Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born today in 1903. Beiderbecke, a cornetist (caricatured above left by Flora in 1947) and pianist, was a stylistic catalyst in the formative years of jazz. Bix and trumpeter Louis Armstrong were the two most pivotal horn players of the 1920s, though their approaches differed markedly. Beiderbecke has been described as the first real modernist in jazz, though that doesn't explain his enduring appeal. (Each year when the calendar flips to February 10, WKCR radio in New York devotes a full day to his complete recordings.) Beiderbecke's historic magnitude prevails despite the fact that the "young man with a horn" drank himself to death at age 28, and his entire recording career spanned just six and a half prolific years. Music consumed Bix, while Bix consumed bathtub gin. As author Richard Hadlock wrote, Bix "was both an artist and a speakeasy entertainer, both a middle-class mama's boy and a nomadic bum, both a star performer and a jobless horn player."
What was in Bix's brew? Trumpeter Randy Sandke explains: "With the advent of prohibition in January 1920, the simple act of taking a drink containing alcohol became a criminal offense. Bootleg liquor became a witch's brew that could contain poisonous ingredients. A sample sold in the streets of Harlem was taken to a lab and analyzed. It was found to contain wood alcohol, benzene, kerosene, pyridine, camphor, nicotine, benzol, formaldehyde, iodine, sulphuric acid, soap, and glycerin. People who consumed this hazardous concoction often experienced dizziness, blackouts, hair loss, fluctuations in weight, advanced aging, partial blindness and paralysis. It is known that Bix exhibited most if not all of these symptoms." Despite these alcoholic maladies, Bix's complexion was reportedly less scarlet than Flora's portrait.
"Tram" was C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, with whom Bix made some of his most monumental recordings. A 4-cd box set with the same title as the Flora 78 album above contains all of their essential recordings. Bix was a legendary artist who often recorded with lesser talents and behind dreary vocalists, and the apparent filler on this collection simply reflects Beiderbecke's varied gigs. However, when teamed with high-caliber players like Trumbauer, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini, guitarist Eddie Lang, and violinist Joe Venuti, Beiderbecke's stature is magnified, his reputation self-evident. Seek out his extended solo on "I'm Coming Virginia" by the 1927 Trumbauer Orchestra. It's scary beautiful.
Gary Giddins said: "Beiderbecke's originality made him one of the first white jazz musicians to be admired by black performers. Louis Armstrong recognized in him a kindred spirit, and Rex Stewart exactly reproduced some of his solos on recordings. Beiderbecke's influence on such white players as Red Nichols and Bunny Berigan was decisive. Although he was largely unknown to the general public at the time of his death, he acquired an almost legendary aura among jazz musicians and enthusiasts."
Bix was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. Flora also grew up in the midwest (Bellefontaine, Ohio), and caught the jazz bug as a youth. "We had dancebands that came through all the time and they were mostly like Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke," Flora told interviewer Angelynn Grant in 1990. "Beiderbecke recorded less than 100 miles away from Bellefontaine, in Indiana. His label, Gennett Records, was in Hammond, Indiana, which was about 75-80 miles from Bellefontaine. So that was the tradition there."