Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Bix Beiderbecke


Bix Beiderbecke
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.
Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke was one of the first great jazz musicians. His influence can still be felt to this day despite his early death due to alcoholism.
During his brief but brilliant career (he died at the age of 28) Bix crossed paths with an amazing cast of musicians from the golden age of jazz. As I mentioned previously Bix was friends with Bing Crosby when they both played for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the late 1920s. Other musical acquaintances included his good friend the alto saxophonist Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang (who would also die at a very young age), violinist Joe Venuti, trombonist Jack Teagarden, future band leaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, clarinetist Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa.

You can read a couple of good, concise biographies of Bix here and here. There is a web site devoted to his memory here. His hometown of Davenport, Iowa also sponsors an annual festival in his honor.

You can listen to song samples from this two volume collection Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues and Vol. 2: At the Jazz Band Ball.

But my personal favorite is Bix 'N' Bing, a collection of recordings on which both he and Bing Crosby performed.

When I first began listening to Bix's music I could tell that it was different from the other great coronet players like Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. But I was hard pressed to describe what about it was different. Here is how the biography at the Ken Burns web site tells it:

From relatively undistinguished influences, Beiderbecke developed a beautiful and original style. His distinctive, bell like tone (his friend Hoagy Carmichael described it as resembling a chime struck by a mallet) achieved additional intensity through his unorthodox fingering, which often led him to play certain notes as higher partials in lower overtone series, imparting a slightly different timbre and intonation to successive pitches. With his basically unchanging tone as a foil, Beiderbecke relied for expressiveness on pitch choice, pacing, and rhythmic placement (as opposed to Louis Armstrong, who systematically used variety of timbre).

Even more interesting, I thought, was this description on the Riverwalk Jazz site that talks about how Bix's music was influenced by some of the great classical composers of the time including Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov:

...The music Bix left behind consists of his brilliant recorded work on cornet with the bands mentioned above, plus his solo piano compositions In A Mist, In The Dark, Candle Light, and Flashes, known collectively as the Modern Suite. In Bix's work, one clearly hears the influence of Impressionist composers Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and others as well as the great jazz masters. It is acknowledged that Bix had a wide musical influence on his contemporaries and beyond, especially on the young Hoagy Carmichael, whose composition Skylark originally bore the title Bix Licks.

Don Ingle says, "Bix was not only influenced by the Impressionists, but also by the post Romantics, including the transitional American McDowell, American impressionist Eastwood Lane, and to some extent by Russians like Rimsky-Korsakov. Dad [Red Ingle] recalled Bix playing Sheherezade on an old windup player while they were killing daytime before the gig at Castle Farms near Cincinnati in 1927. Bix was especially interested in how the orchestration made use of various combinations of instruments to achieve color. That, dad told me, suggested that his interest was shifting to the manner in which the music evolved, not just the playing of it."

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"American impressionist Eastwood Lane"

I read somewhere that Beiderbecke especially liked Lane's 1922 piano piece "The Land of the Loon". From the sheet music of the piece in "Adirondack Sketches" I have made a MIDI sequence of the piece:

http://www.angelfire.com/ks/landzastanza/elas4.mid

I have also made a sequence of "Lumber-Jack Dance",
also from "Adirondack Sketches" (1922):

http://www.angelfire.com/ks/landzastanza/elas6.mid

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