Friday, May 4, 2018

Balliett on Bix - "The Other Cheek"

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

Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who died in 1931 at the age of twenty-eight, has been the subject of so much glorified writing that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between what actually happened in his short life and what is hagiography.

In its purest sense, hagiography is used for the purpose of writing about saints, holy people or ecclesiastical leaders usually in the form of an admiring or idealized biography.

The word comes from the Greek “hagios” meaning holy and the Greek  “graphy” which means writing.

Hagiographies often focus on the miracles brought about by those imbued with sacred powers.

Bix Biederbecke’s career has often been the stuff of hagiography but leave it to Whitney Balliett, the long time Jazz critic for The New Yorker to debunk the mythology long associated with Bix as he does so eloquently in this essay from Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz [Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Company, 1962].

Whitney’s essay on Bix was first published in 1961. The occasion for this piece was prompted by the issuance of The Bix Beiderbecke Legend - fourteen tracks on RCA Victor.

“LEGENDARY FIGURES are blessed properties. They enliven us by defying life and death. They are what, one morning, we hope to see in the glass. They are imaginary pied pipers forever summoning us from the crown of the next hill. Yet the best legendary figures are not legends at all; they are what they seem. Such is Bix Beiderbecke, the great cornetist, who died in 1931, at the age of twenty-eight. Archetypical, the Beiderbecke legend tells of a gifted small-town boy (Davenport, Iowa) who makes the big time in his early twenties, starts drinking, becomes frustrated by the chromium surroundings he must endure to make a living, drinks more heavily, loses his health, and dies, broke, of pneumonia in a baking August room in Queens.

But this lugubrious chronicle, true though it is, soft-pedals the very thing that gives it backbone — Beiderbecke's extraordinary skills. For he was, unlike the majority of short-lived "geniuses," already just about complete. Had he lived, he would probably — in the manner of his close friend and peer Pee Wee Russell, who is only now reaching a serene perfection — have simply refined his playing past reproach. The adulation that encases Beiderbecke began soon after the start of his career. (Professional adulation, that is; it has been estimated that Beiderbecke was praised in print just twice during his life. Nowadays, musicians are fitted out with a full set of adjectives before making their first record.)

Beiderbecke was the sort of jazz musician who provokes vigorous imitation. Andy Secrest, Sterling Bose, Leo McConville, Jimmy McPartland, Red Nichols, and Bobby Hackett were or are faithful copies, while Rex Stewart, Frankie Newton, Buck Clayton, Joe Thomas, and Roy Eldridge appear to have divided their formative years between Louis Armstrong and Beiderbecke, who also studied each other. (Why certain jazz styles are imitable and certain are not is altogether mysterious. Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian have countless facsimiles, who, in turn, have their facsimiles.

At the same time people like Thelonious Monk, Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Catlett, Billie  Holiday, Vic Dickenson, and Django Reinhardt appear inimitable, and not because they are any more individualistic. But good musicians do not copy their elders. They use them only as primers — both kinds of primers. Thus, Count Basie out of Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie out of Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Wilson out of Earl Hines.) Despite their assiduousness, none of Beiderbecke's disciples have matched his unique purity. They have approximated his tone, his phrasing, and his lyricism, but his mixture of these ingredients remain secret. They've had little trouble, however, in emulating his faults, which were chiefly rhythmic.

As a result, Beiderbecke's surviving followers sound disjointed and dated; he doesn't. Ample proof of this freshness is provided in a new set of reissues, "The Bix Beiderbecke Legend" (Victor), which brings together fourteen numbers (two of them alternate takes) made by Beiderbecke between 1924 and 1930 with Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Hoagy Carmichael, and a group of his own.

Beiderbecke's recordings seem almost wholly wasted. They were generally made with second-rate Dixieland bands, or with small, tightly regulated oompah groups, or with the full Goldkette or Whiteman ensemble. For the most part, the musicians involved are his inferiors. The arrangements are starchy and overdressed, and, in true neo-Gothic spirit, probably sounded dated at first playing. The rhythm sections suffer from stasis. The materials include offensive Uncle Tomming and items like "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" and "I'll Be a Friend (with Pleasure)."

Indeed, these recordings have a dumfounding insularity when one considers the contemporary output of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington. Beiderbecke's failure to record with his peers (there are a few exceptions) was apparently due to the rigid color line that prevented mixed sessions, as well as to his own celebrated waywardness; other people generally set up his recording dates, which he simply attended. Too bad, for Beiderbecke often jammed with the great Negro musicians, and the results, reportedly, were awesome. (This last notion rings true; almost all Beiderbecke's records suggest that he was playing with his throttle only two-thirds open. The scattered exceptions emphatically prove the point.) On the other hand, the desultory groups that Beiderbecke trailed into recording studios have taken on a backhanded value. They obviously made him work.

In many of his Dixieland recordings, he single handedly plumps the ensembles into shape, covers up for the rhythm sections, and solos brilliantly. Moreover, his accompanists set him off in an exhilarating fashion. The effeminate vocals, the fudgelike saxophones, the trick-dog muted trumpets, and the glacial drummers all point up and magnify his solos. He is the jewel in the cabbage. Some Beiderbecke aficionados hold that the ideal Beiderbecke record date would have included the likes of Frank Teschemacher, Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, and Gene Krupa. But what of a Beiderbecke session attended by, say, Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, and Chick Webb?

Like all supreme stylists, Beiderbecke never bared his muscles. Not once did his uncanny tone —  a carillon playing on a dry morning, an August moon over the water — go soft or sour. And it must have been close to blinding, for it shines right through the cramped, tinny recordings of the time, Beiderbecke did not play his notes; he struck them, as Hoagy Carmichael has pointed out. Each note hung three-dimensional in the air before being replaced by the next. He had almost no vibrato (a vibrato, in jazz, reflects either laziness or genuine emotion), and often used the whole-tone scale. Despite this affection for the hearty, all-American notes, he usually conveyed a minor, blues like feeling. The dominant impression of Beiderbecke's work, in fact, was a paradoxical combination of the legato and the clenched, of the lackadaisical and the on-time, of calm and exuberance.

In the way that winter summons up summer and summer winter, his hottest attack implied coolness, and vice versa. He might start a solo by sounding several clipped on-the-beat notes, allowing the tones from each note to wash at the next one. Then he would float into an air-current phrase and hang motionless for a second or two, like a dragonfly; abruptly start pumping again with a pattern of declamatory staccato notes, each behind the beat; slide into a brief, side-of-the-mouth run, executed with such nimbleness that it seemed made up of three or four closely related notes instead of an octave-jumping dozen; and fashion an abrupt concluding upward gliss— troops being ordered to pop to. His short solos have a teasing preview quality, while his immaculately structured long statements ("Singin’ the Blues" and "I'm Coming Virginia") offer overwhelming repletion—a compositional repletion, at that.

Primarily a melodist, Beiderbecke moved steadily toward the kind of improvisation that was later achieved by Lester Young, who also liked to linger over melodic fragments, switching them this way and that to see how much light they would catch. But Beiderbecke lacked Young's rhythmic tricks and simply pushed the beat before him, like a boy in a peanut race, or stomped directly on it. (Whenever Krupa worked behind him, Beiderbecke's rhythmic stiffness disappeared, and he gained some of the flow of his Negro colleagues.)

Beiderbecke's most successful recorded solos invite immediate and unerasable committing to heart. Best of all, they have a jaunty, sun's-up quality — a declaration of fun—that is not an accident of technique. Many jazz musicians use their instruments to repay life's lumps; Beiderbecke always seemed to be turning the other cheek. Although the content of Beiderbecke's cornet work remained constant, it was increasingly overshadowed by his dabbling on the piano. Somewhere along the line, Debussy and Hoist, among others, had infected him, and he began composing and playing — on piano — cloudy impressionistic pieces that he supposedly felt were his most important work. But these pieces have a sentimental, paunchy cast — despite their harmonic exploration — that uncomfortably suggest that perhaps self-pity had begun to set in.

The Victor set of reissues is spotty. Three of the numbers are from the Goldkette period, and are notable mainly for the long-lost "I Didn't Know," made in 1924, in which Beiderbecke plays a brief and inconclusive solo. In the other selections, he can be heard in the ensembles, beckoning the sheep after him. The seven items from Beiderbecke's Whiteman days are considerably more interesting. There are two takes of "Changes" (muted) and two of "Lonely Melody" (open-horn). Beiderbecke is gorgeous in all four, flashing out of the mire like a snowy egret. He demonstrates his hot-coolness in the brisk "From Monday On," as well as in "San," both of them made with Whiteman splinter groups.

The last two sides, though, are invaluable. In "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" Beiderbecke is accompanied by a curious pickup band that includes Bubber Miley (not heard), the Dorsey brothers, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Eddie Lang, and Krupa. There is some dreadful novelty singing, but in between Beiderbecke delivers a short, furious uptempo explosion that reveals what he must have sounded like in the flesh. The second record, "I'll Be a Friend," has many of the same men and some equally sappy singing. However, it suddenly slips into gear when Beiderbecke appears — a derby over his horn — for a short, superbly built solo full of legato windings, gonglike notes, and casual harmonic inversions. There is a new subtlety in the solo, along with an unmistakable sense of melancholy. But this isn't surprising, for eleven months later he was dead.”

1 comment:

  1. I was just looking for Balliett's later NYRB piece on Bix. Of course the 'pneumonia' was chronic while the Delirium Tremens seem to have actually killed him. And he seemed to have been doomed by alcohol well before he first recorded.

    And still, Bix's talent is breathtaking and the loss still shocking. With no romantic trappings, Bix deserves full respect and attention. While it's often noted how music apartheid kept Bix from his best contemporary colleagues (and perhaps the audience that could have appreciated him) his own quirky education and unreliability kept him out of the busy recording culture that Venuti/Lang, the young Dorseys, Red Nichols filled with hundreds of sides that ought to have included Bix.


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