The Bix Beiderbecke Myth: Bix Lives On!

The Bix Beiderbecke Myth
Bix Lives On!

by Dan Kassell

copyright © 2003 Dan Kassell

All Rights Reserved

Let me ask you a question. When was the first time you heard of Bix? Heard a Bix recording? I'll bet it was at the insistence of an enthusiastic friend already struck by the Bix Myth.

For my generation, about 50 years ago, Columbia's LPs set the scene and George Avakian's notes on The Bix Beiderbecke Story Vol. I - Bix And His Gang reinforced the myth with facts: "Bix Beiderbecke story is the great romantic legend of American Jazz. It has everything: a sensitive young man who just had to play that horn, after hours sessions in smoky cellars, gin, more gin, and enough crazy stories to fill several books."

Weeks before the June 19, 2003 JVC concert "Celebrating Bix!," author/co-producer Richard Sudhalter told me on the phone that he "intends to demonstrate that this phenomenon came and went, its effect on jazz and pop are still well today -- Bix Lives On." In Bix: Man and Legend (Arlington 1974) with Philip Evans, Sudhalter discovered the events. More recently writing to uncover the why, he wrote in Lost Chords (Oxford 1999, p 435). "But can we isolate an inner voice, measure it, chart its amplitude and oscillatory curve? If not, how to explain the ardor of Bix idolaters, . . . bumper stickers . . . BIX LIVES lapel pins? How to account for the existence of a 'Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society,' or even a jazz band of otherwise competent and responsible musicians calling themselves the 'Sons of Bix's'[sic]?"

"It's hard to say what got to me so much," Hoagy Carmichael told Sudhalter in 1979, looking back in wonder. "Just four notes, some little thing - and I know it was right. . . . Like something I might have been waiting for, searching for. All my life - without even knowing that they were what I was after."

Randy Sandke also explained via a pre-concert telephone conversation what to expect: "Four piano pieces plus 'Davenport Blues'; three configurations -an eight-piece band like the Nagel-Heyer (CD3002) Randy Sandke Meets Bix Beiderbecke sessions and Arbors Records (ARCD-19271) Celebrating Bix! sessions with arrangements for three cornets by Peter Ecklund; the big band like Goldkette and Challis arrangements." Now that's quite an undertaking.

Luckily George Wein gave us an opportunity to listen to a panel discussion immediately before the Bix memorial concert at Hunter College's Danny Kaye Playhouse.

George Avakian, our treasured New York producer/writer/historian, spoke of Bix's music during his college days and how when he got a job at Columbia Records that enabled him to "reissue anything he wanted" Beiderbecke was one of the first. Randy Sandke, as the discussion leader, asked George about the sales of the 1952 Bix And His Gang series.

"Not great, about 16,000," Avakian replied, then went on, "Bix was the first melodist in jazz, Louis Armstrong said. Rex Stewart spoke of Bix's influence; many like Bobby Hackett continued the tradition of playing cornet. But his music got caught up in the ridiculous notion that white musicians couldn't play jazz! Unfortunate."

Vincent Pelote, Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, responded. "Bix - you could play 'pretty' and still play jazz. [He was the] first - you could be 'cool'." Pelote then gave a plug to the Mosaic box set Bix. Randy Sandke added, "Lester Young borrowed a Bix phrase from 'When,' from a Paul Whiteman date, for 'Tickle Toe.'"

Questions from the audience were equally revealing. Phil Elwood, the noted San Francisco scribe, spoke about the comparison to Louis Armstrong. "Their roots were different. Bix did every ODJB (Original Dixieland Jazz Band) recording. Armstrong did all blues." Dan Morgenstern, author/collector/educator, listening from an orchestra seat, spoke of recent oral histories revealing that "Teddy Wilson scored Bix's solo on 'Sweet Sue' for the trumpet section . . . and Lester Young arranged 'In A Mist' for the eight-piece Young family band." Doug LaPasta, a Celebrating Bix! producer, ventured his opinion, "It has always amazed me that the gravitational pull of Louie was so great on everybody playing jazz at that point, [yet] that Bix went ahead and forged his own way of playing . . . Which then got picked up . . . [and formed] an alternate stream." So, primed with all those thoughts and expectations for hearing Beiderbecke's sound, we waited for 8 o'clock.

"Big Boy"(Ager-Yellen), Bix's last Wolverines recording, opened right on top, Randy Sandke's cornet bell like tone cutting through the ensemble. "I'm Glad" (1925) a Sioux City Six session was notable for Scott Robinson's C-melody saxophone break just before a perfectly recognizable Bix ending that sent a chill of recognition up my spine!

A Bix and his Gang tune by Howdy Quicksell, "Sorry"(Klages-Quicksell), was introduced Ken Peplowski on clarinet and included Dan Barrett's mellow trombone. Randy reported, "Bix said to a friend that 'Sorry' was his 'happiest recording session.'"

Hearing live the combination of Peplowski's clarinet for Don Murray over Howar d Alden's guitar for Eddie Lang during "I'm Coming Virginia" was eerie as they evoked that period sound that captured many a musician's ear. Sandke crystalized Bix's likeness after the ensemble.

"Because My Baby Don't Mean Maybe Now"(Hardelot-Teschmacher), was originally sung by Bing Crosby but tonight Mark Shane got the honors exactly 75 years from the June 18, 1928 recording date. This pop tune shined because of Sandke's take charge cornet lead, as did his lead on "Rhythm King (Hoover) and duet with Barrett.

"Richard Sudhalter felt strongly about including Eastwood Lane's 'Adirondack Sketches,'" Sandke advised. "We're going to do 'Land of the Loon' and segue into 'In A Mist.'" Mark Shane delicately tickled the ivorie,s evoking a time in the '20s when classical piano was popular and flowing impressionistic sounds were American contemporary music. The trio of Peplowski, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and Scott Robinson, bass sax stood to play Sandke's atonal arangement of "Mist," accompanied by Alden's amplified electric guitar and Joe Ascione, drums.

Dan Levinson, Jerry Dodgion, Randy Reinhart and Jon-Erik Kellso joined the group on stage to do justice to Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle," scored for three cornets by Peter Ecklund. Now you haven't heard this chorus until you've heard these three cornetists play Bix in unison! Randy Reinhart's silver bell cornet was shaped like Bix's; Jon used a half-cornet half-trumpet Puje, and Randy Sandke a brass bugle-silhouette cornet.

Frank Trumbauer, Bix's friend and musical partner, was well known as an influence for Lester Young. His influence was heard here on "Blue River"(Meyer-Bryan), scored for three C-Melody sax's by Dan Levinson. Dodgion brought Trumbauer's swooping lilt, Robinson his brash tone and Levinson a sincere imitation. Randy Reinhart blew right through the bar lines and Gordon just growled his trombone solo.

"Flashes," an inspired Beiderbecke composition, was rendered by Alden on accapella guitar; he brought out the recognizable melody and delightful overtones that mimic the piano's upper register.

Ending the first set, Sandke announced "At the Jazz Band Ball" (LaRocca-Shields). During the recognizable opening melody, Levinson's dramatic playing of Don Murray's counterpart melody almost overpowered the three cornets lead. Ascione supplied all the rhythm, Alden the chug, chug guitar, Robinson the bass sax, and Shane the piano solo.

The band returned to the stage all hopped up for the fast "Pretty Girl" (Fultcher), a Bill Challis arrangement preserved by Richard Sudhalter, at a speed the tempo of that '20s flapper era. All chased Ascione as he drove the band with well-placed cymbal crashes.

It is evident by the tempo of "Clementine from New Orleans" (Warren-Creamer), a Goldkette Orchestra number, that swing started with this band. Prompted by a Bix-influenced cornet trio then a sax ensemble trio of Robinson, tenor; Levinson, alto, and Dodgion, alto, who together made that lilting danceable swing time come alive. I'd have to say that this performance was most like the original recording.

Who did Bix influence? Gil Evans for one, and his arrangement pf Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues," supplied by Evan's widow who was in the audience, was opened by Sandke on trumpet rendering the head in a recognizable but modern tone, supported by Alden's Epiphone electric guitar. Evans has retained the mood and added harmonics that are much later than Bix imagined, but who knows whether Bix might not have evolved exactly like this?

"Based on a Frank Trumbauer recording, we know from Bill Challis that Bix had a hand in arranging this tune," Sandke announced before "Clarinet Marmalade" (Regas-Shields). Wycliffe Gordon robustly equaled Bill Rank's trombone, Jimmy Dorsey's clarinet solo was represented by Peplowski, Bix's cornet by Reinhart, with an exceptional presentation of his tone. But it was Jerry Dodgion who got applause for his delightful alto rendering.

In 1956 Joe Wilder recorded a contemporary arrangement of "In the Dark" (Beiderbecke) by Tom Talbert. This night it was conducted by Sandke at a tempo suitable for dancing, and featured Jon-Erik Kellso, but again it was Dodgion's flute that carried the contemporary counterpoint over the brass ensemble work.

We heard "Borneo" (Donaldson), from Arbors Celebrating Bix! album (ARCD19271), scored for three cornets; the musical interplay of Dan Levinson and Scott Robinson sequentially playing a few bars on each instrument was what amused this audience. Sandke explained Robinson's antic afterwards as "Wild man Sam's root, toot toot tooting on his bamboo horn-eo," but don't infer that the musical quality suffered, for this entertaining style was the essence of swing-jazz in the late '20s, and Mark Shane got a chance to vocalize.

On "For No Reason At All in C"(Beiderbecke), arranged by Dan Levinson, Shane's piano work respectfully showed off Bix's extraordinary melody. There was also a long swing guitar solo by Howard Alden. Dan's C-melody sax initiated the outdoor swing dance mood, followed by Dodgion's C and then Robinson's C for Tram's solo. Robinson gyrated as he played; he was also the only one not wearing a suit, but rather a black & white cartoon-pattern shirt under a green plaid vest (both made by his wife). In unison the C's played out the recognizable descending triad ending that Bix tagged onto the Frankie Trumbauer session.

"Singin' The Blues" (Robinson-Lewis-Young) is un-doubtingly the most famous of Bix's tunes because within its melody lies the essence of his vision of musical time and phrasing that wouldn't become popular for many more years. Transcribed by Bill Challis and arranged for three cornets by Peter Ecklund to duplicate Bix's powerful cornet, Sandke opened both, followed by the three C-melody saxophonists; Reinhart led, standing on one foot, head tilted slightly, cornet askew. I think that's how Bix might have played to get that wonderful tone -- perched on one foot! Barrett and Gordon each took a trombone turn before the synchronized cornet ensemble closed out this gem.

"From Monday On" (Barris-Crosby), Sandke informed us, "This is the tune that Louis Armstrong remembered vividly hearing Bix play with Paul Whiteman's band in 1928 at the Chicago Theatre." Ecklund's arrangement opens with Robinson and Barrett's clarinets; Ascione took the break to increase the tempo, followed by a seamless succession of cornet, trombone, alto, bass sax and tenor solos, some overlapping so rapidly that who played what was blurred. But they all came together beautifully to blow it out.

What moved me on "Candlelights" (Beiderbecke) was Scott Robinson's huge but romantic bass saxophone sound, complemented by Ken Peplowski's clarinet over the top, sounding like a whole ballet orchestra.

Every jazz concert has a finale. Tonight's, "China Boy" (Winfree), was rare for having so many multi-instrumentalists. Joining the three cornetists to trade fours down the line were Barrett on trumpet, Gordon on trumpet, and Robinson on cornet. They all stepped aside for Joe Ascione, and he was all over the kit with a solo that Chauncey Moorhouse or Gene Krupa would have been proud of. The ensemble resumed, and in good time led us all out. George Wein interrupted the applause to ask co-producer Dick Sudhalter to come onstage now -- because a slight stroke a few weeks ago had prevented him from playing. Sudhalter looked just fine in his traditional double-breasted blue blazer.

The encore jam on "Somebody Stole My Gal" (Wood) gave everyone a chance to solo. Sandke was first, Peps was hot, Reinhart was Bix- like. Levinson chose tenor, Barrett played long trombone notes, Dodgion assumed the style of stop-time stompers on alto, Kellso flared, Aldon picked wonderfully on banjo. Scott blew cornet, Gordon blasted, Shane offered a piano interlude, Joel Forbes did a bass solo, and Ascione's drum roll filled the break before Sandke led them out. Wow - Bix Lives On!

DANNY KAYE PLAYHOUSE BACKSTAGE

Continuing the question, "When did you first learn about Bix?" Sandke answered, "This whole thing was a pleasure ever since last year when everything started with the record" (Celebrating Bix!). He told me that he "knew of Bix in the '70s at age 18 or 19 through Chuck Slate, the drummer and founder of the New Jersey Jazz Society, and trombonist Peter Balance." Phil Elwood overheard my question and answered, "To make even numbers: 1940. It doesn't matter, though, if it's the late '40s, the late '60s or the late '80s!"

Cornering Howard Alden, I posed the same question, to which he replied, "I got one of the Columbia Bix albums, but I really got heavy into it when Dick Sudhalter heard I was someone who played acoustic guitar and banjo, and called me for the eight-week run of Hoagy Carmichael's 'Hoagy, Bix and Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus,'" a play by Adrain Mitchell at Los Angeles Taper Playhouse in 1981. "Dick is the one that really educated me in all the subtleties of Bix Beiderbecke. I'd been listening to Eddie Lang, and of course, George Van Epps."

Joe Ascione, who was the drummer on Celebrating Bix!, was carrying only a small case. He explained: "House drums, my cymbals."

"My older brother David, a cornet player," Scott Robinson replied to my question, "I used to listen to this man's [W. Royal Stokes, standing nearby] radio show when I was a kid. I'm sure I heard Bix on 'I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.' I think the first thing I heard was "Wringin' and Twistin' -- Trumbauer." So it wasn't Bix, it was C-melody, I asked? "Bix is on piano. I listened to it over and over because I taped it." Royal beamed proudly.

Have I answered the question as to why Bix still retains the power to inspire us almost 75 years after his death? Those of you that feel it know why. For me, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell explained it best (as recalled by Nat Hentoff's JVC Jazz Festival 2003 program notes): "The thing about Bix's music is that he drove a band. . . . . It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. He got a very large tone with a cornet. Records never quite reproduced his sound. Some come fairly close, but the majority don't." Tonights concert successfully demonstrated that live cornet difference.

Benny Goodman answered Richard Sudhalter's query in , on page 557 (borrowed from his American Heritage article), "What do you remember about him?"

"I think my first impression was a lasting one. I remember clearly thinking, 'Where, what planet, did this guy come from? Is he from outer space? I'd never heard anything like the way he played; not in Chicago, no place. The tone -- he had this wonderful, ringing cornet tone. He could have played in a symphony orchestra with that tone. But also the intervals he played, the figures -- whatever the hell he did. There was refinement about his playing. You know, in those days I played a little trumpet, and I could play all the solos from his records, by heart."

I've suspected all along that the greatest improvising musicians were inspired by listening to recordings, playing along to learn their favorite artists' solos and incorporating their approach and feeling in the development of their own individual sound. Bix certainly did that and then recorded Nick LaRocca's tunes, but added something that has captured musicians' and fans' attentions a century after his birth.

Hear the music:

The Goldkette Project (Circle CCD-118) Bill Challis conducted Vince Giordano's Nighthawks in 1988, recreating his own arrangements 60 years after working with Bix.

Randy Sandke's New York Allstars, Bix Beiderbecke Era (Nagel-Heyer CD) or Randy Sandke Meets Bix Beiderbecke, live concert in Hamburg, Germany (1993) released by Nagel-Heyer for the Bix Centennial in January 2002 (NHCD002). www.nagelheyer.com/html/catalog.php?artist=Sandke&album=&track=&participants=&c=-1

Arbors Records Celebrating Bix! (ARCD-19271) With arrangements for three cornets by Peter Ecklund and three C-melody saxes by Dan Levinson. www.arborsrecords.com/recordtemplate.html?ProductID=19271

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C o m m e n t s

looking for the bix lives time and dates for 2005 1 of 1
bonnie sullivan October 10, 04

would like to plan our visit to bix lives 2005. please guide me to more info. thank you bonita sullivan

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