Bix Beiderbecke

BIX BEIDERBECKE –  Born Davenport Iowa March 10th  1903,  died in Paris  August 4th 1988

Leon Beiderbecke, whose career was marked by jazz stardom in his youth and classical music achievement in later life, has died from a stroke in a Paris hospital, age 85.  His family and some friends from his younger days, including pianist Jess Stacy and arranger Bill Challis, were at his bedside.

Rising to fame, if not fortune, as the first great white cornet player, Beiderbecke carved out a stellar career in jazz before his 27th birthday. He attracted attention from the jazz world first as a member of his own band the Wolverines, then in partnerships with Frank Trumbauer and Paul Whiteman. 

After recovering from illness due to severe alcoholism in 1931-32, Bix (as he was called then), was featured soloist in the NBC network dance orchestra from 1933-35, then joined Benny Goodman’s trend-setting big band in 1936. His trumpet duels with his friend Harry James were the high points of many a Goodman concert.

His major musical achievement in that era, though, was a stunning eight chorus solo on Sing, Sing,  Sing at the famed Carnegie Hall Concert of January 1938.  His solo, following on from masterpiece solos by Goodman and Jess Stacy, remains a high point of innovation, often mentioned as inspirational by such latter-day jazz giants as Miles Davis, Art Farmer and Randy Sandke. 

Along with Stacy, he left Goodman in 1939 to form his own big band which featured many of his own compositions and occasional forays into an impressionistic style later copied by Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans.  The band had some early successes with very melodic Bix tunes like Skylark and Ottumwa Autumn, but suffered from personnel losses due to conscription after Pearl Harbor. 

Just before he disbanded, he took part in a now-legendary 1942 Town Hall concert re-uniting him with his jam session buddy of the early 1920s, Louis Armstrong.  The ten tunes they played together, for a War Bond charity event, remain the most admired examples of classic jazz playing ever recorded.

In 1943, tired of jazz and the commercial aspects of the music world, Beiderbecke stunned America by announcing his retirement from brass playing and jazz to concentrate on piano and formal music.  He moved to New Haven to improve his piano playing and study classical music with Paul Hindemith at Yale, then to California in 1947 to work with Darius Milhaud, then on to Paris for further study.  His 7th Symphony, debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1952, was the most acclaimed formal music work by an American performed in that decade.  He made only one surprise return to the jazz world, playing on cornet alongside Miles Davis with the Gil Evans Orchestra at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, performing music from Bix’s beloved Porgy & Bess.   Returning to Paris in 1963, Beiderbecke taught composition, retiring in 1974.   He never married.