Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The viewer's eye and the listener's ear are drawn irresistibly to the man in the middle, holding the silver cornet on his right knee and looking defiantly straight at the camera.

At 21, Bix Beiderbecke was ready to take on the embryonic world of jazz and make it his own, and did so for a few years, before drinking himself to death at age 28. He was the "other" great cornet player and innovator of the twenties, like Louis an "ear" musician who never learned the formal aspects of his art. And though he remains in Louis Armstrong's shadow, and never entered the historical mainstream, he has a large and devoted cult following today, testifying to his greatness and his music's longevity.

He made his earliest recordings in 1924, with this group, the Wolverines. To Bix's right are the handsome drummer Vic Moore, the two reed men, George Johnson and the vampirish Jimmy Hartwell, and standing, pianist Dick Voynow. To his left are Al Grande, then Min Leibrook, the only member of this group to play extensively with Bix in his post-Wolverine days, usually on bass saxophone rather than sousaphone. Rounding out the group was banjoist, Bob Gillette. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Beiderbecke went on to become famous as a soloist with Jean Goldkette's Orchestra out of Detroit, then "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, but his forté was small-group improvisation, which he found time to record extensively despite the heavy demands of his touring schedule and heavy drinking.

Here he is with his New Orleans Lucky Seven, a.k.a. Bix and His Gang. This was a very hot band consisting of Bill Rank, an average and just-adequate trombonist who left the music business in the thirties, the outstanding reeds player Don Murray, who died at 25 after falling off the running board of a moving car and fracturing his skull on the pavement, the bass saxophonist par excellence Adrian Rollini, who contributed significantly to the "New York sound" of the twenties with his mastery of a unique bass instrument, pianist Frank Signorelli, a composer of note, like the banjoist with the wonderful name, Howdy Quicksell, whose real name was Howard, and the drummer Chauncey Morehouse, who lived to a ripe old age and was doing studio work as late as the 1970's.

Even though he's been dead 80 years, I feel like Bix's time is still coming. Like Django Reinhardt, whose fame and reputation have grown in recent years to a level greater than when he was alive, as he's been "discovered" by a new generation of guitarists, dead Bix lies sleeping in his home town of Davenport, Iowa, still waiting for his most convinced and enthusiastic audience to arrive.

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