Bix Beiderbecke Biography

Leon Bix Beiderbecke, 10 March 1903, Davenport, Iowa, USA, d. 6 August 1931, New York City, New York, USA. One of the legends of jazz, a role he would doubtless have found wryly amusing had he lived to know of it, Bix Beiderbecke entered music when he began picking out tunes on piano and cornet at the age of 15. Inspired by records of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and by hearing bands on the Mississippi riverboats, Beiderbecke broke away from his middle-class, middle-American family background (an act for which his family appeared never to have forgiven him) and by 1923 was already achieving fame with the Wolverines. In New York and Chicago, Beiderbecke played with dance bands but spent his free time listening to the leading black musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. In 1926 he worked with Frank Trumbauer, both men moving on to the bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman, whom they joined in 1928. Throughout his time with these two jazz-age showbands, Beiderbecke was the featured jazz soloist and was very well paid. These two facts go some way to countering the accepted wisdom that such jobs, especially that with Whiteman, destroyed his creative impulse and accelerated his decline. In fact, these same years saw Beiderbecke freelancing with numerous jazz groups, many of which included other fine jazz artists whom Goldkette and Whiteman hired.

The problems that assailed Beiderbecke seem to have been largely generated by his desire to ‘dignify’ his work with classical overtones, his rejection by his family (his film biographer, Brigitte Berman reveals how, on a visit to his home, he found all his records that he had proudly mailed to his parents lying unopened in a cupboard) and a general weakness of character. These troubles led him to take refuge in drink and this swiftly degenerated into chronic alcoholism. This, and allied ill health, kept Beiderbecke out of the Whiteman band for long periods, although Whiteman kept his chair empty for him and paid all his bills. By the end of 1929 he was back home in Davenport trying, vainly, to restore himself to fitness. During his last year, Beiderbecke tried out for the Casa Loma Orchestra and played with pick-up groups in New York, including sessions with Benny Goodman, Red Nichols and others.

When he died in August 1931, Beiderbecke was still only 28 years old. Set against the bold and barrier-breaking glories of Armstrong’s playing, Beiderbecke’s technique was limited, but within it he played with great panache. The sound of his cornet had a fragile, crystalline quality that suited his detached, introspective formalism (not surprisingly, he admired Debussy). He wrote a few pieces for piano, one of which, ‘In A Mist’, strongly indicated the would-be classicist within him. His recorded work, whether in small groups (‘Singing The Blues’ with Trumbauer) or in big bands (‘San’ and ‘Dardanella’ with Whiteman), continually demonstrated his fertile imagination. Beiderbecke’s early death and the manner of his passing helped to make him a legend, and a novel based on his life, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man With A Horn, romanticized his life. As often happens in such cases, there was a long period when the legend substantially outweighed reality. More recently, thanks in part to extensive reissues of his recorded legacy, and accurate portrayals of his life in the Richard Sudhalter-Philip Evans biography and Berman’s excellent filmed documentary, a more balanced view of Beiderbecke’s work has been made possible. Although his contribution to jazz fell well short of the concurrent advances being made by Armstrong, he frequently displayed a measure of sensitivity and introspection that foreshadowed the cooler approach to jazz trumpet of a later generation.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.