Friday, May 15, 2015

Hoagy and Bix - "In A Mist"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Hoagy Carmichael, the famous songwriter, published two versions of his autobiography: the first was entitled The Stardust Road (1947) and the second was Sometimes I Wonder (1965) which he wrote in collaboration with Stephen Longstreet.

Both are nostalgic, and both depend upon an extraordinary recollection of decades-old dialogue — or perhaps in the case of Sometimes I Wonder, on collaborator Longstreet's novelistic talents.

Both books, of course, focus on Carmichael's early, close friendship with Bix Beiderbecke [1903-1931], the cornetist who along with other members of what came to be referred to as the “Austin High Gang” were among the first White Jazz musicians to take up the clarion call of Jazz masters such as Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong who had brought the music “up the river from New Orleans” and performed it nightly during the mid-1920’s at the famous Lincoln Gardens in Chicago.

Aside from being the title of one of Bix’s few compositions, “In A Mist” might also serve as a reference to the cloud of alcohol that constantly surrounded Hoagy and Bix. The continual ingestion of booze was to kill Bix at an early age and make Hoagy into what some have referred to as a “mean drunk” in his later years.

Excerpt from THE  STARDUST  ROAD

“Christmas Eve in New Castle, with the little maimed tree, was somewhat different from the night I went up to Chicago to see Bix. It's the summer of 1923. We took two quarts of bathtub gin, a package of muggles, and headed for the black-and-tan joint where King Oliver's band was playing.

The king featured two trumpets, piano, a bass fiddle, and a clarinet. As 1 sat down to light my first muggle, Bix gave the sign to a big black fellow, playing second trumpet for Oliver, and he slashed into "Bugle Call Rag."

I dropped my cigarette and gulped my drink. Bix was on his feet, his eyes popping. For taking the first chorus was that second trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louis was taking it fast. Bob Gillette slid off his chair and under the table. He was excitable that way.

"Why," I moaned, "why isn't everybody in the world here to hear that?" I meant it. Something as unutterably stirring as that deserved to be heard by the world.

Then the muggles took effect and my body got light. Every note Louis hit was perfection. I ran to the piano and took the place of Louis's wife. They swung into "Royal Garden Blues." I had never heard the tune before, but somehow I knew every note. I couldn't miss. I was floating in a strange deep-blue whirlpool of jazz.

It wasn't marijuana. The muggles and the gin were, in a way, stage props. It was the music. The music took me and had me and it made me right.

Louis Armstrong was Bix Beiderbecke's idol, and when we went out the next night to crash a …  dance where Bix was playing with the Wolverines, I learned that Bix was no imitation of Armstrong. The Wolverines sounded better to me than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Theirs was a stronger rhythm and the licks that Jimmy Hartwell, George Johnson, and Bix played were precise and beautiful.

Bix's breaks were not as wild as Armstrong's, but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care. He showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful as well as hot. He showed me that tempo doesn't mean fast. His music affected me in a different way. Can't tell you how  — like licorice, you have to eat some.

The course of a wandering mind and an unreliable memory is erratic. The path of this piece is helplessly jagged from an absence of chronology.

However, there is a time. There is one time, a little fraction of an era, to which my mind reverts. I can remember that time clearly.

That is the spring of 1924.

I expect that Bix brings this about. He of the funny little mouth, the sad eyes that popped a little as if in surprise when those notes showered from his horn.

The spring of '24. Seems like the moon was always out that spring ... seems like the air of those nights was doubly laden with sweet smells. The air was thick and soft and pale purple. Grass was greener . . . moon was yellower.

Of course it helps to be young, and I was young.

Take a drink of whisky that tastes like kerosene in your mouth and a blowtorch
going down. "Best I ever tasted."

"Wonderful. Have another, Hoagy, and turn the record over."

The Wolverines had played a dance on the campus — one of ten dances I had booked for them — and Bix and I were lying in front of the phonograph early in the morning. We were playing the "Firebird" music of Stravinsky.

"Wonderful. Have another slug."

"What's wonderful?"


"Sure. Whisky too."

"Guy used to be a lawyer."



"Naw, Rimsky-Korsakov touted him offa the law."

"Touted him offa the torts, huh?"

"I dunno who he slept with."

"I said torts."

"Hell, I've slept with tarts myself."

"It's wonderful. Wonderful. Let's have another drink."

"Sure is. Turn the record over."

There was a long silence. "Why'nt you write music, Hoagy?" Bix asked softly.

"Naw, you're the one that writes the music. Every time you put that horn up to your mouth you write music."

"You write music, Hoagy," Bix said again like he hadn't heard me.

"You write yours different every time."

"What's wrong with that?" Bix asked. "I like it different. Like Rimsky-Korsakov. He heard this Stravinsky, told him to give up the law . . ."

"The torts ..."

"Leave that crummy joke alone," Bix said. "I got that crummy joke."

"Stravinsky study law?"

"Sure. Young guy like you. He studied law then Rimsy — ah, hell, you know who I mean — he told him to write music. So he wrote his. They dance to it."

"Dance to it?"

"Sure." Bix got up and did an entrechat, fell down and lay where he fell. I turned the record over. "Ballet," he said. "Hell, it's wonderful."

"Sure is," I said. "Give me another drink."

We lay there and listened. The music filled us with some terrible longing. Something, coupled with liquor, that was wonderfully moving; but it made us very close and it made us lonely too. With a feeling of release and a feeling of elation . . . and a feeling of longing too.

Silence. The record had come to a stop. A long silence and I was afraid to speak; afraid I'd spoil something. I can see Bix now, lying there, the music still playing in his head and me knowing it ... afraid to speak; afraid I might spoil a note.

Finally I spoke. A little shyly. "I'm learning to be a composer."

"Who's teaching you?" Bix asked idly, rolling his head on the floor so he could look at me.

"Everybody," I said. "Everybody's teaching me to be a composer. I learned to be a composer a long time ago. Every time I see a pretty girl I learn more how to be a composer. Every time I play a Bucktown dance I learn how to be a composer."

"Nothing wrong with you," Bix said, "except you're drunk."
“So’re you.”

"I never said I wasn't." He stopped. "Music kind of hits together in your head. Hurts you across the top of your nose if you can't blow it out . . ."

"But you can't blow it all out."

"You can try."

"Bix," I said.


"Like what . . . kind of like with a girl . . . ?"

There was another long pause. Bix started up the phonograph and we lay there and listened to the music. Bix wasn't thinking about what I had asked him. He was feeling something, though, and I was, too. It was the same thing but we couldn't put the words to it. It disturbed us. Ours were a medley of moods.

"Kind of," he said, but he hadn't thought about it.

"Like going first to school when you are a little kid and being scared?"

He nodded, narrowing his eyes and looking at me.

"Like a quick storm comes up on the river . . . and a horn . . . Maybe Armstrong or Oliver, and the storm . . ." he said.

"Put on the next record, let's have a drink."

"Like playing a steam calliope on a riverboat with it hot as hell and the people dancing, all wet with sweat. Like blowing a horn," Bix said. "Like blowing a cornet. Like blowing a cornet."

"Bix," I said, "I'm gonna play a cornet."

"Sure. Everybody ought to play a cornet. Fun. Let's have a little one."

We had a little one and the sound washed over us as we lay there . . . two kids, kind of drunk, full of something and not able to put the words on it. But together, awfully together.

"Funny little horn," I said. "I'm gonna play me a horn."

It was nearing the Christmas holidays. Bix blew into Indianapolis and asked me to go down to Richmond with him to hear him make some records. He phoned me at my house and I hurried down to pick him up, in my new Ford, a Christmas present to myself.

When I found him he told me that he was on his way to make some records for Gennett, the same outfit that had made our record in the fall. I was delighted to go.

Remembering my own nerve-racking experience, I thought it would be doubly pleasant to be there with no worries of my own. I asked Bix who was going to be with him on the date.

"We're going to make some records in 'slow-drag' style," Bix said, "and I've got some guys who can really go. Tommy Dorsey, Howdy Quicksel, Don Murray, Paul Mertz, and Tommy Gargano. They are going to drive down from Detroit and meet me."

"Boy," I exclaimed, "that's really gonna be somethin'. What are you gonna make?"

"Hell, I don't know. Just make some up, I guess."

"How about me driving you over tonight?"

"That'll be swell ," Bix said. "The guys are bringing three quarts . . ."

"When do we leave?"

"Oh, three or four" Bix said, the idea of sleeping never entering his head. He looked at a clock that showed midnight. "Let's go over to the Ohio Theatre and jam awhile."

"Now you're talkin' . . ."

We got to the theater after closing and took our places at the grand pianos in the pit. There, all alone, we banged out chorus after chorus of "Royal Garden Blues."

And each interpretation was hotter than the one before. First one of us would play the bass chords while the other played hot licks and then we'd reverse the process. When we finally wore out it was time to leave.

We started for Richmond. And that night I reached greatness.

Bix is dead now, and you'll have to take my word for it, but on that night I hit the peak. We were halfway to Richmond, of a cold dark morning, when we stopped and for some reason Bix took out his horn.

He cut loose with a blast to warn the farmers and to start the dogs howling and I remembered that my own horn, long unused, was lying in the back of the car. I got it out.

Solemnly we exchanged A's.

"Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,'" Bix said.

He had hit one I knew pretty well and I was in my glory.

And then Bix was off. Clean wonderful banners of melody filled the air, carved the countryside. Split the still night. The trees and the ground and the sky made the tones so right.

I battled along to keep up a rhythmic lead while Bix laid it out for the tillers of the soil. He finally finished in one great blast of pyrotechnic improvisation, then took his horn down from his mouth.

"Hoagy," he said thoughtfully, "you weren't bad."

I had achieved greatness. We drove on into the night.


Traveling with a big band is like being an inmate in a traveling zoo. Gags, ribs, girl trouble, money trouble, just trouble, bull sessions, card games, taking over the spare upper. Socks are traded, shirts stolen.

Chicago ran wide open. The Capone mob liked show folk. Whiteman, a powerful drinker in those days, had target practice with pistols, and beer drinking contests with some of the gang chiefs; at least, he often told the story.

In the Uptown Theatre in Chicago, where Whiteman's orchestra was playing, I stood in the wings and watched the boys go. Bing was often late. Between shows we gathered in the small basement rooms backstage and played hot jazz. Bix and Jimmy Dorsey were almost always in on these sessions. I also practiced what, for lack of a better word, I called my singing. I had a good deal of it to do in "Washboard" and the damn recording date was approaching.                                                                                                   

Bing [Crosby] came around while I was rehearsing once and stood there, hands in pockets, smoking a pipe.

"Mind if I glom on to the words, Hoagy?"

"No—but why?"

"I'd just like to learn it," Bing said, expressionless.

"What for?"

"It's such a swell number, chum, I'd like to learn it."

"Well, sure."

I didn't realize until later that Whiteman wanted some voice insurance in case I bombed. He wanted somebody there who could do it if I didn't. Bing was being kind to me. He didn't hint to me I might flop. They wanted to make a good record whether I was on it or not. Bing was always kind and calm, but he was more given to living it up before he became an American institution.

So I exercised my voice and observed life backstage. Crowds of jazz followers flocked to the stage entrance to see Bix. Many were musicians. They'd crowd around him and urge him to play.

"Come on Bix — just a few bars."

Bix didn't like meeting so many people. "It's driving me nuts. I try to remember them all, to keep them straight in my mind and not offend anyone."

"That's fame, Bix," I said.

"It's bad for my nerves. I get the heebie-jeebies."

There was always a bottle in his room. I would hear Whiteman ask, "How's Bix feeling this afternoon?"

Bix was Whiteman's pet. He loved Bix as if he had been his own boy. 
But the bottle stayed.

The side of "Washboard Blues" was made at the Victor studios, with "Among My Souvenirs" on the other side. I was so nervous I ruined a half-dozen master records and the best of a double-time trio arrangement. I had a lot of vocalizing to do and the piano solo I had done for the Gennett record was included in the arrangement. It was, for me, nerve-racking, jumping from one act to another. Whiteman remained calm.

"We'll get it all on this one."

I looked at Bing to step in for me. He looked away.

The control man said, "Recording — side six."

The opening notes began. Finally we got a master that was approved. When Leroy Shield came out of the control, I thought I saw a tear on his face. We were emotional slobs about music in those days.

I was a limp, wet, wreck — so relieved I was still alive and now silent.

Paul Whiteman was the biggest thing in bands. His father had been a classical musician who had a high school named after him in Denver. But Paul never practiced his violin properly, became a packing house worker (our early jobs crossed here), then a taxi driver. He drifted into popular music and soon had it organized.

As the King of jazz, he was the big name in the business, taking a fatherly interest in his men. He was a powerful liver, drinker, and worker. My being with him far exceeded anything that had happened to me musically so far. How much more it meant than the acquisition of an LL.B. college degree! College men would soon be peddling Hoover apples on street corners.

Any inner contest between Hoagy the musician and Hoagland the lawyer
never bothered me from that day on. I would be forced into mundane work
and might even have deep indigo periods of doubt and discouragement about my ability to succeed as a hot composer, but it was now certain that the basic pattern of my life and work was set. It was not a turning point, it was a break-through, all troops committed.

I left Chicago after the recording session in a burst of jubilation hardly comparable to anything I had known before.”

The following video tribute to Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke features Michel Legrand's arrangement of Bix's In A Mist with solos by Seldon Powell on tenor sax, Art Farmer on trumpet, Frank Rehak on trombone and Phil Woods on alto sax.

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