Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Death of Bix Beiderbecke

It’s August 6, 1931, a hot, muggy day in a Queens, New York apartment building. One of the tenants bursts into the hallway screaming and demanding to see his rental agent, George Kraslow. When Kraslow reaches apartment 1G, he finds the tenant standing in the middle of the room, trembling and ranting that two Mexican men are hiding under his bed with long daggers. To put his mind at ease, Kraslow bends down to check under the bed. As he begins to stand back up, the tenant collapses into his arms. A doctor living in the building is rushed to the scene, but the tenant is already gone. That tenant was legendary jazz cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke, dead at the age of 28.

While the official cause of Beiderbecke's death was lobar pneumonia, most historians agree that acute alcoholism was responsible for the decline in his physical and mental health in the last year or so of his life. According to some accounts, Beiderbecke died only a month or two after moving in to the apartment and never left the building except to buy bootleg gin. Of course, substance abuse in the jazz world is nothing new. Just look at Charlie Parker, Lester Young or Fats Navarro, just to name three claimed by their personal demons. (If you want to learn more about this morbid subject, read Frederick Spencer’s Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats)

For this blog entry, I jumped onto the 7 train and took a trip out to Sunnyside, Queens to the apartment building where Beiderbecke spent the last weeks of his life. Located at 43-30 46th Street, the building still stands, and probably looks much the same as it did in 1931. These days, a plaque can be found on thebrick exterior marking the building as a historical landmark. The plaque was installed in 2003 by The Bix Beiderbecke Sunnyside Memorial Committee to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Bix Beiderbecke is an interesting figure in jazz history. Like Buddy Bolden, he has achieved a sort of mythological status over the years. This isn’t surprising considering his life story plays out like an operatic tragedy: a young gifted musician leaves his small town home to venture to the big city, makes a name for himself, then succumbs to the vices of the musician’s life. So why does Beiderbecke’s life and music continue to fascinate people so many years later? Perhaps it was due to the fact that Beiderbecke's story has been so often romanticized in the years since. People seem to prefer to remember him as a tortured artist who died for the sake of his music. His life story was even the subject of a famous movie with Kirk Douglas, “Young Man with a Horn” as well as the Italian movie, “Bix.”

In reality, Beiderbecke’s story wasn't so glamorous. There are plenty of articles and books written about his life, but here are the Cliffs Notes: Born in Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke showed signs of being a prodigious musical talent at a very early age. In 1923, he left Iowa permanently for Chicago, the center of the jazz world in that time. There, he made some of his more famous records with the Wolverines including such classics as “Jazz Me Blues” and "Riverboat Shuffle." After a stint in Detroit with Jean Goldkette’s band, Beiderbecke joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, one of the most famous bands of the time. The music recorded with Whiteman’s music hasn't survived the test of time as well as his solo recordings or his sides with the Wolverines. In fact, the historical worth of the Whiteman recordings comes mostly from the fact that they contain Beiderbecke's solos. But joining Whiteman's band was a shrewd career move for Beiderbecke and served to showcase his talents to a wider audience.

It was also during this time that his infamous drinking problem began to spiral out of control, possibly exacerbated by the extensive recording and touring with the Whiteman orchestra. This self-destructive behavior was tolerated for a while, and Whiteman even supported Beiderbecke through a few failed stints in rehab, but eventually his behavior became more and more erratic. In 1929, Beiderbecke had a complete nervous breakdown and famously trashed a Cleveland hotel room. By 1930, his alcoholism began to adversely affect his playing and he had to leave the band. He was dead by August of the next year.

So that begs the question, for an artist with such a short career, why is he still so revered? Is this a classic case of an artist being declared a genius just because he died young? For younger jazz fans, Beiderbecke is one of those names thrown around in debates over race in jazz. Some argue that his importance in jazz history has been exaggerated and that he was a “great white hope” for white listeners uncomfortable with the notion of jazz as an African American art form. However, I don’t think this a fair assessment, nor do I think it a good reason to dismiss Beiderbecke’s contributions to the music. I would say that I don’t believe Beiderbecke’s impact to be anywhere equal to that of Louis Armstrong. To my ears, Beiderbecke never reached the same heights of innovation and technical achievement, and Armstrong was undoubtedly a greater influence on the music world and popular culture in general. So, I do think it is a bit disingenuous when people try to depict Beiderbecke as a figure of equal importance in history.

However, it is clear that Beiderbecke was one of the preeminent jazz cornetists of the 1920s and a supremely gifted improviser who influenced a score of musicians who came after him. It is well documented that Beiderbecke influenced his white contemporaries like Frank Trombauer, Hoagy Carmichael and Bing Crosby. But he was equally respected by black musicians, including Louis Armstrong himself, who in his autobiography “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” said, “Every musician in the world knew and admired Bix...we all respected him as though he had been a god.” Or take Freddie Hubbard’s recording of Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” on his 1972 album “Sky Dive” as another example of his continued influence in the jazz trumpet lineage.

A good way to understand exactly what Beiderbecke brought to this music would be to compare his improvisational style with that of his contemporary, Louis Armstrong. In the examples below, we hear two clips of Royal Garden Blues, one by Beiderbecke and the other by Armstrong. I should preface this by saying the Armstrong clip is from a later period in his career, so this isn’t the ideal comparison. Despite this, the difference is pretty striking. Both players are melodically inventive, but Beiderbecke’s style is much more understated. He seems more focused on creating a cogent, logical melody than communicating any overt emotions in his playing. Armstrong, on the other hand, incorporates the blues to a much greater degree, swings harder and plays all over the trumpet. Check out the way he ends the tune by effortlessly jumping up to a double G.

These differences aren't surprising when you look at the backgrounds of both musicians. Armstrong grew up in the ghetto of New Orleans and was immersed in the blues and ragtime of the Storyville bars and brothels. On a technical level, it isn't surprising that he would be the superior player, as New Orleans musicians have a long tradition of technical proficiency. This is due to the nature of musical life in New Orleans. The sheer number of gigs, the noise level in bars and parades, and the musical competitiveness all worked together to breed brass players who could peel paint off of the wall with their sounds. To this day, trumpeters like Nicholas Payton and Trombone Shorty continue the tradition of playing with a huge sound and tons of technical facility. Beiderbecke, on the other hand, grew up in white, middle class Iowa and spent a good chunk of his musical career playing with the classically influenced Whiteman Orchestra. Beiderbecke himself was famously influenced by European classical music as can be heard in his compositions. So it's not surprising the he would develop a more cerebral, relaxed playing style. There was a sort of unsentimental, unembellished beauty in his playing that wouldn't come along again until the so-called “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

In the end, one can't help but wonder what Beiderbecke would have achieved had he not self-destructed. Imagine the recordings he could have made had he lived into the big band era. Despite his folk hero status in popular culture, his music continues to captivate fans and musicians for his unusual purity of tone and clarity of ideas. And so what if his life story gets embellished a little as time goes on. The recordings he left us aren't going anywhere and will always be there to remind that it is his musical legacy that is important, not his personal foibles. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Ghosts of Harlem's Jazz Heritage

View Harlem Jazz Tour in a larger map

Recently, I decided to take a trip downtown from my neighborhood in Inwood to check out some sites in Harlem. While I've spent a lot of time in Harlem over the past four years, I realized that it never really jived with the Harlem that exists in my imagination.  The Harlem of my imagination is the Harlem of the 20's and 30's, in the height of the Harlem Renaissance. So I decided to do some investigating and find the original sites of some of the most famous jazz clubs in history. What I came to discover is that most of these sites are long gone, victims of urban decay or redevelopment. The good news is that there are efforts being made to preserve those few spots that still exist. 

Let's start our tour with one of the most famous clubs in jazz history, the Cotton Club. The club was originally opened as Club Deluxe by heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson in 1920 at the corner of 142nd St. and Lenox Ave. In 1923, a gangster named Owney Madden took over the club while imprisoned in Sing Sing and the club's name was officially changed to Cotton Club. It probably comes as no surprise that Madden's plans were to sell bootleg beer during the prohibition era, and the club was a successful speakeasy during those days.

The Cotton Club is perhaps known best for the part it played in launching Duke Ellington's career. In addition to Ellington, everyone from Fletcher Henderson to Lena Horne to Cab Calloway performed there, and its impact on jazz history is undeniable. But it's also a stark reminder of the racism of the times. The club's name alone should be a giveaway to the lingering stereotypes imposed on black performers of that era. The club, which operated from until 1940, featured black musicians and dancers performing for a whites only audience. The shows at the Cotton Club often depicted performers in a romanticized plantation south setting, or as outright jungle savages. The chorus girls were famously known as being "tall, tan and terrific." (The tan in those days really meant light-skinned, as white audiences found this more palatable.) In many ways, the club went against the values of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance movement, which criticized black performers who perpetuated old stereotypes to entertain white audiences. However, out of this environment, the music of Duke Ellington's music formed, a music that transcended its racist trappings. Eventually, Ellington's music reached national audiences through radio broadcasts from the club.

From a jazz trumpet perspective, I can't mention Ellington without mentioning people like Bubber Miley, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams. If you aren't familiar with them, be sure to check them out as well as all of the other famous Ellington trumpeters. In the meantime, I thought I'd include one of my favorite Ellington trumpet features of all time. It's a Mary Lou Williams arrangement of "Blue Skies" called "Trumpet(s) No End," and features Taft Jordan, Harold 'Shorty' Baker, Cat Anderson and Ray Nance. This is one of the most ridiculous displays of trumpet pyrotechnics I've ever heard. But notice it's not an empty display of technical ability. All of the players are absolutely swinging their butts off! (It's worth mentioning that this is from the late 40's, after Ellington's Cotton Club days.)

As you can guess from the photo below, that is not the original Cotton Club building. The history of the Cotton Club tells the larger story of most US cities in the latter part of the 20th century. By the 1960's the building was unused and in disrepair. New York, like most American cities, was reeling from the urban flight caused by automobiles and the subsequent rise of suburbia. The poorer areas of most cities were hit hardest, and Harlem was no exception. Eventually, the Cotton Club was torn down to make way for the Bethune Tower apartments, which were completed in 1970. This monolithic building was just one of many such towers constructed in New York during the period of Robert Moses's controversial urban renewal projects. Many felt that these projects tore apart the natural urban fabric of New York. And while the Cotton Club may have always been doomed for demolition, I must admit that the building there now is a pretty depressing alternative. 

It is also worth mentioning that the Cotton Club has moved twice since it originally opened, the first time in 1936 to 48th and Broadway. Many of the famous photos of the club are from this location, not the location in Harlem. After the midtown location closed in 1940, the Cotton Club disappeared until 1978, when it was resurrected by the current owner, John Beatty, in its new location at West 125 St. near the Hudson River (photo to left). While it's certainly nice that the club still exists in some form in Harlem, its only real tie with the original club is in name only. To visit the current Cotton Club's website, click here.

In the 20's and 30's, Lenox Ave. was the main drag for clubs in Harlem. Just down the block from the Cotton Club at what was 596 Lenox Avenue is the original location for the Savoy Ballroom, which operated from  1926 to 1958. The Savoy was ground zero for the Lindy Hop dance movement during the swing era.  The 10,000 square feet ballroom was housed on the second floor of a building that was an entire block long and was known by people in Harlem as "the Track," due to the fact that the floor was so long and thin. Legend has it that the club's floor saw so much dancing, it had to be completely replaced every three years.

Unlike the Cotton Club, there was a no-discrimination policy at the Savoy. Although the patrons were mostly Harlem residents, people of all races and backgrounds traveled to the Savoy to dance. The famous house band at the Savoy was led by Chick Webb, one of the most virtuosic drummers of the swing era. The Savoy became famous for its "Battle of the Bands" contests in which Webb's band would alternate tunes with some of the top bands of the day, including Benny Goodman and Count Basie. 

Like the Cotton Club, there's nothing left of the Savoy except a modern housing complex, another result of the mid-century urban renewal on Lenox Ave. There is however a plaque commemorating the original club that was erected in 2002. To find out more about the plaque and the organization behind it, click here.

Our walk through Harlem is also a walk along the timeline of jazz. Next stop, the early 1940's and Minton's Playhouse. Located at 210 West 118th Street in Harlem, Minton's was founded by tenor saxophonist Henry Minton in 1938. In 1940, the manager hired a house band which included Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Hill also instituted the Monday Celebrity Nights, during which many guest musicians would stop by, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, and Lester Young. Through these late night sessions, the musical revolution that later became known as bebop took shape.The trumpet duels between Gillespie and Eldridge became legendary. To get a sense of what this might have sounded like, check out Gillespie and Eldridge going at it along with a couple of other trumpet players, Teddy Buckner and Bill Coleman.

After the early 1940's, Minton's continued to serve jazz to Harlem, but the club never had the same influence that it did in the 40's, and in 1974, it finally shut its doors. But that isn't the end of the story. In 2006, Earl Spain, owner of the now defunct St. Nick's Pub,  finally reopened Minton’s in its original location. I visited the club during this incarnation back in 2009. Unfortunately, I was one of only a handful of people there, and the club seemed to be operating on a shoestring budget. Sure enough, it closed again in 2010. As of 2013, things are looking up again. Businessman Richard D. Parsons, who headed two Fortune 500 companies, has bought the club and plans to revive it as a jazz centerpiece of Harlem. Click here for more information for the future plans for Minton's.

Next up, the Lenox Lounge. Located at 288 Lenox Avenue, the club opened in 1939 and featured jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Everyone from Langston Hughes to Malcolm X were known to hang out there. Like a lot of businesses in Harlem, it fell into disrepair after the 50's, that is until Alvin Reid, Sr. purchased it in 1988 and restored the original Art Deco interior. The Lenox Lounge was a fixture on the Harlem landscape until just last year when a rent increase forced Reid out of the building. He made the announcement that he would relocate to a spot down the street at 333 Lenox Avenue, and that the new spot would retain the look of the original club. But to do that, he removed all of its Art Deco trimmings including furnishings, banquettes, wallpaper, doors and even the original neon sign. Reid claimed that the interior was his as per the original agreement with the building owner, but the owner of the original location claims that these items belong to him. To read more about the dispute, click here. Either way, the end result is that the location is now a bit of an eyesore. A new club is slated to open in the original location, but as gentrification continues in Harlem (a Whole Foods is due to open across the street), I imagine the new club will never quite feel the same. 

Named for its owner Edwin Smalls, Small's Paradise was opened in 1925 at 2294½ Seventh Avenue and, along with the Cotton Club, was one of the hottest spots for music in Harlem in the 1920's. Like the Savoy, Small's Paradise was a racially integrated club. As the house band, Smalls hired Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, which would serve as the house band for the next ten years and feature, among others, trumpet player Jabbo Smith. Smith was a technically gifted player and was often promoted as a sort of rival to Louis Armstrong, but his approach was a bit more flashy in comparison to Armstrong's effortless-sounding improvisations. Check out some of his playing in the clip below:

Unlike most clubs of the 20's and 30's, Small's stayed in business and continued to feature jazz well into the 50's and 60's. In fact some well-known albums were recorded there including Jimmy Smith's "Groovin' at Small's Paradise." Eventually the club succumbed to popular taste and began featuring rock and roll and later even disco acts.  In the 1960's, basketball star Wilt Chamberlain reopened the restaurant as "Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise" and booked musicians such as King Curtis and Ray Charles. The club was successful for several years, but eventually called it quits 1986. It is worth noting that another club called Smalls did open up in the West Village in 1993 and is still operating today. I've played there and it's probably my favorite club in the city, but it is unaffiliated with Small's Paradise. For more information on the original Small's Paradise, check out the excellent article in Harlem World Mag here as well as the excellent blog post by historian Mark Jones here.

As you can see today, all traces of the club are long gone, but the building is still standing. Unfortunately, it's now an IHOP. Not exactly an inspiring replacement for such a famous jazz landmark.

Also, check out this youtube clip of a former Small's musician who talking about what the club used to look like. Pretty interesting...

Next up is the famous Apollo Theatre. The building that now houses the Apollo Theater at 253 W. 125th Street originally opened in around 1914 as "Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater," a segregated whites-only theater. In 1933 Fiorello La Guardia began a campaign against burlesque and the club closed briefly and then reopened as the Apollo with variety revues aimed at drawing the growing African-American community in Harlem. Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over the Apollo two years later and introduced an "Audition Night" to the club's offerings. This of course evolved in the club's famous "Amateur Night," which helped launch the careers of everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the Jackson 5.

As with many clubs in Harlem, the Apollo fell into disrepair in the 1960's. The Schiffman and Brecher families continued to run the theater until the late 1970's, when it was forced to shut down. In 1981, it was purchased by Percy Sutton, who set out to secure federal, state, and city landmark status for the location. The theater finally reopened in 1985 and in 1991 and became part of the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization. To visit the Apollo Theater website, click here.

Finally we have the photo to the left. I stumbled onto this on while walking back to the train on 135th street. It's part of the Harlem Walk of Fame, which is a series of sidewalk plaques embedded into the street between  Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards. According to this website, the walk of fame is a somewhat abandoned project by the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce from about ten years ago. It was originally to be part of the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame, which never came into being.

Well, that's it for the tour. I hope you've enjoyed this long-winded blog entry, and hopefully you've learned something about Harlem's jazz heritage. I know I left out many hotspots like the Alhambra Ballroom, Clark Monroe's Uptown House and the Sugar Cane Club among others, but this blog entry is probably long enough as it is. If you live in the city, I urge you to visit any of these clubs that are still in business. I'm really hoping the best for Minton's. As one of the birthplaces of modern jazz, it's an important landmark. Also, if you're interested in visiting any of the other spots mentioned in the blog, you can find the locations at the top of the page in the embedded Google map. Till next time...