Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bix @ 106

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."


Anonymous said...

Are we talking about the slow version of "I'm Coming Virginia"? That solo IS great. I'm refreshing my memory at this moment. I think the solo back-and-forth of Bix and Tram on the fast Whiteman version (sung by Crosby) of the same tune is amazing also - one of the most exciting interactions in all of recorded jazz actually.

Anways, I've always loved this cover, and this particular mode of Flora. My favorite of all-time Flora piece is the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives cover, which employs a similar facial lumpiness and style of shading.

My number-one Flora question is this: how was this shading done? On large reproductions, tiny crosshatching can be seen, at least in parts of the shading. This makes me think that it must be pen, but then I wonder how the color was applied - it doesn't look like watercolor...more like tempera. If it is tempera, how could the pen show through?

Looking at the tiny crosshatching also makes me wonder what the original size of these LP cover was.

So does anyone know:

1. How the shading was done
2. How big these pieces were


It's a mystery I'd like to solve.

Irwin Chusid said...

Harley: I expanded the post after your comment was submitted, and answered your question about "Virginia." I'm not familiar with Beiderbecke's deeper catalog, and am curious if other recordings feature Bix in such a prominent spotlight. For the most part, the discs offer a verse here, a chorus there, and lots of ensemble playing. But the extended solo on the Trumbauer "Virginia" is galvanizing. As for Flora's shading technique, I'll leave that question open to visual artists who might have some insight. The original album art does not exist, so we have no first-hand evidence in the archive.

Anonymous said...

OK, I just looked the cover up in the first Flora book, and I'll take a guess:

Conte crayon and white chalk with color overlays?

Some shapes are a little off register, so that adds to the chances of color overlays being used, I think.

Anonymous said...


It is sad that we don't have more long Bix solos in small-band settings. Paul Whiteman material sounds decidedly clunky and rink-a-dink to our modern ears, but upon closer listening, there is some clever arranging going on. The real lure, however, are the places where musicians like Bix more-or-less take over. Also, Bing Crosby was one hell of an amazing singer back then, so we wait for Bing to sing, and we wait for Bix or Tram to play, and if we are very lucky, the entire arrangement grows on us (or at least does not send us running from the room). Bix takes nice 20-second solos on most of these tunes, and he often plays shorter little solos throughout them, and can usually be heard clearly on the ensemble horn parts. If we pay close attention, we find a lot more Bix than we might have expected. Some gems which are wholly great, and feature some of Bix's best solos are: "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth The Salt of My Tears," "From Monday On," "'Tain't So, Honey, 'Tain't So," and "You Took Advantage of Me." (listen to the amazing back-and-forth between Bix and Tram on this!)

For some smaller-band, vox-less Bix stuff I like the disc "Jass Me Blues." For Whiteman stuff, mostly with Bing, "Bix Lives!" is a great set. Neither is anything close to complete, but they are well-assembled. I don't have the Bix & Tram set, because by the time it was released I was already knee-deep in vintage jazz releases, and I still am.


I am devastated that the original LP art does not exist for the Louis Armstrong set. It is my favorite illustration, full stop.


Thanks so much for sharing this theory. The crayon is really believable to me, and it makes a ton of sense with the way that the overlays would have behaved (though I'm still mystified by how overlays were done at that point in time). The only thing confusing me is the super-fine cross hatching I see in certain areas of large repros. Maybe Mr. Flora did a bit of that as a base, then got more painterly by adding crayon. Whatever he did, it's genius. I'm not grasping where the white chalk would have been used, but I'm willing to learn...

Steve said...


Is this box set rare?
I have it - the cover is a touch faded, but the 78s play well. I'm not after a valuation - I don't want to sell it, just wondering if I've got something collectable? I've been into Jim Flora's stuff for years, and Bix too & couldn't believe it when I found this going cheap on e-bay.

Irwin Chusid said...

Steve: Collectible, of course! Rare—somewhat. In demand? Not enough to spark fevered eBay bidding. Enough copies in circulation to satisfy the market. Any collectibility is entirely due to the Flora cover, since the music is readily available on numerous CDs.