Who was the better horn player, Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong? It's a debate that has reared its head once again this past week across a series of forums and blogs, notably in reader exchanges at Doug Ramsey's Rifftides. The most recent knock against Bix is that he was merely an over-hyped white hope. Or a great white gin-soaked hope. Or a hopeless drunk who was less than great but still white. Or re-arrange the words any way you wish.
All of which prompted me to spend a few hours yesterday with both Bix and Louis (the horn greats say "hi," by the way, and wish everyone a happy Labor Day). To keep the match fair, I focused solely on 1927. In Bix's corner, I used the Complete Okeh and Brunswick box from Mosaic Records. For Louis, I put on discs from the Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.
Here's the bottom line: Any attempt to match up these two players is a waste of precious time and distracts from the point of the music. I've interviewed enough jazz legends to know that ranking musicians is folly, a pointless fad imposed upon us by magazines and record labels of the 1940s and 1950s that hoped to elevate their brands and boost sales. There's only one way to listen to Louis and Bix: Use your heart, not your head, and feel what each artist was trying to say. Even better, listen to these guys in a dark room, and the point of the music will become instantly clear.
Bix remains fascinating not because of his weakness for bathtub booze or pale skin but because his timing was impeccably hip and infectious. Louis' recordings sustain their appeal not because of the trumpeter's charm or technique but because his heat and brazen risk-taking were extraordinary and inspirational. Louis invented swing. Bix invented space between the notes. Bix favored syncopation from within the ensemble while Louis preferred to break out, and in the process created the star solo. Both artists were colorists with different temperatures and textures. Both were compact stylists who adored messing with the beat. And both retain the magical ability to make us pay close attention to what they had to say.
Two recordings from roughly the same period make the point: Bix's Sorry and Louis' Chicago Breakdown. Sorry was recorded in October 1927 and opens with a full-ensemble downbeat. The first soloist is Don Murray on clarinet, with Bix rushing past him on cornet. Listen as Bix weaves and bobs laconically, building notes and leaving space and then jumping in hard on the offbeat. He swings around, shoots in, backs out, and hits notes behind and ahead of the beat. Bix's sense of timing here is razor fine, and his unassuming way of toying with syncopation sounds so deceptively easy. Bill Rank is next on trombone, interrupted by Bix, who is supported by the rubbery bark of Adrian Rollini's bass sax. Bix returns again, weaving and bopping before closing out the tune. According to Richard Sudhalter's fabulous 2001 liner notes, Bix told a friend, "I've never felt better on any recording date."
Louis' Chicago Breakdown was recorded in April 1927 and is paced similarly to Sorry. Louis' horn stands out instantly from the big band led by Carroll Dickerson. Louis' first solo states the song's theme, and he plays squarely on the beat. Earl "Fatha" Hines takes a stride piano solo, followed by Louis, who returns with even more vim and moxie. On the second pass, he virtually re-invents the melody, bending notes and ripping others wide. Clarinet and tenor sax solos are next, with Louis back swinging the melody with joyous abandon, adding a terrific tag at the end. This is Louis as soloist, leader and remarkable risk-taker.
Bix and Louis had different approaches in 1927, and both remain significant for different reasons. Bix wriggled around inside the fabric of a song while Louis danced right on top of it. One artist embraced space, giving the listener a moment to catch up. The other preferred heat while on a mission to dazzle. Forget about chops, runs and hype. In 1927, these were two instrumental dancers showing off their stuff with intelligence, soul and daring. The word that comes to mind when I think of Bix and Louis isn't "better." It's "clever."
To hear Louis' Chicago Breakdown, download it for 99 cents here. To hear Bix's Sorry, have a listen below—and see why it's absurd to think of these two as "either-or":