Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Art of Bix Beiderbecke (1924-30)

In 2006 Primo brought out a 40-track collection entitled The Art of Bix Beiderbecke. Loosely covering a time span extending from June 20, 1924 to May 21, 1930, this pleasantly jumbled portrait touches briefly upon Bix's early work with the Wolverine Orchestra and the Sioux City Six; revisits his collaborations with C melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, and stirs in examples of Beiderbecke leading his Rhythm Jugglers, his Gang and his Orchestra. Also included is evidence of Bix's adventures as a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and two titles -- "Rockin' Chair" and "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" -- recorded at what turned out to be the second to last session Bix would ever participate in. Already ill and seated in a chair, he blew his cornet alongside trumpeter Bubber Miley, another brilliant musician whose life and career would soon be snuffed out by alcoholism. This group, led by vocalist Hoagy Carmichael, also included trombonist Tommy Dorsey, clarinetist Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, drummer Gene Krupa and featured vocals (on "Barnacle Bill") by a gruff-voiced character named Carson Robison. Stepping back and admiring Primo's The Art of Bix Beiderbecke as a dizzy blend of classic jazz recordings cut over a transitional six year period, it seems like an excellent way to listen to highlights from the Beiderbecke legacy. The other way to do it is to consult tidier, better organized, chronologically stacked "Bixologies." The more casual method, in this case, works nicely even if it gives the listener no sense whatsoever of a temporal stylistic progression. That is clearly not what the folks at Primo had in mind. -All Music Guide

Disc 1:

01. Singin' the Blues (3:02)
02. Trumbology (3:02)
03. Clarinet Marmalade (3:15)
04. Riverboat Shuffle (3:16)
05. I'm Coming Virginia (3:15)
06. Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (2:56)
07. Fidgety Feet (2:28)
08. Jazz Me Blues (2:49)
09. Copenhagen (2:32)
10. Sensation (2:42)
11. I'm Glad (3:14)
12. Toddlin' Blues (2:47)
13. Davenport Blues (2:52)
14. In a Mist (2:46)
15. For No Reason at All in C (3:07)
16. Wringin' and Twistin' (3:01)
17. Three Blind Mice (3:08)
18. Humpty Dumpty (3:07)
19. Krazy Kat (3:06)
20. Baltimore (3:04)

Disc 2:

1. At the Jazz Band Ball (3:00)
2. Royal Garden Blues (3:10)
3. Jazz Me Blues (3:12)
4. Goose Pimples (3:23)
5. Sorry (3:00)
6. Clementine (From New Orleans) (3:04)
7. Changes (2:52)
8. There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salf of My Tears (3:36)
9. Lonely Melody (2:59)
10. You Took Advantage of Me (2:58)
11. Rockin' Chair (3:29)
12. Barnacle Bill the Sailor (2:51)
13. Mississippi Mud (3:15)
14. Japanese Sandman (3:26)
15. Cryin' All Day (3:10)
16. Good Man Is Hard to Find (3:08)
17. Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down (3:11)
18. Somebody Stole My Gal (3:02)
19. Rhythm King (3:27)
20. Ol' Man River (3:07)

Hot Jazz and Cool Blues


Bix Beiderbecke

Leon Bismark "Bix" Beiderbecke (March 10, 1903 – August 6, 1931) was an American jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer. With Louis Armstrong, Beiderbecke was one of the two most influential jazz soloists of the 1920s. His turns on "Singin' the Blues" (1927) and "I'm Coming, Virginia" (1927), in particular, demonstrated an unusual purity of tone and a gift for improvisation. They helped to invent the jazz ballad style and hinted at what, in the 1950s, would become cool jazz. "In a Mist" (1927), one of a handful of his piano compositions but the only one he recorded, mixed classical influences with jazz syncopation; its complex harmonic structure served as a preview of the bebop revolution. Beiderbecke has also been credited for his influence, directly, on Bing Crosby and, indirectly, on Lester Young.

A native of Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke taught himself to play cornet largely by ear, leading him to adopt a non-standard fingering that some critics have connected to his original sound. He first recorded with the Midwestern jazz ensemble the Wolverines in 1924, after which he played briefly for the Detroit-based Jean Goldkette Orchestra before joining Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer for an extended gig at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, Missouri. Beiderbecke and Trumbauer both joined Goldkette in 1926. The band toured widely and famously played a set opposite Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in October 1926. The following year, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke left Detroit to join the best-known and most prestigious dance orchestra in the country: the New York–based Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Beiderbecke's most influential recordings date from his time with Goldkette and Whiteman, although they were generally recorded under his own name or Trumbauer's. The Whiteman period also marked a precipitous decline in Beiderbecke's health, brought on by the demand of the bandleader's relentless touring and recording schedule and Beiderbecke's persistent alcoholism. Multiple stints in rehabilitation centers, as well as the support of Whiteman and the Beiderbecke family in Davenport, did not check Beiderbecke's fall. He left the Whiteman band in 1930 and the following summer died in his Queens apartment at the age of twenty-eight.

His death, in turn, gave rise to one of the original legends of jazz. In magazine articles, musicians' memoirs, novels, and Hollywood films, Bix Beiderbecke has been reincarnated as a Romantic hero, the "Young Man with a Horn". His life has been portrayed as a battle against such bourgeois obstacles to art as family, commerce, even hygiene, while his death has been seen as a kind of martyrdom. The musician-critic Benny Green has sarcastically called Beiderbecke "jazz's Number One Saint," while Ralph Berton has more earnestly compared him to Jesus. The historical Beiderbecke, meanwhile, has often been the subject of scholarly controversy regarding his true name, his sexual orientation, the cause of his death, and the importance of his contributions to jazz in relation to those of African American players of the same period.

Style and influence

Bix Beiderbecke and his friend Louis Armstrong were among jazz's first soloists. In New Orleans, jazz had been ensemble playing, with the various instruments weaving their parts into a single and coherent aural tapestry. There had been soloists, to be sure, with the clarinetist Sidney Bechet the best known among them, but these players "lacked the technical resources and, even more, the creative depth to make the solo the compelling centerpiece of jazz music." That changed in 1924 when Beiderbecke and Armstrong began to make their most important records. According to the critic Terry Teachout, they are "the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz" and "the twin lines of descent from which most of today's jazz can be traced."

Beiderbecke's cornet style is often described by contrasting it with Armstrong's markedly different approach. Armstrong was a virtuoso on his instrument, and his solos often took advantage of that fact. Beiderbecke was largely, although not completely, self-taught, and the constraints imposed by that fact were evident in his music. While Armstrong often soared into the upper register, Beiderbecke stayed in the middle range, more interested in exploring the melody and harmonies than in dazzling the audience. Armstrong often emphasized the performance aspect of his playing, while Beiderbecke tended to stare at his feet while playing, uninterested in personally engaging his listeners. Armstrong was deeply influenced by the blues, while Beiderbecke was influenced as much by modernist composers such as Debussy and Ravel as by his fellow jazzmen.

Beiderbecke's most famous solo was on "Singin' the Blues," recorded February 4, 1927. It has been hailed as an important example of the "jazz ballad style"—"a slow or medium-tempo piece played gently and sweetly, but not cloyingly, with no loss of muscle." The tune's laid-back emotions hinted at what would become, in the 1950s, the cool jazz style, personified by Chet Baker and Bill Evans. More than that, though, "Singin' the Blues" has been noted for the way its improvisations feel less improvised than composed, with each phrase building on the last in a logical fashion. Benny Green describes the solo's effect on practiced ears:

When a musician hears Bix's solo on 'Singing the Blues', he becomes aware after two bars that the soloist knows exactly what he is doing and that he has an exquisite sense of discord and resolution. He knows also that this player is endowed with the rarest jazz gift of all, a sense of form which lends to an improvised performance a coherence which no amount of teaching can produce. The listening musician, whatever his generation or his style, recognizes Bix as a modern, modernism being not a style but an attitude.

Like Green, who made particular mention of Beiderbecke's "amount of teaching," the jazz historian Ted Gioia also has emphasized Beiderbecke's lack of formal instruction, suggesting that it caused him to adopt "an unusual, dry embouchure" and "unconventional fingerings," which he retained for the rest of his life. Gioia points to "a characteristic streak of obstinacy" in Beiderbecke that provokes "this chronic disregard of the tried-and-true." He argues that this stubbornness was behind Beiderbecke's decision not to switch from cornet to trumpet when many other musicians, including Armstrong, did so.

In addition, Gioia highlights Beiderbecke's precise timing, relaxed delivery, and pure tone, which contrasted with "the dirty, rough-edged sound" of King Oliver and his protégé Armstrong, whose playing was often more energetic and whose style held more sway early in the 1920s than Beiderbecke's. Gioia further wonders whether the many hyperbolic and quasi-poetic descriptions of Beiderbecke’s style—most notably Condon's "like a girl saying yes" —may indicate that Beiderbecke's sound was muddled on recordings.

Eddie Condon, Hoagy Carmichael, and Mezz Mezzrow, all of whom hyperbolically raved about his playing, also saw Beiderbecke play live or performed alongside him. Condon, for instance, wrote of being amazed by Beiderbecke's piano playing: "All my life I had been listening to music … But I had never heard anything remotely like what Beiderbecke played. For the first time I realized music isn't all the same, it had become an entirely new set of sounds …"

"I tried to explain Bix to the gang," Carmichael wrote. "… It was no good, like the telling of a vivid, personal dream … the emotion couldn't be transmitted."

Mezzrow described Beiderbecke's tone as being "pickled in alcohol … I have never heard a tone like he got before or since. He played mostly open horn, every note full, big, rich and round, standing out like a pearl, loud but never irritating or jangling, with a powerful drive that few white musicians had in those days."

Some critics have highlighted "Jazz Me Blues," recorded with the Wolverines on February 18, 1924, as being particularly important to understanding Beiderbecke's style. Although it was one of his earliest recordings, the hallmarks of his playing were evident. "The overall impression we get from this solo, as in all of Bix at his best," writes the trumpeter Randy Sandke, "is that every note is spontaneous yet inevitable." Richard Hadlock describes Beiderbecke's contribution to "Jazz Me Blues" as "an ordered solo that seems more inspired by clarinetists Larry Shields of the ODJB and Leon Roppolo of the NORK than by other trumpet players." He goes on to suggest that clarinetists, by virtue of their not being tied to the melody as much as cornetists and trumpet players, could explore harmonies.

"Jazz Me Blues" was also important because it introduced what has been called the "correlated chorus," a method of improvising that Beiderbecke's Davenport friend Esten Spurrier attributed to both Beiderbecke and Armstrong. "Louis departed greatly from all cornet players in his ability to compose a close-knit individual 32 measures with all phrases compatible with each other …," Spurrier told the biographers Sudhalter and Evans, "so Bix and I always credited Louis as being the father of the correlated chorus: play two measures, then two related, making four measures, on which you played another four measures related to the first four, and so on ad infinitum to the end of the chorus. So the secret was simple—a series of related phrases."

Beiderbecke's piano playing, meanwhile, can be considered on his recordings "Big Boy" (October 8, 1924), "For No Reason at All in C" (May 13, 1927), "Wringin' and Twistin'" (September 17, 1927)—all with ensembles—and his only solo recorded work, "In a Mist" (September 8, 1927). Critic Frank Murphy argues that many of the same characteristics that mark Beiderbecke on the cornet mark him on the keyboard: the uncharacteristic fingering, the emphasis on inventive harmonies, and the correlated choruses. Those inventive harmonies, on both cornet and piano, eventually helped point the way to bebop, which abandoned melody almost entirely.


Singin' The Blues (1927)

Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra (with Bix Beiderbecke)

Bix Beiderbecke (cornet), Frankie Trumbauer (C-melody saxophone), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet, alto sax), Bill Rank (trombone), Eddie Lang (guitar), Doc Ryker (alto sax), Paul Mertz (piano), Chauncey Morehouse (drums).

Recorded: New York, February 4, 1927.

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