Considered a genius by his fans and fellow musicians, Bix Beiderbecke was a master cornet player, and, for those who heard him, one of the most inspiring jazz musicians of his day – inspiring white jazz musicians that is. Leaving behind a long list of recordings from the 1920’s – the historical Jazz Age – Bix’s original style has its roots in New Orleans jazz and classical composers such as Debussy and Ravel. During the 20s, Bix was known for his the legendary amounts of bootleg liquor he drank, to the point where he immune system was badly damaged, hastening his early death in 1931 at the age of 27. Although an excellent novel, The Young Man with the Horn, by Dorothy Baker, has been written based on the life of Bix, the biographical scholarship on Beiderbecke has been, at worst, self-serving and, at best, sloppy.
At long last, here in the United States, we have the publication of Jean Pierre Lion’s Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, winner of several jazz writing awards in France and a best-seller there to boot. Translated into English by a very skilled team of three writers, Lion’s biography is meticulously researched, thorough without ever being tedious, direct and clear in its prose, and sympathetic to the troubled cornetist without downplaying his faults and personal failings. As Lion reconstructs Bix’s life, it is very clear that from an early age, Beiderbecke cared for little else but playing music, and neither the patience nor the affluence of his family could deter Bix from dropping out of the life he could have had and pursuing the peripatetic, perpetually bibacious life of a jazz musician during the period of Prohibition.
Influenced by the original Dixieland Jazz Band, Bix quickly established himself as a highly-original, sweet-sounding, and lyrical soloist – first in a group called the Wolverines, and then in Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra and other groups with his close friend, the saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. By the end of 1927, Bix was playing with the immensely popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra – a group that played more popular dance music than hot jazz. Contrary to legend, playing with Whiteman’s top-of-the-pops group did not drive Bix to drink – in fact, Lion shows that Bix was quite happy in his role as the “stunt soloist” in the orchestra. If anything, Bix’s chronic drinking – by this point he was a full-blown alcoholic – and his difficulty in reading music made the already demanding work in the Whiteman Orchestra unmanagable for him. Lion clearly demonstrates that Bix’s alcoholism – and its consequences for Beiderbecke’s health and well-being – are what did him as a musician. In the end, the drink overwhelmed his talent.
In addition to presenting Bix in such a fair and balanced manner, author Lion provides interesting portraits of Beiderbecke contemporaries like Trumbauer, Whiteman, Hoagy Carmichael, Mezz Mezzrow. His description of the acoustic recording techniques of the 20s is excellent, and his exhaustive discography of Bix recordings – already available for several years on the web – is included here in an updated print form. This book is an essential text in any well-stocked jazz library.
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