Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was one of the most sought after cornetists in the 1920s, although he only became famous many years after his death in 1931. Today he is considered one of the early jazz musicians skilled enough to be compared to the great Louis Armstrong, and his innovative approach helped direct later jazz styles. His life, on the other hand, was one riddled by self-destructive behavior, marked by uncontrollable and fatal alcoholism.
Raised in Davenport, Iowa by a comfortable middle-class family, Beiderbecke developed skill at the piano at an early age. His knack for learning pieces by ear allowed him to forego intensive training, which would have required him to learn to read music.
He began to play the cornet at 16, inspired by Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
His poor grades in school resulted from a lack of interest in everything but music, but in an effort to remedy this, his parents sent him to Lake Forest Academy, a boarding school in Illinois. There he continued to ignore his studies in favor of sneaking off to Chicago to hear jazz in speakeasies. He began to perform more and more in Chicago, and when he was expelled from the academy in 1922, he decided to pursue a career in music. He soaked up the early jazz sounds of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Freddie Keppard, as well as the music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
Beiderbecke joined a band known as the Wolverines in 1923, expanding his exposure to audiences outside of Chicago, and most importantly, in New York. Around this time began his association with C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer.
Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were similar in terms of their virtuosity and their refined, dulcet approach, contrasting from the boisterous sounds of hot jazz. Their playing is thought to have contributed to the development of “cool” jazz, a style made popular by Miles Davis and others in later decades.
Beiderbecke played and recorded with a number of groups in the mid-1920s, and also developed a taste for Prohibition-era alcohol, which was often filled with poisonous contaminants. But while his addiction thrived, so did his career. Apparently, he was able to improve his poor reading ability because, in 1927, he and Trumbauer joined the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and then the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Both were high-paid professional ensembles with large popular followings. Tellingly, reminders were found written in the 2nd trumpet chart, to “Wake Up Bix” before it was time for him to solo.
During the late 1920s, Beiderbecke made several recordings on cornet with small groups that often included Trumbauer. The two famously recorded the tune “Singin’ the Blues,” on which their mellifluous tones and melodic sophistication signaled a departure from traditional styles. Beiderbecke also composed works for solo piano, including “In A Mist,” an elaborate piece that injects early jazz with elements of French impressionism.
Despite his successes, his heavy drinking stood in the way of his career, and in 1929, after a nervous breakdown, Beiderbecke was asked to take a leave of absence from the Whiteman Orchestra to recuperate. He never got clean, and two years later, on August 6th, 1931, after a binge on toxic liquor, Beiderbecke died at the age of 28.
What alluded Bix his entire life, was achieving any measure of success in his parent’s eyes, when he desperately craved. A famous anecdote speaks of a visit back home after a number of his recordings became popular around the world. Bix opened the closet to hang his coat, and say there was a pile of his records that he had sent them that were never opened.
Although not fully recognized during his short life, Beiderbecke’s talent is hailed today. His restrained and reflective style has served as a model for countless followers, as has his melding of jazz and classical music influences. He died young, but his musical legacy endures.