Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Borneo

Bix and Tram were jazz’s odd couple. Tram was all business; Bix, increasingly, was all drink. Tram insisted on playing from the charts; Bix, infuriatingly, was content to make it up as he went along. (Even after Bix’s death, Trumbauer complained about how this caused him fits in the studio.) But team them up, even on silly novelty tunes like “Borneo,” and the tension of their friendship yielded great results. Here they record, for the first time, one of their renowned “chase” choruses, with Bix improvising a statement and Tram fashioning a response. At the end, their instruments converge in a single moment of dissonance that feels both humorous and wryly appropriate.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Royal Garden Blues

When the Goldkette outfit disbanded, Adrian Rollini rounded up a few Old Reliables for a gig at the Club New Yorker, which promptly went out of business. Bix, meanwhile, decided to ditch Tram and record under his own name again. On “Royal Garden Blues,” a standard popularized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (and recorded by Bix’s first band, the Wolverines), he leads the Gang with great confidence. Bix’s close friend, the equally short-lived Don Murray, goes first, then the surprisingly nimble Rollini, who moans like a moose. Bill Rank swings and then wisely steps out of the way – here comes Bix. There’s nothing fancy about his 12 bars, nothing French; they just arrive out of nowhere, effortless and astonishing.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Compared to “I’m Coming, Virginia,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” is all light and Caravaggio. It’s cheerful, down-tempo, even a bit wandering, taking its time to transition from Tram’s more languid sax to Bix’s brighter cornet. A bit more than halfway through his solo, Bix scoots up to a C-sharp, the highest note he ever recorded. This is the exception that proves the rule: Bix, whose mangled fingerings were of his own devising, liked to augment his chords but not the range of his instrument. Think of him as the playwright who creates tension by confining all the action inside a single, cramped apartment.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Clarinet Marmalade

Set to wax earlier on the same day as “Singin’ the Blues,” “Clarinet Marmalade” is notable for a few reasons: Bix, for all of his legendary “cool,” could run with the best of them. Here he blows at breakneck speed while remaining “surefooted as a mountain goat” (to quote Mezz Mezzrow), always sounding original, his tone nothing short of flawless. Note also a short interlude, just prior to Tram’s solo, that borrows from Bix’s composition “In a Mist.” Bix wouldn’t record the piano solo for seven more months, but it was clear that it was long in the works and that his ideas, at least in “Clarinet Marmalade,” were an important part of Bill Challis’ arrangements.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Louisiana

After Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005, Americans expressed outrage at their federal government's laggard response, and privately donated billions for emergency relief. All 49 other states individually extended help. If proof were needed that we're united in more than name only, there it was. And yet, jazz has expressed such unity-in-diversity for 100 years. What else can you call a middleclass kid from Iowa fronting an all-white band in one of the loveliest, most glorious celebrations of music from the black South? Bix Beiderbecke plays "Louisiana" as if raised amidst crawfish and cotton, not cornstalks. One nation, under jazz.

November 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Sorry

French biographer Jean Pierre Lion twice uses the word “astonishing” to describe “Sorry.” Bix himself boasted, “I have never felt better on any recording date.” And who’s to argue? Although the tune may not have been Bix’s fastest, it still manages to leave one breathless with its propulsive, toe-tapping hummability. An opening, grenade-burst staccato ignites Don Murray’s 32-bar clarinet solo, and from there things only get better. When Bix finally enters, he pushes against the beat, rides above it, and then hangs back with a brilliant five-note off-the-beat run that defies notation.

November 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: I'm Coming Virginia

In this, his longest solo, Bix is at the height of his powers. He eschews the gutbucket growls and half-valves that were just becoming popular with Duke Ellington and instead digs deep into the melody. In true Impressionist style, with all the manly restraint of Henry James, he suggests rather than declaims the tune’s dark melancholy, taking Trumbauer’s solo – the handoff is just perfect – and gently refining it. His “correlated” phrases (Bix’s term) build, one on top of the other, until Bix finally leaps up to a (relatively) high register and delivers what Richard Sudhalter rather dramatically described as “Caravaggio-like shafts of light.”

November 17, 2007 · 1 comment

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Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Singin' the Blues

Bix needed Louis (at least in retrospect) to define his style; he needed Trumbauer just to get through the day. The straight-and-narrow saxman, known to his friends as Tram, was the source of personal and professional stability for Bix, and when the two finally hooked up in the studio, they produced a masterpiece. It’s easy to forget that Trumbauer’s solo, which opens the number with unprecedented lyricism, was as important in its time as Bix’s. “Trumbauer always told a little story,” Lester Young explained. It was not about dancing, in other words, or virtuosity; it was about feeling. When Bix chimes in, jazz changed forever. Here was jazz’s first balladeer. His solo, though improvised, feels like a finished composition – restrained, precise, and governed by melody instead of chord changes and tempo.

November 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Davenport Blues

This is Bix’s first recording under his own name and includes musicians from the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, an organization that had just given Bix the boot for his poor sight-reading skills. On this date, though, sight-reading wasn’t even an option. Bix was composing the piece as he went along and his friends did their best just to keep up. Although Bix’s long, laid-back solo boasts nothing of the martial precision that would mark his best years, his grasp of melody is perfect. Even while improvising, he lends the tune wonderful shape and clarity. Don Murray provides effective counterpoint and, unfortunately, Tommy Dorsey doesn’t have much to do. Still, the dreamy swing of Bix’s playing undoubtedly helped to shape the Sentimental Gentleman’s future.

November 13, 2007 · 0 comments

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