Friday, October 5, 2012

Why Bix mattered

Why would Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist whose recordings spanned 1924 through 1930, matter to anyone but a traditional jazz aficionado today? Certainly as a drummer you will probably not learn much about drumming from his albums. In fact, you would benefit more from listening to Louis Armstrong's groundbreaking Hot Fives & Sevens from the same era since those albums featured Baby Dodds, arguably the most influential drummer in history, and Zutty Singleton who also inspired generations of drummers. The real reason is how Bix influenced music in a manner that is still felt if you listen closely enough.

Critical listening is essential for any musician. You may want to read Understanding music through critical listening before proceeding. Also, while I have included examples of Bix's music in this post, there are some excellent and inexpensive albums that will allow you to dig much deeper if this article piques your interest:

The Complete Bix Beiderbecke & Frankie Trumbauer Collection is narrowly focused on Bix's collaborations with Frankie Trumbauer, but to me this is one of the most important periods in his shorts life and career. I've posted a review of this album on this page.

Although not truly complete, The Complete Bix Beiderbecke: The Complete Collection is still impressively encompassing and contains most of the highlights of Bix's career. See my review for details, pros and cons.

The Bix Beiderbecke Story is a box set that is worth owning if you are a Bix fan. The track list and session details for every track is on this page.

There is always an unbroken chain that goes back to the beginning. For example, any jazz, R&B or blues saxophonist can trace to Coleman Hawkins as the root of their influence. And while jazz trumpeters and cornetists can trace their root to Buddy Bolden, through Louis Armstrong and beyond, Bix had a parallel influence too.

Another reason Bix mattered is his musical associations. He was greatly admired by (and jammed with) Louis Armstrong, and played with Frankie Trumbauer and Eddie Lang - two significant influences on saxophone and guitar.

In fact, it's difficult to separate Bix from Frankie in some ways. For one thing, aside from playing together in various orchestras, their best work were collaborations on the following songs: Trumbology, Clarinet Marmalade, I'm Coming Virginia and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. One collaboration was in composing in which Bix cowrote For No Reason at All in C.

Frankie, a.k.a. Tram, was Lester Young's major influence. So much so that Lester carried a copy of Singin' the Blues in his tenor case everywhere he went. But that song's importance goes far beyond Tram's saxophone genius, it also represents one of Bix's best cornet solos.

The web becomes more tangled when the Hoagy Carmichael connection is acknowledged. Hoagy had a close friendship and professional association with Bix. Indeed, he was arranger and pianist on some of Bix's last recordings on May 21, 1930 (these are included in a 10 disc box set, Bix Beiderbecke Story. It goes even further. Hoagy's masterpiece, Stardust, shares similarities with Singin' the Blues. This is convincingly argued by Richard M. Sudhalter in his highly regarded book, Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael. He also finds similarities to Stardust in Jazz Me Blues, but the analysis is more technical. Give a listen once more to Singin' the Blues above, then compare it to Hoagy himself playing Stardust

Here is the other part - Jazz Me Blues - if you want to listen to both of Sudhalter's proposed influences to compare to Stardust:

Additional evidence of the mutual high regard between Bix and Hoagy is this composition that Hoagy wrote especially for Bix and Tram. Also note that I am not diminishing Tram's relationship with Hoagy, which was also strong.

As this is unfolding I hope you can see the reach of influence exerted by Bix (and Tram). While Lester Young was influenced by Tram, Chet Baker is probably the most influenced by Bix's cornet.

But Bix's reach extended beyond horn players. He ws also a virtuoso pianist as evidenced by this recording:

Bill Evans was greatly influenced by Bix's piano playing (Bix's own influences were Debussy and Ravel.)

If you want to explore the roots of today's music, then Bix mattered. You can certainly hear his (and Tram's and associated guitarist Eddie Lang's) influence on musicians to this day. It's up to the curious among us to connect the dots ... and to acknowledge musicians like Bix who truly added to the body of American music.

I am ending with a final clip, but I am not going to embed it here because the story on the video page is worth reading. This will probably interest Bix fans and bore general listeners: The unheard and unseen Bix Beiderbecke.

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