Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Beiderbecke, Leon 'Bix'
Bix Beiderbecke, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
Cornetist Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke enjoyed only the smallest dose of fame during his brief life, but after his passing he became enshrined in the popular imagination as one of the symbolic figures of ‘The Jazz Age.’ His recordings continue to be admired for their artistry and ‘cool’ aesthetic, but even today Beiderbecke is remembered more for the romanticized version of his life story, the classic tale of the “young man with a horn,” both too delicate and too world-weary, who falls prey to all the worst excesses of the jazz lifestyle.
Born in Davenport, Iowa on March 10, 1903, Beiderbecke gained local notoriety even as a youth for his musical talent. A newspaper article, published when he was seven, highlighted Bix's ability to pick out tunes on the piano. Despite his native gift – or perhaps because of it – Beiderbecke never pursued formal music studies with vigor, preferring to rely on his exceptional ear and instincts in developing his unique approach to jazz improvisation.
Beiderbecke was greatly influenced by the recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and especially its cornetist Nick LaRocca, which Bix encountered some time around 1918. But Beiderbecke also may have learned from the music of Emmett Hardy, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard and clarinetist Leon Roppolo, among others. Yet his musical education went well beyond jazz influences. Beiderbecke was wide-ranging in his listening, despite his poor formal training, and in time he would also be attracted by the impressionist compositions of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and the American Eastwood Lane.
For all his natural gifts, Beiderbecke might well have lived and died in obscurity in his home town, but his poor performance at the local high school inspired his parents to send him to the more rigorous Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois. Here, any hopes that this move would inspire the youngster with new found interest in academics were short-lived. Indeed, the proximity of Chicago and its booming jazz scene made this the decisive change in Beiderbecke’s life. He immersed himself into the nightlife of the nearby Windy City, and when he was asked to leave Lake Forest Academy he used this as an opportunity to set out on his own as a jazz cornetist.
In 1923 Beiderbecke joined the Wolverines, and the following year made his first recordings with the ensemble. Around this same time, Beiderbecke began his musical association with the great C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, whose contribution to the sax tradition is, in some degree, similar to Beiderbecke’s influence on later brassplayers. These two partners would develop the first full realized “cool” style in jazz, as demonstrated in classic recordings such as ”Singin’ the Blues” and ”I’m Coming, Virginia”. In an age in which few fans (or musicians) expected jazz to be lyrical or contemplative, Beiderbecke stood out for his melodic sensibility and soft, burnished tone.
Although Beiderbecke and Trumbauer would be lionized posthumously, their lack of fame during the height of their careers forced them to work primarily as sidemen in the bands of other musicians. The duo both joined Jean Goldkette’s band in 1926, and after this ensembled broke up in 1927 both signed on with Paul Whiteman. Whiteman was a major star, and provided Beiderbecke with great exposure and a secure income. However, the cornetist’s poor ability at reading music also made this a challenging situation. But even a great obstacle was Beiderbecke’s heavy drinking, which contributed to a nervous breakdown and his departure from the Whiteman organization. Before the close of the decade, Bix was back in Davenport, Iowa, recuperating under the supervision of his family.
His return to New York and the jazz lifestyle was short-lived. A final drinking binge in the summer of 1931 was followed by the on-set of pneumonia. Bix Beiderbecke died on August 6, 1931 at the age of only twenty-eight.
Beiderbecke was still maturing and expanding his horizons as a musician during the final years of his life. He had turned to the piano, and worked on keyboard compositions – most notably ”In a Mist” which showed Beiderbecke moving well beyond the confines of traditional jazz music. In later decades, the idea of a convergence between classical music and jazz would entice many composers, but in the 1920s Beiderbecke was one of the few individuals capable of conceiving how this fusion might take place. Had he lived longer he almost certainly would have been a leader in pushing jazz forward into new realms during the 1930s and 1940s.
This entry written by Ted Gioia
Berton, Ralph. Remembering Bix. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Evans, Philip R. and Linda K. Bix; The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story. Bakersfield, California: Prelike Press, 1998.
Lion, Jean Pierre. Bix: The Definitive Biography Of A Jazz Legend. New York: Continuum Publishers, 2004.
Sudhalter, Richard & Philip Evans. Bix; Man And Legend. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1974.