Legendary jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903 and died young in 1931. His distinctive style of playing was characterized by a fragile, crystalline, bell-like tone; his friend Hoagy Carmichael described it as sounding like "a chime struck by a mallet". He used an unorthodox fingering that gave his playing an unusual and characteristic tone, to which he added intensity by varying pitch, pacing, and rhythm. Though relatively unknown by the public during his short lifetime, he was much admired by his contemporaries for his unique horn technique - Louis Armstrong considered him a peer, though the two greats had very different styles - and for his few compositions. His sensitive and introspective style of playing (he much admired Debussy) foreshadowed the "cool" jazz sound that would become popular in later decades.

Born to a prosperous German-American family in Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke showed musical talent from an early age, picking out tunes on the family piano at age 3. Although he was given piano lessons as a boy, he never learned to read music well; presaging his later improvisational ability, he would read just enough to get a sense of the piece, then embellish it and invent what he thought sounded good. Early teachers were said to have quit in frustration at the strong will of this stubborn young musician.

He turned to jazz early on, when his father brought home a phonograph and a jazz recording in 1917; Beiderbecke set it up next to the piano and learned the music by listening and copying. He soon bought a second-hand cornet and began to learn Dixieland tunes before and after school, practicing on his own.

Bix knew what he wanted to do, but had trouble gaining professional work as a musician because he couldn't pass the sight-reading test needed to gain a union card. In addition, his parents discouraged him from pursuing his passion, and when he began flunking out of high school, they sent him to a military academy north of Chicago. Perhaps they didn't know that Chicago was a jazz hotspot, but Beiderbecke did: he soon formed a combo that would sneak out of school to play (and drink) in Chicago's jazz clubs all night, often missing morning classes. When the school authorities got wind of the nocturnal wanderings, they confined the young musicians to the school grounds, forcing them to miss a gig in Gary, Indiana. Defiantly downing the only liquor they could find - a bottle of Ed Pinaud's Face Lotion, at a potent 85% alcohol - the lads went to a school assembly where they were expected to play a few demure hymns; launching into a jazzy Rock of Ages instead, they were expelled. Beiderbecke was then free to pursue the life he wanted, though his family apparently never forgave him for choosing the path he did.

In Chicago Beiderbecke was already gaining a reputation for his improvisational "play around the note" style and his unique tone, and he found work, first with The Wolverines and then with the respected Jean Goldkette Orchestra. This was a good job, but he lost it after only a few months because he couldn't read music well enough to keep up with a hectic professional band's recording schedule. Attempting to remedy the situation, he enrolled at the University of Iowa, signing up for several music classes. But he refused to take a required religion and ethics course, consistently missed classes, and picked a drunken fight with a college football player. Within a month he was expelled.

Thereafter he travelled around the US, landing wherever he could find work and honing his technique. He ended up back with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra again, and then with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra; he also did a lot of session work. His cornet style impressed many players of the time - later, Artie Shaw would remember that in the 20s "there was Louis, and there was Bix" - and he also wrote piano pieces in a style characterized by unusual chord progressions and sequences. "In a Mist" is one of his five compositions, and the only one he recorded.

The other thing Beiderbecke was known for was drinking. In a profession where hard drinking was routine his alcohol consumption was legendary, and he soon descended into alcoholism. When he couldn't get corn-mash whisky or gin, he would apparently drink pure alchohol mixed with lemon drops; he started drinking in the early morning and didn't stop till he passed out at night. Weakened by his excesses, Beiderbecke began to have to take time off from playing with Whiteman - though the bandleader kept a place for him and continued to pay him, a testament to his brilliant musicianship. Beiderbecke suffered several breakdowns and bouts of pneumonia, one of which finally killed him, aged only 28.

Davenport holds an annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival; find out more about it at www.bixsociety.org/

A complete discography of Beiderbecke can be found at www.mysic.com, and a good textual source is Bix: The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story by Phil and Linda Evans (available through their website, members.tripod.com/~leonbix/).

The book Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker is a romanticized story loosely based on Beiderbecke's life; it was later made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day.


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