Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 10
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
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Record Review

The Sound of Bix: “Like a Girl Saying Yes” — A Birthday Salute

Stuart Mitchner

For the better part of two weeks now it’s been Chopin in the kitchen and Chopin in the car as I gear up for a piece to mark the composer’s 200th birthday, which was March 1 and has meant a crash course in music virtually unknown to me, except for those portions of it that are almost as familiar as air, water, and light. In the midst of this orgy of mazurkas and études, fantasies and preludes, came the realization that this week’s Town Topics is appearing on March 10, the day in 1903 when Bix Beiderbecke was born to a middleclass German-American family in Davenport, Iowa. A notoriously heavy drinker, the jazz legend died at 28 of lobar pneumonia and edema of the brain in an apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. In truth, his legendary status was a post-mortem phenomenon. As George Hoefer puts it in The Jazz Makers, “America’s jazz world … needed a hero, preferably of the martyr type,” on which “to build a romantic legend for a new American art form.”

Turnpike Tips

There was a time when I actually listened to music in the comfort of the living room. Now, with the advent of MP3 players and IPods and before that the ubiquitous Walkman, there’s nothing unique about absorbing your favorite sounds while involved in other activities, whether it’s rinsing dishes or doing the laundry or, as happened last week for me, driving to and from and around in Manhattan submerged in Singin’ the Blues and At the Jazz Band Ball (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces) and Krystian Zimerman’s performance of Chopin’s 4 Balladen (Deutsche Grammophon). I can recommend both records as excellent high-octane mood fuel, sure to keep you stimulated and alert on the Turnpike, although certain stormy passages in Chopin may have you taking your hands off the steering wheel to pound the life out of an imaginary Steinway. Scored by the sound of Beiderbecke’s bell-clear, vibrant, undaunted cornet, the sound that Eddie Condon once said was “like a girl saying yes,” it’s a safer, happier, if less inspiring, ride, flawed only by the need to occasionally skip over (in the words of poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin) “the dire girlish vocals” from “the age’s castrati-type crooners.” And should you happen to be driving to Bix with Paul Whiteman, you may find yourself reaching over to turn the volume way up whenever he explodes “like Judgment Day out of the Whiteman orchestra,” as Larkin phrases it, “only to retire at the end of sixteen bars into his genteel surroundings like a clock cuckoo.”

Haunted by Bix

Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, I had an everyday awareness of Bix’s pal and sometime band mate, Indiana University alumnus Hoagy Carmichael, the composer of “Stardust,” who spent his boyhood in a house just up the street from mine and whose piano was enshrined in his old hang-out, the Book Nook. In those days I knew Bix more as a legendary local presence than as an actual source of musical pleasure. Though my parents were no more disposed to jazz appreciation than were Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke (who fondly envisioned a Princeton education and a career as a classical pianist/composer for Bix), they owned a copy of Carmichael’s memoir, The Stardust Road, one of the first “real books” I ever read. Hoagy’s prose was quirky and flavorful and as much an elegy for Bix and a celebration of my hometown as it was an autobiography. References to “a midnight serenade in Sorority Row by an orchestra huddled in the back of a two-ton truck” as “a cornet carved passages of heat and beauty in the night” gave a mystic resonance to the deep-south lushness of Bloomington summer nights, and with live jazz blaring from various fraternities and sororities on weekends, it was easy to imagine the time when the mellow sound of Bix’s cornet had been heard all over town. I was sure I’d played pool in the very pool hall a friend of Hoagy’s was walking home from late one night when he heard that same cornet: “It seemed like it was miles away. I couldn’t even exactly hear it, but I could feel it. And I knew I had to get where it was.” So the friend found “his legs running up Third Street,” the same street I walked to school on every day, “his heart jumping with excitement” as the cornet’s “complete rhythm and harmony” took him on “a risky ride to paradise” that one wrong note would have wrecked. During the same conversation, Hoagy relates the time he was playing with Bix and could feel his hands starting “to shake and getting cold” when he saw Bix get out his horn and “boy, he took it! …. Just four notes …. But he didn’t blow them — he hit ‘em like a mallet hits a chime … he ruined me. I got up from the piano and staggered over and fell on the davenport.”

Named for Bix’s hometown, no doubt.

The Sound

As “the first major white jazz star and the first to acquire a mythological aura after his early death,” according to Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins’s voluminous and invitingly instructive new history Jazz (Norton 2009), Bix Beiderbecke has been analyzed and romanticized in articles, liner notes, by word of mouth, and in books and movies, most notably Dorothy Baker’s Young Man With a Horn. Larkin echoes Carmichael in describing the “chime-like quality of his playing, as if his notes were hit with mallets.” Bix’s colleague, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, compared the sound to flowers, clouds, and autumn leaves. Still, it’s hard to beat Eddie Condon’s “girl saying yes.” And what a girl. She’s at once wholesome and erotic, down to earth and ethereal, a bit of a tease who knows DeBussy and Ravel as well as she does Louis Armstrong and King Oliver; a girl you could dance with to the music of a riverboat calliope like the kind Bix supposedly played in his Davenport youth. For Bix, the girl who literally said yes was Alice, the blue-eyed redheaded German-Irish Catholic he described to his parents in a letter written two months before his death in August 1931 (“I told Alice that I wouldn’t get married until I had a couple thousand — she winked at me and said ‘you’ve got it’ and showed me a bank book — I almost swooned — she’s got bonds bank stocks etc. and plenty in the bank — I promise you that I fell in love with her before I knew that”).

Excerpted last month in Davenport’s Quad City Times and part of a future collection at the same city’s Putnam Museum, Bix’s letters are at least authentic, though he may be stretching the truth when he tells his parents that his illness has nothing to do with alcohol (“I swear this was not from drinking”).

“In a Mist”

Because of my ongoing bicentenary preoccupation with Chopin, I’ve been paying special attention to the very real pianistic and compositional aspect of the Beiderbecke story. A February 10, 1929 piece in the Davenport Democrat and Leader featuring what some Bixologists claim is a “fake interview,” has young Bix taking piano lessons for a time from two local instructors and arriving at prep-school at Lake Forest, Illinois “dripping arpeggios and mooning over Chopin’s nocturnes like any mere high-brow.”

There’s a nice scene in The Stardust Road where Hoagy and Bix are lying in front of a phonograph listening to Stravinsky’s Firebird while Bix holds forth about Rimsky-Korsakov. In another scene Bix plays some piano as Hoagy looks on with trepidation: “He was playing something of Ravel’s and he could play only parts of it. His fingers were stiff and they seemed to go the wrong way — like a cat stretching a slow paw to find a note that wasn’t there. Chords I’d never heard, little odd-shaped chords that shouldn’t be played on a piano. They were pretty even if they did make me squirmy.” When Eddie Condon heard Bix play piano, his thought was that he’d “never heard anything remotely like what Beiderbecke played. For the first time I realized music isn’t all the same, it had become an entirely new set of sounds.” In Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow describes this fascination with the classics as a threat: “Bix was growing away from us. Finally he moved clean out of our sphere. Losing his head over serious music made him go way tangent.”

Of the handful of compositions for piano Bix actually put on paper, “In a Mist” is the only one that he recorded, in 1927, for Okeh Records. The liner notes to Singin’ the Blues claim that “No other jazz pianist, with the possible exception of Earl Hines, was doing the things on the keyboard that Bix did that September day.”

In The Stardust Road, which begins and ends with Beiderbecke’s death, Carmichael writes that in his last days Bix was working on “these beautiful things,” his piano compositions “Flashes,” “Candlelights,” and “In the Dark,” which eventually were published. In 2008 Dick Hyman recorded them on a solo piano CD entitled Thinking of Bix. You can hear these pieces on YouTube accompanied by Mook Ryan’s beautifully and suitably atmospheric visual pastiches of period imagery, each of which ends with the words, “Bix Lives.” Then, just for fun, listen to some piano music by Debussy or even Chopin, one of the Nocturnes. Or, if you really want to play the “what-might-have-been” game, listen to Ravel’s Jeu d’eau and transition into the sound of water rippling with darker undertones in Bix’s “In the Dark” and then imagine that Alice or some other girl who said yes managed to settle Bix down, dry him out, and get him off the road, and install a piano in the living room.

Unable to find any biographies at the library, I used Bix Beiderbecke Resources: A Bixography (online), along with Philip Larkin’s All What Jazz, Eddie Condon’s We Called It Music, Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, George Hoefer’s piece in Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff’sThe Jazz Makers, and my parents’ old copy of Hoagy’s Stardust Road.

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