"None of Them Played Like Him Yet": Bix: Jazz Age Genius by David Collins
"I NEVER HEARD BETTER MUSIC COMING OUT OF A HORN."
Almost everyone knows something about Louis Armstrong, but not everyone knows about Bix Beiderbecke, who with his dear friend Louis were the twin pillars of jazz in the 1920s, the two who with their horns and their inimitable sounds did much to set the standard for jazz improvisation for the ages.
Unlike Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke didn't come out of the motherland of jazz, New Orleans. He was born in the heartland, Davenport, Iowa. Davenport was a Mississippi River port and the sounds of riverboat bands drew him to the docks even as a young boy. But it was when his older brother bought a hand-cranked Victrola and a few records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band that Bix caught the fever. Bargaining for a friend's cornet, he quickly taught himself to play in an unorthodox way to the sounds of the ODJB, slowing the records down until he learned to match the notes of all the instruments in the band. Bix was already known around town for his piano playing, which he began at the age of two, reaching over his head to pick out "Oh, Mr. Dooley," on his mother's piano, and for his perfect pitch and amazing ear had allowed him to play any song, exactly as he heard it, "with improvements." But now he had a passion for this new American music that shaped the rest of his life.
In the newly revised paperback edition of David Collins' Bix Jazz Age Genius (East Hall Press, 2011), Collins covers the facts of Bix's short life with brief coverage of his single-minded pursuit of his passion, to play pure jazz in the way he heard it within himself. His parents didn't fully understand, unhappy with his drive to spend all his free time practicing or playing with any band that would let him sit in, and sent him off to the prestigious Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, hoping that the secluded campus and rigorous discipline of boarding school would refocus his interests on his studies.
But Chicago was less than an hour away by rail. Joe King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators were there, with the young Armstrong. whom Bix already knew from summer riverboat jobs, soon to be added on second cornet, and not far away the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were packing in crowds at the Friars Inn. Bix was immediately hooked on the music and was finally expelled from Lake Forest for sneaking out at night to sit in with the legendary bands inventing a new sound. With his suitcase packed and his cornet, too, Bix left his old life behind and set off to find work in Chicago--and the rest is history.
Collins skims over the main outlines of Bix's career, from his days with the Wolverine Orchestra, a seminal regional band which recorded in 1924 and 1925 and took New York City by storm at the Cinderella Ballroom, his work with the Jean Goldkette Victor Orchestra, and his last long-term job as soloist with Paul Whiteman, the orchestral superstar of the 1920s. Bix's influence on the other great musicians in New York--Red Nichols, the Dorsey brothers, Jimmy and Tommy, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman, to name but a few--was, by their own admission, powerful. His way of playing--a pure, clean sound, always meticulously on pitch and with incredibly imaginative solos, at once imparting both a joy and a melancholic longing to the popular songs of the time--is legendary. "Those pretty notes just went right through me," Louis Armstrong remembered late in his life. "He was a born genius. Everybody tried to play like Bix, but ain't nobody played like him yet."
Collins' book leaves the interpretation of Bix's music to the many more lyrical biographers for adult readers, but his short, fast-moving text is well-suited to middle readers. There are very few biographies of American musicians in print for this age group and almost none covering the early years of the greats of the Jazz Age, so it is good that this new edition brings this book back into print. Regrettably, this paperback edition substitutes a few unsatisfactory blackline drawings of Bix and his associates for the clear and evocative period photographs of the 1992 hard cover edition, and the appendix--a timeline and reader's bibliography--is unfortunately not updated and incomplete.
Despite its faults, Collins book catches a bit of the passion for music that Bix shared with the world in his over 250 recordings and makes the story of his short but significant life available for young readers in this century, a time when Bix's work is bountifully only a mouse click away on YouTube and music source sites.
[Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have been a faithful Bix fan most of my life, but the fact that thousands of others gathered the first weekend this August for the fortieth Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport shows that "Bix Lives."]