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. 


  1. I pretty much agree with your observations. Bix would influence many musicians after him with his innovative style,, somewhat like James Dean, who made only three movies but who influenced many after him with his style.

  2. Thank you! This is an invaluable blog entry for anyone researching Beiderbecke's death.

  3. Just read this years later- great post. Not sure if you will get this post- but this is a great read by Frederick Turner- "1929".


  5. Chris BeiderbeckeAugust 4, 2017 at 7:51 PM

    Very nice piece. Of course the last moments of Bix's life contain a good deal of mystery. It was a doctor's wife, who was a nurse of sorts, that responded to Bix's room. There were two death certificates issues, and the Dr. involved in NY would never answer questions about any of it.
    But you clearly have taken the time to find out a lot about Bix and your piece is particularly well written and balanced. Something rather rare unfortunately.

  6. "You can tell the whole world: there'll never be another Bix Beiderbecke. Louis Armstrong

  7. The word that comforts me about Bix's style is "melancholy." It shines thru each and every solo from day 1 of his too-short career. Maybe because I get that way listening to his tunes, especially I'm Coming Virginia. Both his and Bobby Hackett's version 7 yrs after death at Carnegie Hall get me moaning. Even my 15y.o. Parrot (Maxx) loves it. We both moan. Truly a jazz musical spirit for the ages.

  8. Just read this as I am listening to the cd Bix and Bing. Enjoyed the article very much!

  9. Very well done and much appreciated.