Eighty years ago tomorrow evening, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke flew into a fit of insanity at his home in Queens, N.Y., and promptly died. He was 28 years old. Beiderbecke was a long-time abuser of alcohol at a time when liquor wasn't federally regulated since it was illegal, and most spirits contained little more than amber-tinted isopropyl. Over time, Beiderbecke drank himself to death. He was the Amy Winehouse of his day.
In the late '20s, Beiderbecke wasn't the hottest or the fastest player around. Louis Armstrong had seen to that. But what Beiderbecke did pioneer was a cooler approach to jazz, a lighter horn style that relied on forceful clarity and impeccable syncopation. He also was an early champion of space, hiding behind a beat to let the listener's foot catch up and returning with a playful growl.
Beiderbecke wasn't in a hurry and preferred to just hit the right notes, hard, like the eager fingers of a sports columnist pounding out a story on the keys of a typewriter. You can hear this rat-a-tat-tat attack on Wa-Da-Da (Everybody's Doing It), There'll Come a Time and Bless Your Sister.
Beiderbecke's last known recording came on the afternoon of September 15, 1930. Hoagy Carmichael's [pictured] orchestra assembled at Victor's studio on West 24th Street in New York and was due to record three songs (which is rather odd, since most sessions were even-track events to fill two sides of a 78-rpm).
Nevertheless, on that day, the orchestra recorded the original Georgia on My Mind, One Night in Havana and two takes of Bessie Couldn't Help It, a song Armstrong had recorded earlier that year in January.
"Ten minutes to go, and recording engineer L.L. Watson came out to ask the musicians to take their places. Jimmy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, even Bix's roommate Ray Lodwig all were there. All but Bix.
"By chance, Jack Teagarden glanced over at the darkened, drape-covered far corner of the studio. There, horn across his knee, sat Bix, working the valves talking inaudibly to himself. He had been there the entire time. Quietly, gently, 'Big Tea' [as Teagarden was known] walked over, in time to hear a few half-whispered words. 'C'mon now, give me a break this time. Don't let me down.' Talking to his horn, as though the Bach cornet alone would decide whether he made it through the session.
"Hoagy, too, recalled Bix's nervousness that day, but 'when he did play he was fine, and really lifted the music.' Bix stayed out of the session's third selection, a rumba called One Night in Havana. It had no jazz. no reason why Lodwig, with his straight mute and pronounced 'nanny goat' vibrato, couldn't handle it alone."
Following this date, Beiderbecke began to miss a succession of Camel Hour radio broadcasts. When he did show up, his playing could be spotty at times, putting his horn to his lips only to find that notes wouldn't come out. Within a short period, trumpeter Bobby Effros took over Beiderbecke's chair, and Beiderbecke was on his way home by train to Davenport, Iowa, to dry out.
Here's to Bix, hot summers, swimming holes, tire swings, civility and syncopation!
JazzWax tracks: Bessie Couldn't Help it (and Georgia on My Mind) can be found on The Indispensable Bix Beiderbecke (1925-1930) here.
There are several fine collections of Bix Beiderbecke. One of the finest was a seven-disc set released by Mosaic that is now out of print. However, it's available used at Amazon starting at $125 here.
Or, there's a four-CD set called Bix and Tram from JSP Records mastered by the late John R.T. Davies, one of the leading specialists in sound restoration. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Bix on Bessie Couldn't Help It, his final studio recording. Dig the hot horn run at the start and close...