Round the Dial
Wednesday 19 February @ 12:22:53
Whoops! A Little Lesson in Jazz History
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE!!”
-—Outraged Jazz Fans
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Whitey In The Woodpile”
I’m sitting here in the flickering candlelight, the clock on the wall says three-thirty—that’s three-thirty AM, mind you—and I’m down to the last few gulps of my bottle. Head in hands, sweat fairly rolling off of my pale, sun-starved skin, I can’t help but let out a small moan of frustration and pain. Ruined, I tell you, I’m ruined! And all because of that infernal, bug-eyed little cornet player Bix Beiderbecke. Sure, I’d been a fan of his rollicking, flighty brand of jump-jazz since the first time I’d heard it, had even included his name on a list of all-time great jazzers in some liner notes I’d written for a local band. But I’d never owned a Bix album, just had some old tapes, Bix mixed with other early jazz pioneers, no photos.
How then, was I to know when I tossed out his name on a “Five Black Jazz Legends You Should Hear” list in last week’s Black History Month Special column, that BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE? Well, besides the fact that there were probably very few African-Americans around in the 1920’s with monickers like BIX BEIDERBECKE? I mean, it’s not like Bix’s face is ubiquitous on MTV or on the sides of passing city buses, right? (Although, oddly enough, on the day I began receiving mail from incensed readers concerning Bix’s skin color, I also saw a huge freight truck passing by my window with the following three letters in huge red print on the side: BIX. Unreal, man) And frankly, Bix’s squirrelly, frenetic jazz stylings were very much on par with actual African-American contemporaries like Fats Waller, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and a hundred other early 20th century legends. Who knew? I mean, besides the forty or fifty frothing jazz fanatics who wrote in concerning my major faux pas?
So, I’m thinkin’, this could actually be a great opportunity for (A) a member of the press (OK, so I’m no Peter Jennings or even Dave Barry, but change has got to start somewhere, right?) to stand up and admit, Dammit, I’m wrong! And (B) everybody to learn a little more about ol’ Bix. Not that I expect fellow writers and reporters like uber Right-wingers/Bush Boosters the Fox News team to jump to attention and apologize for fear-mongering, ass-kissing, and kowtowing to a sitting administration to a degree which has never before been seen outside the confines of the former Soviet Union, but since they seem fairly intent on silencing or destroying any and all dissenting voices both in and out of the press, I’ll gladly take my chance to give ‘em a few jabs under the radar.
(Ka-Pow!!) Take that, Bill O’ Reilly!! (Ka-rackkk!!) How do ya like me now, Shep Smith, you little monkey-nubbin!! (Blarg!!) Don’t even get me started on my theory that you could peel the plastic off of Greta Van Sustern’s face and find the harsh metallic surface of Richie Rich’s robot maid underneath...anyway, I digress. I just wanted to take a moment to remind those self-righteous wonks that everybody makes mistakes, and I’m taking responsibility for mine—and continuing to educate, inform, and inspire the public at the same time. Ya’ll might try it sometime, it feels pretty damn good.
And while you’re at it, join the rest of us and check out these letters from faithful readers pointing out my near-unpardonable sin of including a pale-skinned son of German immigrants on a list of African-American jazz greats. Once again, BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE!! And no, the irony of a short, unassuming little white man usurping a spot on that list rightfully belonging to an African-American has not escaped me. Damn, The Man just keeps stickin’ his nose in and tryin’ to take credit for what the Black Man has done, don’t he? If you have any doubts, just check last column’s (2/12/03) Quote Of The Week from Miles Davis. After the letters, dig into a great mini-bio on Bix, courtesy of Olympic Records, who released his Bix Beiderbecke And The Wolverines 1924 album (which I recently scored in the used bin at good ol’ Cheapo Records in St. Paul), and were kind enough to feature a very clear image of a very WHITE BIX BEIDERBECKE and his cornet on the record jacket. At the end of this column, I’ll print a revised list of Five Top African-American Jazzers that will not include Bix, even though he was great, because, after all, BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE!!
Bix Biederbecke was as white as the coke on the proverbial hooker’s ass; he was the son of German immigrants. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was black. You’re still the best and I’m hoping you won’t write me out of your medicine cabinet will for pointing this...technicality out to you.
P.S.—Is this a bad time to ask you to plug the upcoming Peal show (Friday, 2/28,Uptown Bar)?
Joe Baumgart (pinkish-yellow), bass player for Peal and The Mammy Nuns
*Aw, I loves you too, Joe Peal. Thanks for your colorful (pun intended) note on Bix, and as for a plug for the Peal show—there ya goes!
I was reading your column in The Pulse and came to the “5 Black Jazz Legends You Should Hear.” I think that Bix, who played in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, was himself a white man. Check it out. Regarding the “Black Blues Legends,” I was wondering about Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters (Little Walter made the list), Sleepy John Estes and several others...
*Mordecai—As previously noted in this week’s column, you are correct. BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE!! And he did, indeed, play with Paul Whiteman. As for Billie, Bessie, Sonny Boy, Muddy, and Sleepy John, if’n I’d had the space I would’ve listed ‘em all and a thousand more. Hey, come to think of it, we just did! Cool! Thanks for reading.
Loved your article re: music and Black History month. But—in your list of African-American jazz people we should listen to....I hate to break it to you, but Bix Beiderbecke is white. He’s from Davenport, Iowa (where they have the annual Bix Festival every summer), was a fave of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, played cornet like a precursor to Miles Davis, died young of alcohol abuse.....and white as....well, a dead boozed-up cornet player from Iowa. Other than that —great piece.
Just another transplanted Iowan who knows
too much about natives of his home state—
*Doug—You seem to be the most well-informed reader to respond so far. Bix was indeed from Iowa and it’s great to know that people still love his music so much that they have an annual Bix Fest. Just do me one favor—don’t tip ‘em off about my screw-up. God knows I have enough trouble without 300 angry Bix fanatics chasing me around trying to shove cornets up my ass. But thanks for reading, and feel free to hip me to any Iowa-related musical info you deem necessary in the future.
LINER NOTES FROM THE OLYMPICS RECORDS RELEASE BIX BEIDERBECKE AND THE WOLVERINES
1924 (Cat. # 7130):
“Bix Beiderbecke was obviously the sort of man about whom legends insist on growing. He lived for only 28 years, and his career actually spanned less than a decade (most of that time spent in bands that could not do justice to his sensitive, lyric jazz talents). Yet he was a tremendous influence on all the musicians who heard him: the Chicagoans, not much younger than he, made him their idol; and such listeners as Louis Armstrong, Red Nichols, and the men who worked alongside him in the Paul Whiteman and Jean Goldkette orchestras seem to have been uniformly awed and amazed. He remains a vivid, affectionate, and larger than life-size memory to all who knew him—and to a great many who didn’t. He remains, in short, the number-one jazz legend.
The basic facts of his life can be readily stated. He was Leon Bismark Beiderbecke (Round The Dial notes—Good God, can you think of a more Aryan name? How could I have not known that BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE?!), born in Davenport, Iowa, on March 10, 1903. From a well-to-do and musically-inclined family, he studied piano a bit, soon switched to cornet, but probably never took a lesson on that instrument in his life. By the time he entered Chicago’s Lake Forest Academy, in 1921, he would seem to have discovered jazz and to have been set on following it. He soon left school to become part of a young band called the Wolverines, playing at roadhouses and at college dances. He left them late in 1924 to begin a hectic half-decade ride to the top and the end: featured with bands of Frankie Trumbauer, Goldkette, finally Whiteman (RTD notes—how appropriate that Bix end up in a band led by a guy named Whiteman, after all, BIX BEIDERBECKE WAS WHITE!!) where his round, firm notes cut through the thick-syrup arrangements of that “King Of Jazz.” Briefly, Bix was brilliant, but he burned out fast. (RTD notes—now THAT I can dig. Word up) The high, fast living, the bad whiskey and worse gin of Prohibition (RTD notes—damn, Bix sounds more and more like my kinda people all the time), were rather quickly too much for the small, slightly pop-eyed cornetist. (RTD notes—ah, how cruel. Sounds like even if he were alive today, we wouldn’t be seeing too much of ol’ Bix on MTV or the sides of buses—besides being WHITE, Bix was a little less than photogenic, although his photo on All-Music Guide does look a tad better than the rendering on the album cover.) He was sick and out of the Whiteman band during his last year and in August of 1931 he was dead, of pneumonia.
Thus, significantly, the legends did not spring up because the facts were little-known or far removed. On the contrary, you could talk today (RTD notes—these liner notes were written back in the ‘60’s) with musicians who knew him well. And chances are that they’d tell the familiar larger-than-life versions of what are undoubtedly basically true stories (Bix as a heavy drinker, a practical joker, sensationally absent-minded; accounts of fabulous after-hours jam sessions). Or they might add a new story or two, and they’d surely tell them with a warmly reminiscent smile. For it’s clear that such men really loved Bix, found him brother and awesome genius and irresponsible son all in one. THEY have built the legend, as much or more than any romantically-minded outsiders; they WANT to remember him as someo ne special and touched with myth. Taking the stories, and the way in which they are told, and adding to them the pure, beautiful, but somehow tense quality of the sound that tumbled forth from his horn, a definable pattern seems to emerge. It is a picture of a vastly complex man, rather reminiscent of an F. Scott Fitzgerald hero, driven by a great love of beauty and of music, perhaps trying to conceal the fact that he was more than a bit bewildered and frightened by the things that make up everyday life. (RTD notes—AMEN, brother Bix!) An immense talent and a man to whom everyone’s heart went out, but basically unreachable and self-doomed (RTD notes—Damn, I LOVE self-doomed! That rocks!!), almost a stereotype of a standard hero of current fiction—the artist in conflict with himself and with the world in which he had to live.”
Joe King Oliver
REVISED “FIVE BLACK JAZZ GREATS YOU SHOULD HEAR”:
1) Miles Davis
2) Ornette Coleman
3) Louis Armstrong
4) King Oliver & His Jazz Band (The first black jazz band to make commercial recordings, hit big in 1930 with the classic “St. James Infirmary,” Louis Armstrong played cornet for King and considered him a primary influence)
5) Jelly Roll Morton
That’s it for this week, boogie chillun. The Bix issue is settled, as far as I’m concerned, and King Oliver has taken his rightful, royal place on my list. Now, for some real fun, go out and buy some music by the artists I’ve listed over the past couple weeks. Me, I’m stuck here with just a swallow left in my bottle and four more hours until the liquor stores open. But what the hell, I’ve got this great Bix album to listen to and those excellent liner notes to peruse. Think I’m gonna crank up “Fidgety Feet” just one more time....Until we meet again—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to send me a happy little note NOT pointing out some stupid error on my part, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.