On this week’s show, we interviewed Brendan Wolfe, author of Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend. The book details the life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke who, despite being one of America’s first great jazz musicians, is often overshadowed in histories of the genre.
Wolfe’s book is available now from major retailers. Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss our interview with the author (it begins at about 28 minutes, below).
grew up with Bix. All of us from his hometown did, and still do, although we never actually knew him. In Davenport, he exists in two dimensions only, everywhere on posters for the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, on the side of a downtown parking garage, on sweaty T-shirts and plastic beer cups, his image cast forever in the same pose, lifted from the most famous photograph of him: face round, hair perfectly parted down the middle, his tux perfectly pressed. Perfectly recognizable, he has over the years become part town mascot, part Golden Calf. Bill Wundram, white-haired columnist for the local Quad-City Times, insists on calling him “Bixie,” as if he were still in knickers, sneaking away from the large family home on Grand Avenue and down the steep hill to the Mississippi River, where he could listen to riverboat musicians from New Orleans. There’s his name on a thousand bumper stickers—in block serif letters, white on red: “Bix Lives!”—as if he hadn’t already died a slow, pathetic death in a Queens boarding house back in 1931, so young, so far away from his family, and screaming, said his landlord, “that there were two Mexicans under the bed, with long daggers, waiting to kill him.” “Jazz’s Number One Saint” is right: in a city where the Mexicans now have largely displaced the Germans, he rises again, every third weekend in July. Kitschy Dixieland musicians in red-and-white-striped shirts and suspenders crowd the band shell to blow their clarinets at seniors in lawn chairs, while many more folks crowd Third and Fourth streets for the arts festival, browsing craft booths and eating tenderloins. Bix bobblehead dolls can be picked up farther down River Drive at John O’Donnell Stadium, home of the minor league baseball team that until recently was known as the Swing of the Quad Cities. (The team logo depicted baseballs floating out of the bell of a pastel saxophone.) Most popular of all, however, is the Bix 7, an elite seven-mile road race independent of the music festival but until recently held each year on that same Saturday. It was a regular excuse for my aunt Sara to host an early morning cocktail party, her house conveniently situated on a bluff near the turnaround on McClellan Boulevard, where tens of thousands of runners, invariably led by a Kenyan or two, passed by, and then passed by again, before heading back down to the river. For that reason, I suppose, the word “Bix” for me has always carried with it the salty smell of sweat and the taste of mimosas. Bix is a season. Bix is a party. Bix is a great Davenport reunion. The colorful posters change every year, but Bix is always the same. His cornet, which rests on an unseen knee, is always silent.
If this were Borges, there might be talk of el asombro, or la sagrada horror—that “holy dread” in the face of meaningful words, in the face of what the Kiowa essayist N. Scott Momaday calls “that ancient and irresistible tradition of vox humana“; in other words, there might be the observation that the sound, the wonderful sound of Bix’s instrument, “like a girl saying yes,” as Eddie Condon famously put it, what made Bix Bix, for crying out loud, is largely absent. Or at least it was from the Bix I knew growing up in Davenport, and from the Bix everyone else I knew knew. Who was Bix? We didn’t know.
Bix was a genius, and I learned this, it turns out, from the Italians.
“What are you-a doo-ing in my film?” he howled. “Oh, Christ!” he howled, such that even his modish eyeglasses, which hung suspended from a string around his thick and hairy neck, trembled. This was Pupi Avati. Pooooo-pee, as it was pronounced. And his pidgin squawking impressed its victim. His spittle flew the short distance from his neatly cropped beard to my bare, eighteen-year-old cheeks, speckling an otherwise adequate makeup job. “Oh, good God!” Pupi raged. “Please, makeup,” while, for a brief moment, the tape continued to roll “My Pretty Girl” at full volume, oblivious. I was on the set of Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend (it would later screen at Cannes), which Pupi and his brother, the producer Antonio Avati, had traveled all the way from Rome to Davenport to make, and which I had come to participate in through the good offices of my high school orchestra teacher, who was serving as a consultant to the film. My job each day was to get my hair slicked back, don a period suit, and pretend to play the fiddle in a re-creation of the mid-twenties Saint Louis band fronted by C-melody sax-man Frankie “Tram” Trumbauer and his protégé Bix Beiderbecke. “My Pretty Girl”: what a great dance number, with extras flailing about doing the Charleston, the band bouncing up and down on the stand, shiny black shoes tapping, and Tram and Bix up front trading solos. The fiddle player, meanwhile, got a solo break, too, and on this day Pupi was filming a tight close-up, that huge camera of his wheeled up against my jaw like an X-ray machine at the dentist’s office. “Now, don’t-a look,” he begged me, before yelling, “Playback!” and then, “Action!” I pretended to play with the music, but I couldn’t help it. “Jesus goddamn Christ!” he howled. I always turned and looked, take after take. And “My Pretty Girl” rolled on.
I fell head over heels for “My Pretty Girl” that day and, on another afternoon of shooting, for “Singin’ the Blues”; I fell in love with Bix’s bell-like tone (“surefooted as a mountain goat,” according to Mezz Mezzrow; “like a mallet hits a chime,” according to Hoagy Carmichael), the cool reserve, the exquisitely controlled improvisation; I fell in love with the romance of Bix, the jazz and swing of Bix (“I just sat there,” said Max Kaminsky, “vibrating like a harp to the echoes of Bix’s astoundingly beautiful tone. It sounded like a choirful of angels”); I fell in love with my seemingly exclusive discovery that Bix existed outside of Davenport, that he was a musician of heroic stature. Only later did I learn that it wasn’t actually Bix on the tape. It was a Dixieland band imitating Bix, a displaced Dixieland band somewhere in Italy—Tom Pletcher on cornet, joined by names like Fabrizio Cattaneo and Fabiano Pellini—blowing Bix’s solos note for note, the DNA of their choruses an almost perfect match.
No matter. It might as well have been Bix. For me, it was Bix.
Bix was a kid from the cornfields. Bix is a guy named Tom. Bix is Italian. As I unintentionally and rather haphazardly began my quest to unmask the many faces of Bix, I learned this lesson over and over again: the closer I got to Bix, or at least to someone I thought might be Bix, the more he retreated. Even his recordings weren’t to be trusted. “One cannot hear Bix Beiderbecke from the tall corn of Iowa without feeling this is singularly ours and it is about time we wake up to the fact,” declared the program notes to a Carnegie Hall concert, “From Spirituals to Swing,” performed several years after his death. But can one hear Bix? According to his contemporaries, those crackly old 78s sounded nothing like him; such primitive technology never came close to capturing his horn. How could it? This is particularly frustrating to accept in our cocksure age of compact discs and digital technology, although it’s worth noting that sound geeks can just as easily use their computers to correct a faltering pitch as illuminate a perfect one. (Without such programming, one suspects that—poof—Top 40 would cease to exist.) Upon hearing digital sound for the first time, the German conductor Herbert von Karajan reportedly exclaimed, “all else is gaslight!” “[W]ell, what’s wrong with gaslight?” retorts the Irish poet and 78 aficionado Ciaran Carson in his book Last Night’s Fun (1996). “For you can use your imagination, make figures out of shadow.”
Bix is a specter, then, flitting in and out of the snaps and pops of a wax record. Even while listening to Bix, to the real, honest-to-god Bix, he is a shadow.
The first full-length biography of Bix Beiderbecke, titled Bugles for Beiderbecke, was published in 1958. The writers were two courtly and condescending Englishmen, Charles Wareing and George Garlick, who, like the Avati brothers several decades later, were exasperated by the hayseeds in Bix’s hometown. “Although the majority of its citizens might falter if taxed for the reason,” they write, “Davenport does, in fact, claim a modest degree of fame.” Even taking into account a certain aristocratic understatement, their choice of words is poor. There is nothing modest about the legacy of Bix Beiderbecke. Shortly after the Avatis broke set, I read Remembering Bix by Ralph Berton, a former editor of Down Beat magazine and by all accounts a precocious storyteller, a man who had no interest whatsoever in English reserve. His older brother Vic had been Bix’s drummer, and for a summer Ralph had followed Bix around like a puppy, doing literally what I had done only virtually, lapping up the improvisations, the legendary bits on piano; to him, Bix was something holy. “Like Jesus, Van Gogh, and other gifted outcasts, Bix found the world uninhabitable,” Berton writes in his book’s second sentence,
and left it, I think, without regrets, dying as he had lived—casually, without ceremony, and of course broke.
Bix’s work has influenced, directly or indirectly, two generations of musicians and music-lovers so far, in many countries, and left a permanent imprint on jazz; thirty years before there was a word for it, he was the first “cool” jazzman. How many of his contemporaries came under his spell it is impossible even to guess. One of them said somewhere, in print, that once you hear Bix blow four notes on that horn, your life would never be the same. I know how irritating that sort of rhetoric can be, especially to those who weren’t there; but for us who were, it was the simple truth.
I purchased my copy of Remembering Bix—mine is the first British edition, as it happens—in a tiny used bookstore in the Village of East Davenport, which is just a few cross streets on the bank of the Mississippi. During the Civil War, this was Camp McClellan. During the 1910s, Bix supposedly trotted down this way to ogle the ragtimers on the riverboats, traveling men like Louis Armstrong. “The first time I heard Bix,” Armstrong remembered, “I said these words to myself, ‘This man is as serious about his music as I am.'” I couldn’t resist Remembering Bix after spying it in the window, its cover a psychedelic yellow, orange, and green, with that same familiar picture: round face, hair parted, perfect tux, cornet on an unseen knee. I picked it up recently and found folded inside the front cover a newspaper clipping, from the New York Times obituaries, July 18, 1998: “James Flora, 84, Author and Album Cover Illustrator, Dies.” To the right of Mr. Flora’s stately, gray-goateed photo, without comment or cutline, is an extraordinary, Picasso-esque album cover showing two characters blowing colored beads from their horns. It is called Bix and Tram.