Today is Bix Beiderbecke's 105th birthday. Most jazz fans know that the cornetist drank too much and that his playing altered the sound of jazz. But lesser-known is Bix's role in Hoagy Carmichael's greatest standard, Stardust—the third most-recorded song in American popular music history.
Born on this date in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903, Bix died in August 1931 at age 28 of pneumonia and the ruinous effects of raw, Prohibition alcohol. Bix played the B-flat cornet and the occasional piano. He recorded for only about six years—from February 1924 to September 1930, three of them as a soloist and sometime leader. Yet his legacy remains greater than many jazz musicians who recorded for much longer.
Bix's significance is due largely to the passion he brought to his playing, his relaxed melody lines and a tone that could catch and hold your ear. Bix's playing was more laid back than other musicians of the decade, focusing on selecting just the right notes on solos rather than emphasizing heat and technique. If you listen carefully to Bix's tone, you'll hear a bell-like sound that set him apart from his contemporaries.
Bix and Hoagy Carmichael [pictured] had been close friends since Bix's visit in 1924 to Indiana University. Hoagy was a student there and had booked Bix to play a series of fraternity dances. When Bix left following his on-campus gigs, Hoagy handed him a song he'd written called Free Wheeling. Bix took it with him to Richmond, Indiana, where he recorded it with his seven-piece band, The Wolverines, at the Gennett Records studios. The song was retitled Riverboat Shuffle, to improve its chances of catching on.
On February 4, 1927, Bix and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer [pictured] recorded a jazzy, upbeat version of Singin' the Blues, a song written by Sam Lewis, Joe Young, Con Conrad and J. Russel Robinson (you can't have too many songwriter credits!). Bix and Frankie's version was a hit, rising to the ninth most popular record sold in the country in June 1927, remaining in that position for an unheard-of six weeks. All the more remarkable since it was an instrumental.
Singin' the Blues' significance was extraordinary. Recorded more than a year earlier than Louis Armstrong's West End Blues, the song was an instant landmark jazz recording. It displayed a new way of playing jazz and was a harbinger of jazz's harmonic development in the years to come. Said Louis of Bix: "You take a man with a pure tone like Bix's and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure cornet or trumpet tone will cut through it all."
Bix's playing on Singin' the Blues and his phrasing left a deep impression on Carmichael, who wrote Stardust later that year and recorded it for Gennett Records as a piano instrumental in 1929. Bix's Singin' the Blues apparently reverberated in Hoagy's head for some time, according to Richard Sudhalter, author of Bix: Man and Legend (1974):
" 'While I played the melody of Singin' the Blues,' said [trumpeter Nick] LaRocca, '[Bix] used this counter-melody which had parts in it that Mr. Hoagy Carmichael later incorporated into his song, Stardust. Now when I say this counter-melody was similar I mean this man derived his idea or drew on Bix's ideas, as I had heard this boy play similar. Please do not construe that I try to take this credit away from Mr. Carmichael, as he is the composer, but there are many people who get ideas from others.'
"In later years, Hoagy acknowledged Bix as chief inspiration for Stardust, especially the verse, which when played at or about the same tempo as Beiderbecke's 1927 recording of Singing' the Blues, takes on the melodic shape of a characteristic Bix solo. Also, Singin' the Blues and the refrain of Stardust begin in the same chordal position; this, coupled with Bix's affinity for both songs, makes more than likely a counter-melody to Singin' the Blues incorporating elements of either Hoagy's verse or chorus—or both."
To read my post on Bix's In a Mist, go here. And be sure to read Ted Gioia's massive Bix post package today at Jazz.com. Also, WFIU's David Brent Johnson at Indiana University posted a radio show on Bix he recorded a few years ago, complete with interviews he conducted with leading Bixologists. Go here to listen to it.
Happy birthday, Bix!
JazzWax tracks: To hear Bix and Frankie Trumbauer playing Singin' the Blues in 1927, go here.
Listen carefully for the similarities between Singin' the Blues and Stardust, especially on the Jones version. Fascinating stuff.