Sunday, July 16, 2017

Finding Bix by Brendan Wolfe

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

The following appear in the July 14, 2017 Edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Review: “Young Man With A Horn”
John Check


By Brendan Wolfe
Iowa, 235 pages, $24.95

“He could barely read music and had to learn his ensemble parts by ear. Forever late and missing trains, he acquired such a taste for Prohibition-era gin that it proved to be his undoing. He would shine bright, recording jazz solos that still bring tears to the eyes of devotees—and empurpled superlatives to the pens of critics. And then he would burn out, dead at 28, his brief life and lasting art the stuff of legend. He, of course, was Bix Beiderbecke, and his story continues to fascinate.

In “Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend,” Brendan Wolfe draws together the sometimes incomplete facts of Beiderbecke’s biography and the often contentious debates about his significance. Beiderbecke (1903–31), one of the first great jazz soloists to have his work preserved on record, was a cornet player who dazzled not with displays of technique or excursions into the high range but with subtlety and understatement. The relaxed quality of his solos often stood out against the more tentative and even stilted playing of his fellow musicians. Achieving success first with the Wolverines (a small group in the Midwest), he would move on to the larger orchestra of Jean Goldkette, and then to the still-larger, and wildly popular, orchestra of Paul Whiteman, who was billed as “The King of Jazz.”

Calling the cornetist “part Keats and part Fitzgerald,” Mr. Wolfe grants that Beiderbecke has often been portrayed as though he were “a nineteenth-century Romantic hero refitted for the Jazz Age.” Ardent fans of Beiderbecke’s work—Bixophiles, they are called—have for decades tripped over one another in an effort to praise its quality. Mr. Wolfe, who grew up in the cornetist’s birthplace (Davenport, Iowa), tries to separate man and myth, but it turns out to be a difficult task. The more he looks, the more he finds: Beiderbecke has been celebrated in tall tales and adoring biographies, in a French graphic novel and a British television series. And yet, the more he finds—much of it inconclusive and contradictory—the further his subject recedes from him. By some accounts Beiderbecke was a “genius” whose fate was nothing short of “tragic”; by others, a “drunk” whose inability to negotiate everyday life made him “ridiculous.” No summary appears reliable or definitive.

Debates about Beiderbecke’s significance in jazz history tend to revolve around the matter of race. Fairly and with delicacy, without himself taking sides, Mr. Wolfe sets out the views of opposing critics, some believing that Beiderbecke’s contributions are underrated because he was white, others maintaining that he and other white musicians co-opted a musical tradition that was not theirs, impoverishing it in the process.

Mr. Wolfe is adept at introducing details that serve as promissory notes. Sometimes the details are minor, the payoff small yet satisfying. Early in the book he mentions chancing upon an obituary of the illustrator James Flora tucked into the pages of a second-hand biography of Beiderbecke. The significance of Flora, “a father of album cover art,” is revealed much later on, when we are shown a 1947 cover that, in Flora’s artistry, brings to life the important musical and personal relationship between Beiderbecke and his Whiteman bandmate, the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.

At other times the details Mr. Wolfe introduces are major. The most striking of these deals with an incident that occurred when Beiderbecke was 18, prompting a police investigation. (He was accused of a “lewd & lascivious act” with a 5-year-old girl; the charges were later dropped.) An early chapter ends with policemen “[knocking] on the door and politely [asking] for Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke.” We will learn about the incident itself (some of whose facts, Mr. Wolfe acknowledges, “are a muddle”) only much later in the book. Mr. Wolfe renders this visit from the police so skillfully that it endows the next hundred pages with a heavy sense of foreboding.

One of the book’s strongest chapters tells of a 1929 interview with Beiderbecke appearing in the Davenport Democrat. While calling it “the only known interview of the jazz legend,” Mr. Wolfe adds that “there’s always been something a little off” about it, something “that jazz scholars have struggled to clearly articulate.” After some sleuthing, he discovers that the interview was plagiarized from several sources, borrowing words from music journalists Henry Osgood, Abbe Niles and others. Perhaps Beiderbecke was reticent and the interview came to nothing. Then again, perhaps the temptation to plagiarize was too great for the Davenport reporter to resist.
Whatever the case may be, the result is that Mr. Wolfe’s understanding of Beiderbecke “grows smaller and smaller, until eventually he disappears.”

An engaging book, “Finding Bix” is hampered in places by greater authorial self-indulgence than necessary. Mr. Wolfe, an editor by trade, sometimes resorts to words (“icky,” “wuss”) and formulations (“sound geeks,” “info-laden charts”) that themselves could have been edited out. His habit of interspersing extremely short chapters—the shortest containing 46 words—among long ones feels writer-conscious. When he addresses the reader directly, the effect can be jarring: “You want and need Bix talking to you, and . . . you want and need to keep up with him.”

A more serious problem resides in Mr. Wolfe’s disinclination to discuss Beiderbecke’s music in any appreciable depth. He has long lived with these solos and absorbed them to their last detail, but his familiarity works against him. He perhaps forgets that many readers don’t know what to listen for. How, for example, does Beiderbecke’s style differ from that of Louis Armstrong ? While Mr. Wolfe notes their respective contributions to the history of jazz, he avoids going into specifics. How helpful it would have been to be guided, in a nontechnical way, through a comparison of, say, Beiderbecke’s solo on “I’m Coming Virginia,” recorded in 1927, and Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” from a year later. Through such guidance, listeners of today might come to find Bix in the way that matters most: through the medium of his music.

Another way of finding Bix Beiderbecke is in recordings that reflect his influence. In 1941, 10 years after Beiderbecke’s death, the Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded “A String of Pearls.” It would become one of the orchestra’s biggest hits. Two-thirds of the way through, there is a short solo, a minor masterpiece, by the cornetist Bobby Hackett. From its relaxed tone and charming understatement to its easy pacing and cogent construction, everything about the solo echoes Beiderbecke’s aesthetic sensibility. It became so famous that it was later lushly harmonized for the entire Miller trumpet section. The harmonization is plainly a tribute to the artistry of Bobby Hackett—but it is more than that. Bixophiles hear in it a tribute to an earlier cornetist whose influence can never be forgotten.”

—Mr. Check is a professor of music at the University of Central Missouri.

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