bix Beiderbecke & the Paul Whiteman Orchestra
Whiteman led the most popular band of the 1920s, a huge outfit that had jazz as one of its seasonings in a repertoire that also included dance music, semi-classical works, and novelties.
Because the bandleader had the title (coined by a press agent) of “The King Of Jazz,” he decided that he better add some top-notch jazz talent to his technically skilled but not particularly swinging ensemble. Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were among the new additions.
The 24-year old Beiderbecke considered it a prestigious honor to be hired by Whiteman but the extremely busy work schedule (an endless string of recordings, radio appearances, and concerts), coupled with his excessive drinking, eventually wore him down.
At first, things went well.
Bix was featured on many of the records, sometimes just briefly but in other cases taking a more prominent role.
Among his best recordings with Whiteman were “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth The Salt Of My Tears,” “San,” “From Monday On,” “Mississippi Mud,” “Dardanella,” and “You Took Advantage Of Me” (which has a famous tradeoff between Bix and Trumbauer).
In addition, the sessions with Trumbauer and his own Bix & His Gang dates continued into late 1928.
Health Problems & Decline
But then in the fall, his drinking started catching up with him.
It is possible that Bix drank some tainted liquor because his health unexpectedly went downhill fast. He was in the hospital with pneumonia for a time and in Jan 1929 he suffered a nervous breakdown.
Whiteman, who had relied upon Beiderbecke’s distinctive cornet playing in his ensembles, hired a soundalike cornetist Andy Secrest to fill in, keeping him on after Bix’s return in March.
While Bix still had moments of greatness, he knew that he was slipping.
The Bix & His Gang sessions stopped and he suggested that Secrest take his place on the Frank Trumbauer sessions.
After recording a short solo with Whiteman on “Waiting At The End Of The Road” on Sept. 13, he collapsed. Paul Whiteman (who would keep Bix on his payroll) sent him home to Davenport, hoping that he would recover.
Perhaps if there had been an Alcoholics Anonymous in 1930, Beiderbecke might have kicked the habit.
After a hospital stay, he took occasional musical jobs but was unable to fully stop drinking. His playing was erratic and he gave up his hopes of rejoining Whiteman.
Bix made four record dates in 1930, two with Hoagy Carmichael, one with Irving Mills, and one as a leader (his playing is particularly haunting on “I’ll Be A Friend With Pleasure”) but his tone had deteriorated.
He tried out for the Casa Loma Orchestra but was turned down because he was weak.
Death & Legacy
On Aug. 6, 1931 at the age of 28, he passed away from pneumonia.
After his death, Bix Beiderbecke was hailed as one of the great innovators of the 1920s and he gained his cult following.
It was too late to directly help him but the result was that he became recognized as one of jazz’s timeless legends and his best recordings have always been available for listeners to enjoy.
Fans and students of his work can visit the Bix Beiderbecke Museum in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa or check out one of the various biographies of the musician which have emerged in the last 2 decades.
The Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Society also hosts an annual Bix Festival at Rhythm City Casino’s Events Center.
Looking for more jazz? Check out our round up of some of the most famous trumpeters of all time or our guide to the different types of jazz.