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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Beiderbecke, Leon Bismarck "Bix"
(March 10, 1903–August 7, 1931)

–celebrated jazz pianist and cornetist—was born in Davenport, Iowa, the third of three children of Bismarck Herman Beiderbecke and M. Agatha (Hilton) Beiderbecke. "Bix" was a family nickname that served to Americanize the Old World Bismarck.

    During a tragically short life that ended in New York City, Bix Beiderbecke made hundreds of recordings that marked him as an original jazz improviser on the piano and the cornet. At the same time, however, his uppermiddle-class German American upbringing seems to have ill-prepared him for the roughand-tumble life of a jazz musician. Admired mostly by fellow jazz musicians and mid-western college and university students during the 1920s, Beiderbecke became, through his alcoholism and premature death, the first popular icon of the freedom, possibilities, and dangers of the jazz life. The best of his many recordings occupy a secure position among the most influential jazz recordings of the 1920s. His music expressed a young man's desire to synthesize two modernist trends in the music of his time: the innovative harmonic ideas of European composers Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy and the "hot" rhythmical improvisations of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). He absorbed elements of these very different worlds by listening closely to records, radio, and the live music on Mississippi riverboats and in Davenport's dance halls and vaudeville theaters.

    As a youngster, Beiderbecke had also listened to his mother playing parlor piano and quickly demonstrated a remarkable ability to play by ear what he had heard. He also learned his piano lessons by ear, however, and never did learn to read musical scores, a serious failing that undermined his subsequent career as a professional musician. He nevertheless progressed quickly on piano, playing harmonically and rhythmically adventurous renditions of the popular songs of the day and eventually working on his own compositions: "In a Mist," "In the Dark," "Candlelights," and "Flashes."Beiderbecke developed first as a pianist and then took up the cornet in his teens, inspired by Nick LaRocca of the ODJB. He practiced the band's tunes by listening to its 78 rpm records and laboriously reproducing the cornet lead.

    Davenport and its musical cultures exerted their influence on Beiderbecke. A number of pioneer New Orleans jazz musicians worked during the winters in the city's nightclubs and dance halls. In his teens, Beiderbecke sought them out and sat in with their bands. During the summers, he could not help but hear the music of Fate Marable and Louis Armstrong when the Capital or the St. Paul docked in Davenport on summer excursion cruises.

    In 1921 Beiderbecke was failing at Davenport High School, so his parents sent him off to Lake Forest Academy in Illinois to straighten him out, only to see him expelled in 1922. That series of events led to a rift between the budding jazzman and his family, leaving Beiderbecke permanently scarred psychologically. He began a lifelong pattern of withdrawal and heavy drinking. While in school in Lake Forest, Beiderbecke had often escaped to jazz clubs in nearby Chicago. He jammed with budding collegiate musicians, learned to bring the cornet under control, and in 1923 began touring. In 1924 he began recording on the Gennett label with the Wolverines, a band influenced by the ODJB and one that came to enjoy renown among midwestern college students. Those recordings established Beiderbecke's reputation as an exceptionally original, exciting performer who, with deceptive ease, invented beautifully structured, declarative solos.

    From 1924 to 1927 Beiderbecke performed as a hot soloist in the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, an arrangement-reading dance band in which he experienced frustration and humiliation as he struggled with his written parts. During those same years, however, he also recorded on the Okeh label with saxophonist/bandleader Frank Trumbauer, most notably on "Singin' the Blues" and "I'm Coming Virginia."In those recordings, the Dixieland formula was cast aside for a more flexible solo conception in which Beiderbecke's cool eloquence and synthesis of joy and sadness shone. At the time, the Trumbauer recordings impressed such jazz musicians as Max Kaminsky, Fletcher Henderson, Lester Young, and Louis Arm-strong, and became what Beiderbecke's most recent biographer calls "the consecration" of his life's work.

    The pinnacle of his professional career came in the fall of 1927, when he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a formidable 28 musician organization at the top of the music business. Beiderbecke added his hot solos to the highly arranged music and played fourth cornet. He finally impressed his family with his newfound status and prestige, but his struggles with the arranged music, the band's intense performance schedule, and his deepening alcoholism soon undermined him.

    Beiderbecke died unaware of his contribution. Whiteman eulogized him as "a genius who knew of something beautiful to strive for."His original music inspired dozens of jazz cornetists, most notably Andy Secrest, Red Nichols, Rex Stewart, Bobby Hackett, Doc Cheatham, Jimmy McPartland, Tom Pletcher, Richard Sudhalter, and Randy Sanke. His life and music have been celebrated yearly since 1972 at Davenport's Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.
Sources Beiderbecke has been the subject of several full biographies, including Jean Pierre Lion, Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend (2005); Philip R. Evans and Linda K. Evans, Bix: The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story (1998); and Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, with William Dean-Myatt, Bix: Man and Legend (1975). For particular focus on the influence of Davenport's river culture on Beiderbecke, see William Howland Kenney, Jazz on the River (2005).
Contributor: William Howland Kenney

Cite as: Kenney, William Howland. "Beiderbecke, Leon Bismarck "Bix"" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017