The Jazz.com Blog
March 09, 2008 · 0 comments
Who can be surprised that when Hollywood finally made a big-budget film about a jazz musician, the movie moguls based it on the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Of course, the scriptwriter had it easy, and not just because Young Man with a Horn was already a book. Even before they were fictionalized, the details of Bix’s biography seemed like something scripted by a storyteller with a penchant for high drama.
Here was a life of cornfields, corn whiskey and – above all -- the cornet. A dreamy-eyed young man with a horn comes from a small town in middle America to Chicago and New York, and while jazz is taking over the nation, Bix is conquering the jazz scene. Although he is self-taught and can barely read music, Bix rises to the top through the sheer creativity of his solos and the magnetism of his eccentric personality. He lives fast and loose, but his excesses catch up with him, and he is dead before his twenty-ninth birthday, leaving behind a stack of records and a growing body of anecdotes that soon became the stuff of legend.
This is tragedy, comedy and history all jumbled together, accompanied by a great score. So much so that the short-lived cornetist has come to symbolize the Jazz Age of the 1920 in the eyes of many of his admirers. What F. Scott Fitzgerald was to writing, Bix was to music: both defined the excesses and flamboyance of the age, although each proved too fragile to withstand the darker side of their era, or their own instinct for self-destruction. Or so the story is usually told.
Despite all this mythic grandeur, a sober assessment of Beiderbecke suggests that he was very much out of place in the jazz world of his day. He may be emblematic of the Jazz Age, but he would have been better served by the music world of the 1950s. One of the key attractions of Bix’s playing was his warm, rounded tone on the cornet, and recording technology of the 1920s hardly does it justice. Moreover, he was a soloist in an age when ensemble playing still dominated jazz, and despite his sizable discography there are few extended passages in which Beiderbecke was giving free rein to show what he could do as improviser. In addition, Beiderbecke’s sense of harmony drew him toward the European Impressionist composers, whose advanced structures would not become commonplace in the jazz world until a quarter century had elapsed after Beiderbecke’s death. Bix’s turn to solo piano in his final years reflected, to some extent, the fact that he needed to create his own new repertoire in order to explore the musical ideas in his head. Put simply, Bix had the bad fortune to be the leader of "cool jazz" decades before the term came into being, at a time when hot was everything.
Even from a personal level, one can question whether Bix benefited from living during the age of Prohibition, when the hard drinking that helped to do him in was glamorized as part of an illicit, jazzy lifestyle. Bix may have helped to make the Jazz Age, but the Jazz Age did not return any favors. In truth, it probably accelerated his decline and encouraged his tendencies toward self-destruction.
So I dream of what Bix could have done had he still been alive when Miles recorded The Birth of the Cool, and the Modern Jazz Quartet earned their stripes. I imagine him sharing the stage with Stan Getz or Gerry Mulligan. But I can only turn back to the recordings themselves – timeless classics such as ”Singin’ the Blues” and ”I’m Coming, Virginia” -- these hints of a great musical mind who had so much more to give when he left the scene.
As part of our Bix Beiderbecke Birthday Bash, Brendan Wolfe -- who presides over his own fine blog at The Beiderbecke Affair, shares with us a chapter of his work-in-progress Bixology. See also Wolfe's selection of "Twelve Essential Bix Beiderbecke Performances," and my biographical essay on Beiderbecke.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia