I'm not sure why I always listen to Bix Beiderbecke's In a Mist over the Labor Day weekend each year. Probably because the song is carefree and melancholy at the same time, and perfectly captures the mood of summer's end.
In a Mist is a complex piece of piano music. The song begins and remains a paradox throughout, and you never quite figure out where it's going or where it has been. It sounds jagged and smooth, scampering up and down major and minor scales with exuberance and reflection, pausing on landings along the way to catch its breath. In a Mist never bores, no matter how many times you listen to it.
For those unfamiliar with Bix, he was a pioneering cornet player in the 1920s. He's is important because, like Louis Armstrong, his joyous abandon and modern phrasing advanced his instrument and jazz itself.
But In a Mist does not feature Bix on cornet. Instead, he's playing solo piano. While In a Mist lasts just 2 minutes and 44 seconds, it features a dense fabric of chords and multiple rhythms. The song opens as something of a minor-key cakewalk but Bix quickly shifts to stride piano in a major key, and In a Mist lurches, spins and staggers until it softly reaches its destination.
For me, it's the perfect anthem for the end of summer and start of the fall season. Bix's haunting melody and stop-start attack was ahead of its time musically. As you'll hear, this piano piece has multiple personalities, all of them rich with poetry.
Interestingly, In a Mist was recorded this time of year—nearly 80 years ago on September 9, 1927. Whenever I hear In a Mist, my first reaction is astonishment that Bix, the cornetist, could get so much out of the piano. My second reaction is bafflement at how complex a puzzle this song is.
This afternoon, In a Mist played beautifully as the dimming intensity of the summer light crept across the tops and sides of brownstones and buildings on New York's Upper West Side.
In Bix: Man and Legend (1974), Dick Sudhalter provides the story behind the naming of the song:
"Bix returned to Okeh [Records] the following Wednesday with Murray, Rank, Signorelli, Morehouse and Rollini to do three titles under his own leadership, the first since Davenport Blues more than two years before. As he recalled the story to Spirier, the first person he spied upon arrival was the recording man who had supervised the piano solo session.
'How about that title, Bix? Thought of something yet?'
'Gosh, I don't know,' he answered, parking himself at the keyboard. in truth he hadn't given the matter a moment's thought. don't ask me that one today, man. I'm just in a fog.'
With all the predictability of the commercially conditioned mind, the official—whose name has been lost to recollection—recoiled in delight. 'Hey! That's perfect. We'll call it In a Fog.'
Bix, said Spurrier, scarcely hid his annoyance. 'Aw, c'mon, man. That's corny And besides, it sounds all wrong—all heavy, like a guy with a hangover. That's not the way I hear it.'
'I like it,' the Okeh man repeated. 'Unless you can come up with something better, it stays in.'
After kicking it around for awhile, said Spurrier, the word 'Mist' replaced 'Fog.' Bix said he thought it more in keeping with his feeling for the thing. So 'Mist' it was and 'Mist' it stayed."
Bix was and remains a joy. On cornet or piano, Bix played jazz that sounded simple and intricate—often at the same time.
Wax tracks: Bix's In a Mist can be downloaded at iTunes. While you're there, download the Bix and Frankie Trumbauer instrumental version for contrast. And you may as well download Singin' The Blues, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans and Royal Garden Blues for a taste of Bix's cornet.
If you want to hear In a Mist before you buy it, check out this YouTube clip, which displays the Okeh record label while Bix rolls out those lush chords and melody lines.
Update: Bill Kirchner, who wrote the liner notes for Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Sony), sent along an e-mail to point out that the Miles Davis clip referred to in my Danny Bank posting last week wasn't rehearsal footage for the 1957 Miles Ahead session. Instead, it is from an April 1959 CBS television show, The Sound of Miles Davis. As Kirchner rightfully points out, it's "one of the best half-hours of jazz on video."