- 1903-03-10 - 1931-08-06
Bix Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist who was an outstanding improviser and composer of the 1920s. He played with a distinctive tone and strikingly original improvisational style. He is considered the first major white jazz soloist. Beiderbecke’s only competitor among cornetists in the 1920s was Louis Armstrong, but the two cannot be compared due to their different styles and sounds.
Bix was born March 10, 1903 in Davenport, Iowa. His mother was a musician who played piano and was the organist for the First Presbyterian Church. Bix was a bit of a child prodigy, picking out tunes on the piano when he was three years old. While he had formal training in piano, he taught himself the cornet largely by ear, which led him to adopt a non-standard fingering some critics have connected to his original sound. Bix attended Davenport High School from 1918 to 1921, during which time he sat in and played professionally with various bands. His parents disapproved of his playing music so in 1921 they enrolled him in the exclusive Lake Forest Academy, just north of Chicago. However, his interest in music remained and he often visited Chicago to listen to jazz bands in night clubs and speakeasies. He was ultimately expelled from school and returned to Davenport in 1923.
That same year Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra and recorded with them later the following year. In late 1924 Bix left the Wolverines to join Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, but his inability to read sheet music resulted in him eventually losing the job. In 1926 he played with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra with whom he recorded “In a Mist.” In 1927 Bix joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which was the highest paid dance band of the 1920s. Bix played on four hit records, all under the Whiteman name: “Together,” “Ramona,” “My Angel,” and “Ol’ Man River,” which featured Bing Crosby on vocals. Bix made his greatest recordings in 1927; he helped define the jazz ballad with his solos on “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming, Virginia”. “In a Mist” (1927), one of a handful of his piano compositions and the only one he ever recorded, was a solo masterpiece that fused jazz with classical influences.
For Bix, the downside of being with Whiteman was the relentless touring and recording schedule, which exacerbated his lifelong troubles with alcohol. On November 30, 1928, while on tour in Cleveland, Bix suffered what was termed a “nervous crisis”; but it has been suggested that it was actually an acute attack of delirium tremens brought about by Bix’s attempt to curb his alcohol intake. Bix returned to Davenport in February 1929 to convalesce and Whiteman famously kept Bix’s chair open in his honor, hoping he would return.
Bix returned to New York in January 1930 but was never the same again. He did not rejoin the Whiteman Orchestra and performed only sparingly. On his last recording session in September 1930, Bix played on the original recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s new song, “Georgia on My Mind,” which would go on to become a jazz and popular music standard. He lived the rest of his life in a rooming house in Queens, New York, where he was known to drink heavily while composing his solo piano pieces, “Candlelight,” “Flashes,” and “In the Dark,” none of which he ever recorded. He died at age 28 on August 6, 1931 as the result of an alcoholic seizure.