Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Bix Beiderbecke - Indiana Twilights by Richard Sudhalter

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

This piece appeared in the February 1983 edition of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter which he began writing and publishing in August 1981.

Without going into details, Gene was frustrated and was considering aborting the publication. [And not for the first time, either, in the almost 30 year history of the publication.]

Of course, this solicited many “Say it isn’t so ‘Letters to the Editor’” which took many forms, one of which was the following from Richard Sudhalter, a distinguished Bix Beiderbecke scholar and a fairly adept cornet player who would later go on to write full length biographies of Bix, Hoagy Carmichael and the seminal Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

The decade of the 2020s marks the 100th year anniversary of many of the earliest developments in the formalization of Jazz as we have come to know it including the advent of the leading voices in the music - trumpeters Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.

Bix’s short-lived career barely survived the decade and, as a result, a great deal of “Young Man with a Horn Dies Young” hagiography became associated with it.

Richard Sudhalter would have none of that nonsense. Instead, he spent years in research documenting who Bix really was, both as a person and as a musician, and the following piece is an example of the quality of his efforts.

Sudhalter’s letter also contains some interesting reflections of some rarely observed or discussed influences on early Jazz from some unlikely sources which makes it a fascinating read from this perspective alone.

Sadly, the passing of both Sudhalter [2008] and Lees [2010] is a reminder that Jazz is rarely discussed in such erudite terms these days.

Indiana Twilights By Richard M. Sudhalter, New York.

“I suppose it was inevitable that I would want to discuss Bix with you [Gene Lees]. A crucial point is sometimes missed — that Bix never stopped being his parents’ son, a product of that upper-middle class environment and ethic so clearly expressed through the Beiderbecke family and their life in Davenport. Yes, he coveted parental approval and never got it. But at root he didn't want that approval for being a jazz cornet player. Far from it. He was awed and intimidated, impressed to tears, with what he found in Whiteman's orchestra - with virtuosity and theoretical excellence and compositional skills. For him, on the testimony of friends and acquaintances, most of them long gone now, Bix had kind of grown outside his infatuation with hot jazz by 1925. He came more and more to consider it a manifestation of adolescence. In his view, the people who clung to it were either musically stunted or, as in the case of Louis Armstrong, “native geniuses.” 

Bix saw himself — wanted to see himself - as a “legitimate" or “respectable" musician, a composer, someone who could create something musically enduring and, in his view, worthwhile. His solos on the records? He liked some of them, didn't like others. Some — particularly the early Wolverines efforts — embarrassed him. It was a very revealing moment, that meeting with Sylvester Ahola which we describe in the book. Hooley remembered with lasting astonishment Bix's demeanor: looking at the floor and mumbling, “Hell, I'm just a musical degenerate.” He meant it. To him, the writing of Ferde Grofe and Gershwin and Bargy and the rest was class. It was accomplishment, Kultur, if you will. Not for nothing did he all but forsake the cornet in the last year of life. He just didn't give a damn about it anymore. He wanted to compose, to excel as a “real" — his quotation marks more than mine —- musician. 

But that was half a century ago. No dropping out to take a few courses at Berklee or Julliard or Manhattan. No chance to get his primal scream out of his system with some Park Avenue shrink. No “support system" of friends to whom he could talk. Just Hoagy and Challis, both of them wrapped up in their careers, plus a bunch of jazz guys whose adolescent mentality would remain rooted in their systems far into old age. Imagine discussing inner aesthetic and socio-musical conflicts with Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, or George Wettling. Dave Tough, maybe — but then he was off in Europe somewhere playing Bohemian. “Hell, there are only two musicians I'd go across the street to hear now," Bix said to Richardson Turner. “That's Louis and LaRocca." LaRocca for auld lang syne and Armstrong because Bix recognized him for the apocalyptic figure he was. By then jazz seemed almost irrelevant to him. Yet he was caught very securely in a classic trap. If he dropped out, went home, took any kind of left turn, he'd lose the prominence, the adulation of the musicians and the kids who formed the core jazz audience of the time. It would have constituted a loss of face and of what small self-esteem his quick rise to prominence had granted him. He had to hang on, to keep proving and proving and proving - to himself as well as to the rest. “I'm not worthless," he might have said, had he had to express it verbally. 

Eddie Miller [tenor sax and clarinet] tells of a date he worked at Yale with Bix, Bunny and Bill “Jazz" Moore — a light-skinned black working in white bands — as the brass team. Eddie was just a kid then. He said he had looked forward with anticipation and wild surmise to working with his idol. Yet Bix not only didn't play all that well; he seemed alternately indifferent to the music and sullen. It was Eddie's impression that he regarded [Bunny] Berigan as a threat (and in one sense, if you subscribe to the jazz adversary system, the polls and tallies and other gladiatorial paraphernalia, he was) and resented his energy and dash and sheer strength. It is one of the more piquant ironies of that phase of the jazz story. Bix was not a revolutionary, a jazz rebel. He was a nice, middle class boy who never succeeded in bringing his prodigious musical gifts and aspirations into line with the realities of his life. Had he lived — ah, the eternal teaser! — had he lived, I am convinced he'd have ended up either writing for the movies, if the commercial lures had snared him; a significant American composer, following through what Gershwin wanted to do but couldn't because of his imperfect grasp of the native American jazz idiom; or out of music entirely.

By the way, I have always doubted the authenticity of the story wherein Louis takes out the mouthpiece and hands his horn to Bix. By then Louis was playing trumpet. Cornet — and Bix never played anything else takes a different— sized mouthpiece. His wouldn't have fit Louis's horn. It makes good legendry, but sober considerations of fact suggest that it never happened. Your [Gene Lees] discussion of French Autumn Syndrome prompts thought. 

[In the preceding October, November and December edition of the 1982 Jazzletter, Gene ran a three part piece entitled “The French Autumn Syndrome” by which he meant the unquestioned conviction held by the French that their country culture and language are stylistically superior to all others. Any discussion of art is freighted by a vast complex of unexamined assumptions that one might call the French Autumn Syndrome. Praise one musician and someone will take up the heated advocacy of another one as his better.]

And that's all to the good. No matter how heated the disagreements that such writing arouses, it has performed an invaluable service by stimulating thought and feeling. How much writing within what we rather foolishly called “jazz criticism" even approaches doing that? Strip away the opinion-mongering and what generally is left? Onanism [self-gratification], elevated through sheer energy to the level of art. Life and love, taste and emotion and style, seem to be matters of infinite gradation -  the crowd as usual made up of individuals. 

Language is at best an approximation, an arbitrary method for identifying things, concepts, feelings to be communicated and shared. The danger is built in. Who's to say that our own understandings of the things we try to express will correspond to the understandings of others? They seldom do, especially in those areas of experience which rely heavily on subjective response and emotional involvement. Music especially sets up all sorts of snares. Why do we enjoy what we enjoy? What penetrates the walls, scales the battlements of daily defenses and how? Each response is custom built, formed out of a lifetime of experiences. Consensus helps a little — but its aid is deeply suspect. In the end, music is one of the eternal mysteries, reliant on personal chemistry, perception, need, and all the other variables that make us a planet of quirks and accidents. With that in mind, can you defend your case for the nature and/or politics of the traditional jazz audience? Would you want to have to furnish corroborative proof that the “admirer of ‘modern’ jazz is inclined to respect the earlier styles of the music," while the lover of the earlier styles displays only contempt for latter-day developments? . Not that all those attitudes don't exist. Of course they do. 

But to draw such general inferences from your experience with them puts you and I on rather shaky turf. Consider this. Consider one man's view. It's that of a man who doesn't belong to the Flat Earth Society, doesn't know any cops or rednecks, doesn't vote Republican (as a matter of fact usually doesn't vote, but that's another story), and loves to be challenged by life. He argues: It is possible to perceive the jazz which emerged from this culture ‘during the '20s and '30s as a final expression of late Nineteenth Century Romanticism. Its aesthetic foundation, manner of harmonic and melodic organization, sound, and sonorities, all seem less a part of what we've come to identify as Twentieth Century motivation than echoes of an earlier time. Indeed, the very yearning quality which finds its most explicit form in Bix, but is by no means confined to him, bespeaks lavender, lilacs, and fin-du-siecle twilight. 

What about Bix, with his layering of jubilation and melancholy, the bittersweet after echoes and temps-perdu atmosphere of his work both on cornet and at the piano? Its sound and emotional atmosphere are redolent immediately of the French Impressionists — and more directly of the salon piano idiom of this century's first two decades, themselves warmed-over Romanticism, Nineteenth Century thoughts and feelings viewed through a soft-focus lens. 

Listen, with these thoughts in mind, to the large body of popular and light-classical piano music written in the 1920s, including Eastwood Lane's Adirondack Sketches, Willard Robison's Rural Revelations, and such Rube Bloom confections as Soliloquy and Suite of Moods. They provide a context within which Beiderbecke's ruminations at the piano seem very much the expression of a Zeitgeist. What is most remarkable about In a Mist and the rest, I think, is not what they are viewed objectively, they are charming but in some respects unremarkable — but who wrote them and how. The notion that a self-taught hot cornet player brought these pieces into being says much about him, even more about American music in the early Twentieth Century. 

Armstrong. What did Louis really do? What made him so extraordinary? At least one man's answer comes readily: he created a distinctive, individual model for a solo style, both on his instrument and all others, a style with its own integrity and logic, aesthetic coherence and emotional arc. Yes, but listen to bel canto singing, especially in the tenor repertoire, throughout French and Italian opera of the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth. Play a record of Pavarotti singing Gelida Manina from Boheme back to back with Armstrong's final chorus on the Okeh When You're Smiling. Compare the gathering intensity and the inner cry of Willie the Weeper or the bravura stop-time chorus on Potato Head Blues with climactic moments in Turandot, Tosca, Norma, Lucia, and the rest. The language, the frame of reference, is the same. 

At one minute after midnight on January 1, 1900, nobody closed a door, lowered a trunk lid, or erased a blackboard. Things went on as usual, with all sorts of expressions of hope that the new century would improve on the old and usher in some kind of golden age which would wed the accumulated wisdom of ages and the wonders of technological progress. No one knew what to expect, and it took, I would submit, a couple of decades or more for the character of the new century, in particular the effect of burgeoning technology, to assert itself. In the meantime, music of all sorts simply continued to do what it had always done: to express aspirations, strive for excellence and beauty. 

Why should jazz have been any different? If anything, it was slower than many other forms to explore the implications of a technologically-dominated world. Jazz musicians during the 1920s were still fooling with whole-tone scales and parallel ninth chords fifteen years or more after Stravinsky unveiled Le Sacre and The Firebird. In sum, I believe that the Nineteenth Century and its aesthetic priorities saturate early jazz. And I would submit that there are many, many people who listen to that music, love it, lobby for it, and for just that reason. Whatever their individual reasons, many of them (or us, since I would include myself) respond more vigorously to the stimuli and aspirations of that age — identify with, as they say nowadays, values and ideas rooted in those times. We still perceive a coherent and enduring set of aesthetic standards in the music of those years, a set of standards which seem to look better and better as the Twentieth Century grinds its angry, violent way along.  

We are discussing an age which had not yet shifted from idealizing life to reflecting it, an age which asked art to stimulate imagination, to reach out and up. In the context of those values, that age, it is possible to ask, “Why should art simply reflect life? Isn't life (reality, if you like) prosaic and demoralizing enough, frustrating and downright ugly enough, without being reflected and projected again through music, painting and literature?" It is a basic philosophic difference that pervades every level of this culture. It's Webster's International (prescriptive) vs. Webster's Third International (descriptive); Fred and Ginger (idealized) vs. Taxi Driver (descriptive). I believe it took jazz close to forty years to catch up to the heartbeat of the Twentieth Century. I believe that bebop was the result. It said, in essence, “Why waste your time mooring and dreaming? That's not life, this is life. Life is full of tension and nervousness and angst. Life shatters dreams into fragments, then reassembles them according to the moment and the mood." 

For a long time, romanticism all but disappeared from modern jazz (or whatever else one feels like calling the jazz which grew out of the war years). Without reaching too far for a point, it is possible to conclude that World War II really dragged popular art kicking and screaming at last into the Twentieth Century. The first war, the Great War, the “war to end war" — had been endured; the nation heaved a vast sigh of relief on Armistice Day and vowed that now we knew better and it would never happen again, not like that. Let us not forget the ability of music to move us. For many years, jazz — and I think part of the grievance of many traditional jazz lovers can be traced to this —— seemed to have collectively forgotten this. Or rejected it. The music impressed its listeners: no dearth of complexity, technical mastery, harmonic and melodic inventiveness, sheer ingenuity. But there is something quite else in the ability to play a note, a phrase, and bring  tear to the eye of the guy sitting at the corner table. Remember that feeling, when you ache and exult and tremble and suffer, all at once, because of something somebody played or sang? A lot of us live for those moments, the moments that allow us to leave the scene of the experience just a bit different from what we were when we arrived. Far from wanting not to be challenged, this in a sense is the ultimate challenge — not to the head but to the heart, not to knowledge and skill, which we acquire at no cost to ourselves, but to our innermost reservoirs offeeling; the things we guard and keep secret and defend. Bix Beiderbecke reached me on that level the first time I ever heard him on a record. For all my years of hearing and growing and broadening and understanding my world, he still does. And I'm very very glad of it. Eddie Condon and his close associates suffered now and then from a kind of selective musical myopia. And their pronouncements — especially Eddie's, in that he was among the most vocal and compulsively articulate of them —— occasionally did harm. Red Nichols is a case in point. Few — least of all Red, were he still living — would make a case for him as a jazz soloist of towering resourcefulness and originality. What he was, however, deserves recognition. He was a superb, well-disciplined trumpet player, an organizer of excellent bands, and an energetic promulgator of good jazz. He managed to get work, good record opportunities, and exposure for good musicians. He was responsible for a large and still impressive body of fine recorded music, in a sense the modern jazz of its day — musically literate, harmonically and melodically varied, and sometimes fascinating in its ingenuity. It didn't swing much. But, as has been proven again and again, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. It had its own integrity, and established a standard. The efforts of Mole, the Dorseys, Livingstone, Schutt, Rollini, McDonough, Vic Berton, and the rest — and of Red himself — were a model to an entire generation, black and white. It was not, as many have claimed with the luxury of hindsight, merely wrong-headedness. Nichols and the musicians with whom he surrounded himself were far and away the most accomplished jazz musicians of their time. Some day, when racial parochialism from both camps has spent itself and the guilt paroxysms of the 1960s and '70s have subsided, perhaps we'll be able to enjoy a balanced, comfortable, and fair appraisal of the roles of white and black musicians in the formative jazz years. Artie Shaw, for example, is quite right: the Casa Loma Orchestra was indeed the pioneer force among white swing bands. More than that, it is interesting to listen to records by the Mills

Blue Rhythm Band and others of that period, to hear how very influential the Casa Loma band was. ' Two decades after the war to end war, it not only happened again but it happened worse. No more time for dreams and backward looks. Too much grubby reality staring us all in the face. No wonder the jazz of those days said “Screw you, Jack," in almost its every note and phrase. There are no absolute realities, no truths save perceived ones. If our century has adopted, at last, an aesthetic quite different from that of the century that preceded it, let us remember it is only that: different. Not better or worse, only different. It's only too comprehensible. Not the full story, of course. Nothing's ever that simple. But as you fill in the details, they all seem to fall in place. l Yet humanity always confounds the experts. Despite the times, despite the realities and the atmosphere and the prevailing attitudes, people insist on growing up listening to the voices within their heads. How else to explain a middle-class boy from Newton, Mass., who spends his teen years full of dreams of Hoagy and Willard Robison, Bix, Tram, Red, and Miff, Indiana twilights and country lanes and the scent of lilacs in summer dusk. I apologize for running on so long. But that, my friend, is the effect the Jazzletter has. And you want to hang it up?  —RMS

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