If you have never heard of Bix Beiderbecke, the unlikely jazz legend from a Midwestern, German-American family, listen to his tunes on YouTube or Spotify and you’ll want to know more. Dig deeper and you’ll learn that cornet soloist and pianist Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903 and died in Queens, New York, of alcoholism and lobar pneumonia just 28 years later.
But his spirit lives on in his hometown—at the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival—which is where Brendan Wolfe, author of Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend, first encountered him.
Wolfe, managing editor of the Encyclopedia Virginia website, grew up in Davenport. An aspiring writer and historian, he says he “was really into history and I would sit at the dining room table and write a novel about Valley Forge or a comic strip about D-Day.” Wolfe attended the University of Iowa for undergraduate and graduate school, and it was there that he started writing about music. This month his first book, Finding Bix, hits bookstores and becomes a part of the bibliography about the elusive cornet player.
Thanks to the preservation of historical documents and correspondence, certain details of Beiderbecke’s life can be sketched out. We know that he was expelled from a boarding school in Chicago at age 19. He was often described by friends as being slovenly, the creative genius who couldn’t remember, or didn’t care, to change his clothes. We know from reviews of his playing that he was appreciated in his own time. After hearing Beiderbecke perform a solo with Paul Whiteman’s band, Louis Armstrong wrote, “I’m telling you, those pretty notes went all through me.”
During his most prolific period Beiderbecke maintained a grueling schedule. He consumed too much alcohol, had at least two nervous breakdowns, went to rehab, turned to alcohol again and died young. We also know that at age 18 Beiderbecke was accused of cornering a sight-impaired 5-year-old girl in a garage and demanding that she show herself to him. He was arrested and held on a $1,500 bond, the charge dropped only after the girl’s father determined it would be detrimental to her to testify.
Wolfe examines all of these accounts in detail, but rather than trying to create a definitive portrayal of Beiderbecke, he is more interested in exploring the musician’s blurry edges, often challenging the authoritative tone of previous claims by other scholars. (He even becomes the first Beiderbecke historian to discover that a 1929 feature in the Davenport Democrat was largely plagiarized, including the quotes it attributed to Beiderbecke.) “[Finding Bix] is almost a meta biography of Beiderbecke,” Wolfe says, “a story of all the stories and how they’ve been told and what they add up to and what kind of meaning we can make of it.”
Essential Bix Beiderbecke
“I’m Coming Virginia” Originally recorded in September 1926 by African-American vocalist Ethel Waters. Beiderbecke recorded his take, with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody sax, in May 1927.
“In a Mist” This 1927 cut is one of two Beiderbecke recordings where he is playing an original composition. As the story goes, when asked what he wanted to title the piano solo, Beiderbecke responded, “Dunno. I’m in a fog.” After a slight revision, the title stuck.
“Singin’ the Blues” This tune was first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1920. Beiderbecke laid down his version with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody sax and Eddie Lang on guitar in 1927.
Within the narrative of this meta biography, Wolfe becomes a character himself. “I thought of myself like a film documentarian,” he says, “putting the camera on my shoulder and going out and engaging people and engaging the material.” He is at heart an essayist, and his writing tends to ruminate on a question or, in the case of Beiderbecke, many questions. How and why do we create narratives about artists that elevate them to legends and distort or deny reality? How do we reconcile an artist’s flawed and sometimes ugly character with the soul-stirring art he creates? Does commerce sully art? What does it mean to sell out? Are artists by nature self-destructive? “Ultimately that’s what kept my interest with Beiderbecke,” Wolfe says, “…how any argument you want to have you can put him in the middle of it.”
“The problem with Beiderbecke’s multitudes, though,” Wolfe writes in the book, “is that they can sometimes cancel each other out so that, voilà! Beiderbecke disappears.” Wolfe likens the nature of Beiderbecke to the music he creates: “Jazz isn’t here to stay; it’s here to disappear. …Which is why I think it’s the perfect music for Beiderbecke.” But Wolfe is comfortable with the possibility that aspects of Beiderbecke’s life and character remain ambiguous. “The pleasure comes, both as a writer and a reader, not in reaching a conclusion but in engaging the question,” says Wolfe.