Archive for April 21, 2009

Bixology

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on April 21, 2009 by telescoper

 Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became a jazz-age romantic legend by playing brilliant trumpet and by drinking too much bad prohibition liquor resulting his premature death in 1931, at the age of only 28. His short life was punctuated by episodes of very bad health caused by chronic alcoholism in an era when the only booze that was available was bathtub gin or rotgut whisky. Nevertheless, Bix still gave us some of the greatest ever jazz records.

Although he was of middle-class white origins, Bix’s  playing was deeply admired by leading black musicians of the day. No less a trumpeter than Louis Armstrong refused to play Singin’ the Blues because he felt Bix’s version was so good that it shouldn’t be touched. High praise indeed. Many jazz trumpeters to this day still play some of Bix’s trumpet licks, though few do them justice.

Bix’s trumpet-playing was all quicksilver virtuosity but, above all, he possessed a beautiful ringing, bell-like tone that is quite unlike that of any other trumpeter before or since. His clarion sound even pierces through the hiss and crackle produced by contemporary recording techniques. My favourite example is this, an old tune called At the Jazz Band Ball, where Bix’s trumpet lead is matched in exuberance and skill by Bill Rank (trombone), Frank Signorelli (clarinet) and, particularly,  the superb Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone, who managed to play his enormous and unwieldy instrument not only with great swing but also with a fine sense of humour.

But Bix wasn’t just a trumpeter. He also composed a few pieces for solo piano. I didn’t know about these until about 18 months ago, when I found a recording my Dad had kept of a concert at Newcastle City Hall in which he had played the drums in a trio led by the American jazz pianist Ralph Sutton. Among the numbers they played was a nice tune called, appropriately enough for this blog, In the Dark. The other day I found a clip on Youtube of Ralph Sutton playing the same tune (although not with my Dad). I hadn’t realised that this tune was written by Bix Beiderbecke.

Perhaps I should use it this blog’s signature tune? 

Bix composed other pieces for solo piano too. The most famous, and probably the most interesting because of its unusual harmonic structure, is called In a Mist, but for some reason when Bix’s own recording of this tune was released in the United Kingdom it was renamed Bixology.  Here it is played by the wonderful Marian Macpartland

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