Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bix Biederbecke and Dick Sudhalter, Part 1

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Hearing Bix for the first time was like waking up to the first day of spring."

- Nat Hentoff

"All I've ever called the dear boy was Bix . . . just that name alone will make one stand up—also their ears. And when he played—why, the ears did the same thing . . ."

- Louis ARMSTRONG, 1954

“By the mid-1950s an alarming, though inevitable, development made it clear that time for writing a factually documented book about Bix was running short. The natural laws of attrition were beginning to catch up with the generation of the twenties, and the men and women who had known Bix Beiderbecke were starting, slowly, to die off. They were the primary sources, the only ones whose combined accounts, weighed against one another and pieced together, puzzle-fashion, could dispel the contradictions and half-truths.”

- Richard Sudhalter

I’ve already taken a stab at the subject of Bix Beiderbecke and his place in Jazz history as part of a feature entitled King, Pops and Bix in Chicago from "We Called It Music" by Eddie Condon which you can locate in the archives by going here.

But I wanted to return to this topic in a more specific way, not the least of which is due to the fact that we are in and moving ahead with the decade during which Jazz came into existence 100 years ago - The Twenties - or, if you will, The 20s!

Sadly, while it was the beginning for the music, it would become the beginning and the end for Bix as he would be dead less than two years after the decade was over [1931] at the ridiculous young age of 28 due to another cultural characteristic of The Roaring Twenties - overindulgence in alcohol.

I also wanted to delve into Bix and his music because I’ve finally caught up to more of the details of his life thanks to the work of his biographer - Richard Sudhalter - who passed away in 2008 at the age of 69.

I came to the writings of Dick Sudhalter rather late. It wasn’t until I read his Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915 - 1945 published in 1999 that I became aware of his extensive skills as both a researcher and excellent narrative writer on the subject of Jazz and its makers.

I was delighted when Dick’s Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael was published in 2002 because, not only did it provide insights into Hoagy’s music, but it also helped me understand the close connection between Carmicheal and Biederbecke when the former was a student at the University of Indiana and Bix was in a band that played gigs in and around the campus. Not surprisingly, Hoagy’s adoration of Bix was reflected in the many beautiful melodies he wrote over the years, including Stardust, which some allege was based on an actual Bix trumpet solo that Hoagy memorized after hearing Bix play it in person at a party or a dance.

But what really solidified the connection between Bix and Dick was my acquisition of the Mosaic Records set [MD7-211] The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions [1924-36] first issued in 2001.

My copy came in 2002 with booklet notes by - you guessed it - Richard Sudhalter.

And that’s when I discovered where Bixology all began for Richard Sudhalter for in 1974 he along with Philip R. Evans and William Dean Myatt published the definitive biography - Bix Man & Legend.

Although the book came out forty years after Bix’s death, the research for it began much earlier when many of Beiderbecke’s family, friends and  contemporaries were still alive to participate in interviews and share their recollections. 

Here’s the Introduction from the Sudhalter/Evans/Myatt Bix Man & Legend which will kick off a two-part series on Bix and his music on these pages.

“Leon Bix Beiderbecke played jazz on the Bb cornet and a variety of music, some of it defying categorization, on the piano. He came from Davenport, Iowa, and died at twenty-eight in New York of a combination of pneumonia and the effects of alcoholism. 

He flared briefly and brightly in the popular music world of the 1920s, and departed before he was able to explore any more than a fraction of his native talent. He was only on wide public view for about three years, yet his memory and influence among musicians still survive after nearly half a century.

This is the outline of the story. Beyond introducing Bix, it tells us nothing. Leave it, rather, for a veteran saxophonist of the era to hint at the rest:

"I remember the day we heard Bix was dead. It went around the musicians in whispers, as though nobody dared say it out loud. We couldn't believe it—it was like saying the Pope was dead. If it was true, if Bix was really gone, what the hell were we all going to do?"

The springtime years of jazz produced many outstanding players, some of them colorful personages in their own right. Why, of all of them, did the passing of this quiet, deferential young man provoke so widespread a feeling of almost apocalyptic bereavement among those who knew him or even merely admired him from afar? And by what process did the succeeding years turn him into what the British critic Benny Green has aptly termed "Jazz's number one saint?"

Part of it, of course, rests with his music. Phonograph records, relatively few of them, have left some indication for later generations; yet even they, according to the now grey and wistful emeritus flaming youths who heard him in the flesh, are but pale echo of the real thing. They hint at a blindingly silvery tone, tempered by melancholy even in moments of joyous abandon. There is ample evidence of a faultless ear and a contemplative, sophisticated musical intelligence. Perhaps most significant, they suggest the capacity to reach a listener and move him emotionally even at first contact.

But an understanding of why there had to be a Bix Beiderbecke legend comes only through matching up the musical legacy with the facts of his life, background and character. Inevitably, this means hacking away more than 40 years of underbrush, destroying the popularly accepted image to get at the person of fact, flesh and blood.

Not to fault the legend-spinners. Certainly jazz, as an artistic outgrowth of the 19th-century romantic tradition, had to have its tragic heroes, and Bix had all the qualifications. He appeared—and died—at the right time. He was different, revolutionary from a musical point of view. He was good-looking, personally charming and widely loved. And he was sufficiently incomprehensible to the majority of his fellow-jazzmen — no thinkers, they — to take on instant enigma status even in his brief lifetime. Enlightening, in this context, the trumpeter Wingy Manone's remark that Bix "was always wanting to try this or that, play over figures . . . never wanted us to have any fun."

So, for a while, Bix Beiderbecke became jazz's Keats and its Rupert Brooke. But the 20th century has not been kind to the romantic tradition. For better or worse, the century's near-cataclysmic events have tempered even nostalgia with an unmistakable skepticism, a new spirit of inquiry. Nothing accepted out of hand, not ideas or personages, and least of all legends. Challenge and question—and categorical dismissal of whatever doesn't stand up.

As a result, even less remains in half-light. Within the past year excellent, unsparing biographical studies have already dispelled much of the ambiguity surrounding the lives of such seminal figures as blues singer Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker, saxophonist and architect of modern jazz. Their biographers, casting off the trappings of conventional myth, have revealed people far more human for their flaws, far more extraordinary for those elements of their lives which are recognizably fallible, flesh and blood.

Inevitably, there were bound to be attempts to unravel the "young man with a horn." Otis Ferguson, writing in the magazine New Republic within a decade of Beiderbecke's death,1 [see footnotes at the end of the posting] was able to articulate much of the feeling evoked by listening to Bix, lacing in some background information gathered from the cornetist's boyhood friends in Davenport. Edward J. Nichols’ chapter in the pioneer anthology Jazzmen 2 soon after took a stab at documentation — but came to grief in its acceptance of some of the standard half-truths and rumors bandied about among musicians. Numerous "reminiscences" in such magazines as Down Beat and Metronome further clouded the issue by presenting often confused, fondly exaggerated nostalgia as fact.

By the late 1950s, when Charles Wareing and the late George Garlick of Britain compiled their biography, Bugles for Beiderbecke,3 the situation was hopelessly muddled. Working at a remove, and with limited budget, Wareing and Garlick had little choice but to rely heavily on previously-published material — and in so doing compromised their own work from the start. But for all its shortcomings, Bugles was a courageous book. It sought, with the well-ordered logic of attorney Wareing's mind, to make sense of apparent contradiction, and to set Bix in a musical and social perspective.

Wareing was the first to perceive in print that Beiderbecke's membership in the Paul Whiteman orchestra was far from the commercial sellout and source of musical frustration which more parochial jazz scholars had always assumed it to be. He devoted space to careful examination of Bix's

impact on fellow-musicians, to cornetists who absorbed facets of his innovative style.

Another Briton, the critic Burnett James, contributed a series of valuable musical insights in a brief book of his own, published in 1959 by Cassell in their "Kings of Jazz" series.4 Though hindered by the by now more-or-less standard factual inaccuracies, James did display acute understanding of Bix the musician.

There have been other writings, some more successful than others. Richard Hadlock's treatise on Bix's records in Jazz Masters of the Twenties5 contains many astute observations. Gunther Schuller's Bix chapter in Early Jazz6 is especially good in its musicologist's defense of the Whiteman orchestra. A recent work from Italy, The Bix Bands,7 offers painstaking discographical work marred by some faulty scholarship, not all of it the fault of the authors, who used previous writings as source material.

Autobiographies of the musicians themselves, among them Eddie Condon, Mezz Mezzrow, Bing Crosby and Hoagy Carmichael, offer generally colorful but not always strictly factual accounts of a jazzman's life during the 1920s. Their chief value is in their power to evoke the thoughts and feelings of the springtime years.

By the mid-1950s an alarming, though inevitable, development made it clear that time for writing a factually documented book about Bix was running short. The natural laws of attrition were beginning to catch up with the generation of the twenties, and the men and women who had known Bix Beiderbecke were starting, slowly, to die off. They were the primary sources, the only ones whose combined accounts, weighed against one another and pieced together, puzzle-fashion, could dispel the contradictions and half-truths.

With this in mind, Phil Evans and Bill Dean-Myatt began work in 1957, Dick Sudhalter the following year, contacting first the musicians whose names appear on the record personnels, then the Beiderbecke family, finally other figures known to have played with Bix or to have employed him. Our paths inevitably crossed, but it took several years for Evans and Sudhalter to get together as a partnership. Dean-Myatt, of Walsall, England, had attracted Evans' attention at the outset with a Bix discography in the British collectors' magazine Matrix. He and Evans soon agreed to work together.

Initial response was encouraging. Paul Whiteman offered help. Jean Goldkette, Hoagy Carmichael, Red Nichols—all were willing to talk, and to submit to endless, detailed questioning. All supplied names and addresses of others who "might have a thing or two to add," though their connections with Bix might not be so well-known.

So it began an unending, ever-widening process of letter-writing, travel and interview, reading, phoning and taping, which consumed the next 15 years and still continues as this volume is published. For Evans, especially, it meant devotion of the best of his adult years to learning more about Bix Beiderbecke than any other single person on earth. There would be no reliance on past writings, though all had to be carefully read and absorbed to clarify the seams where fact blends into myth. All sources were to be primary — the story told, where possible, in their own words. Each account of an event to be weighed against the others, often by bringing narrators into direct contact with one another for the first time in years, to resolve apparent contradictions in their recollections.

There were unexpected benefits. For many years, alumni of the Paul Whiteman orchestra held annual parties at the home of Ferde Grofe in California, during which they reminisced freely about the early days. It was Evans’ good fortune to be invited to several of these otherwise exclusive gatherings, and to be present as groups of Whiteman musicians discussed an event among themselves, catching one another up on errors and inaccuracies until a consensus emerged. At these parties, Evans was able to question at length men who had been reticent in correspondence about points of detail, or who simply preferred not to answer letters at all.

Similarities of attitude emerged, both here and elsewhere, chief among them a pronounced desire to protect Bix's name and reputation against denigration, especially over his alcoholism. Almost all displayed undisguised affection for him; detractors were few and far between. All were at pains to stress that the drinking should not be allowed to obscure a clear picture of the whole human being.

This kind of research also meant a closer and deeper understanding of Bix's music. It meant acquiring full, complete collections of Bix's recordings, issued and unissued. Sudhalter was able to bring to bear experience as a jazz cornetist and trained musician in investigating the harmonic and melodic implications of Beiderbecke's piano compositions and recorded solos. Together the triumvirate, as it evolved during the 1960s, was able to investigate every lead which had even vaguely pointed to Bix's presence on a record. In each case, one of the three would acquire the disc in question through collector sources and disseminate tape copies to the other two; then discussion would begin. When the authors of The Bix Bands discovered a possible Beiderbecke solo on a Marion McKay Gennett recording made in late 1924, Dean-Myatt quickly came up with a copy, Evans found McKay still living in the Midwest, and Sudhalter went to work both cross-checking the solo against Bix's other work of the period and exploring the possibility that it might have been the work of another cornetist.

As information rolled in and a picture of Bix began to take shape, it became clear that a special style would have to be evolved for the writing of the book. It would have to combine the reportage and quotation techniques of journalism with a quantity of more technical discussion not ordinarily of interest to the non-specialist reader, but indispensable all the same to the understanding of Bix and his impact. Frequently, moreover, sufficient information was available to reconstruct dialogue; this was done, then checked by submitting relevant passages to either persons directly involved or, where this was not possible, to sources close enough to them to know whether things happened as depicted.

Frequently, such portions would come back with marginal notes—corrections, additions of other information evoked in the reading. If, as was the case on one or two occasions, there were objections that a remark or action was out of character for the person described and would have to be changed, it was, and the passage was resubmitted to the critic.

Such techniques, and the time-lag involved in transatlantic collaboration, often cost valuable time and ran the constant risk of misunderstanding. That there was a minimum of friction, and very little crossing of wires, is all the more amazing in view of the fact that Sudhalter and Evans did not meet face to face until April 1972. Evans and Dean-Myatt have never met. Yet a singularity of purpose united us, bound us together in pursuit of a common goal. On those few occasions when disagreement occurred —usually over interpretation or presentation of information, never over matters not directly concerned with the mechanics of writing the book— someone was prepared to compromise in the interests of harmony.

Such teamwork extended into the actual writing of the book. Over eleven months, Evans fed a constant stream of raw material through the post to London, all the while keeping up a full volume of correspondence with sources and slotting new information into the shipments as it became available. A copy of each completed chapter would then be mailed to him, for copying and distribution among its sources for checking. Once critical comments were in, they were relayed back to me and my copy of the chapter in question would be duly amended. Far from being a particularly cumbersome process, this method quickly established its own rhythm.

Several editorial decisions were difficult to make. Whether, for example, it was necessary or even desirable to examine some of the more familiar bits of nonsense surrounding Bix's life, and marshal evidence to refute them. In the end it was decided not to: our primary purpose was to tell Bix's story. If an anecdote was based in fact, it would appear, correct, in its proper place in the narrative. If not, its omission would speak clearly enough. Too much space devoted to disproving mistakes, we decided, would hold up the flow of an already long book. Did Bix, for example, actually insert that Charleston figure in "Goose Pimples" to ruin an unsatisfactory take? The record itself, and a little musical common sense, offer answer enough: the two notes are harmonically correct, and coincide with the same figure as played on the piano by Frank Signorelli; there are no discernible "goofs" up to that point; and Bix leads out the final ensemble with a passion which hardly bespeaks dissatisfaction or an attempt at sabotage.

Some questions were not so easily resolved. Years of inquiry, for example, have shed no light on accounts of a reported friendship between Bix and Babe Ruth, home run king of the New York Yankees during the twenties. Knowing the Beiderbecke love for baseball, it is not hard to imagine him spending occasional afternoons at Yankee Stadium watching the Bambino, Lou Gehrig and the rest of Miller Huggins' stable of temperamental stars go through their paces. But of Ruth's alleged visits to the 44th Street Hotel, barely able to squeeze his massive bulk through the doorway, there remains no evidence.

The discography, too, presented some questions, usually of a technical nature. Our adoption, with some modifications, of Brian Rust's system of label and instrument abbreviations is based on the preeminence now accorded Rust's Jazz Records 1897-1942 and other books as the standard reference works in their field.

We have restricted ourselves to 78 RPM issues in the discography, making exceptions only in those cases in which a selection has appeared for the first time on LP. LP issues are a continuing thing, and any attempt to keep an up-to-date listing, with records being produced in more countries than ever before, is doomed to be out of date by tomorrow. Sufficient, we feel, to have it known which selections have been issued, and to provide, through notation of significant solo passages, a handy key through which multiple versions or "takes" of the same number may be distinguished from one another.


A word, too, about photographs. We have attempted to include in the present volume as many hitherto-unpublished —or at least rarely-seen — photos of Bix as were obtainable. We have deliberately omitted many of the more familiar shots, in the conviction that no purpose would be served through inclusion of every available Bix photo. Special thanks in this area must be extended to Paul Mertz, who made available to us the stills from the exceedingly rare home movie shot by Charlie Horvath during the Jean Goldkette orchestra's travels in the east.

There are other photos, as yet unpublished, in existence. Some were all but impossible to trace. In at least one case, a rare shot of the Wolverines during Vic Berton's summer tenure with them, the owner asked a price for its use far beyond what the authors felt fair or reasonable. In another, the only extant print of an informal Wolverines pose was of such poor quality as to defeat any effort to reproduce it.

Bix research is, like the output of the sorcerer's apprentice, a continuing phenomenon. The authors would therefore welcome additional data unearthed as a result of publication of this book, with an eventual second edition in mind.

Our eternal thanks to all those, both living and dead, who have assisted us over the years with patience, generosity and a near-universal love for Bix Beiderbecke. It is to them that this book must be dedicated.”

Richard M. Sudhalter London, England November 5, 1973

1.  Ferguson, Otis. "Young Man with a Horn," New Republic, LXXXVII (July 29, 1936), 354. Ferguson, Otis. "Young Man with a Horn Again," New Republic, CHI (Nov. 18, 1940), 693-95.

2.  Ramsey, Frederic Jr., and Smith, Charles Edward. Jazzmen. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1939. pp. 143-160.

3.  London, Sidgwick and Jackson, Ltd. 1958.

4. James, Burnett. Bix Beiderbecke. London, Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1959.

5. New York, Macmillan. 1965. pp. 76-105.

6. New York, Oxford University Press, 1968. pp. 187-194.

7. Castelli, Vittorio, Kaleveld, Evert, Pusateri, Liborio.  The Bix Bands. Milan, Raretone, 1972.

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