Click here to listen to I’m Coming Virginia
Thirty years ago there was a big picture of him on the wall upstairs at the Savoy Club in Vancouver, alongside other photos of early blues and jazz giants. I thought: “So that’s Bix Beiderbecke. He looks like a kid.”
He was pretty young — the most famous photo of Leon Bismark Beiderbecke was probably snapped in 1924, when the cornetist was about 21 – roughly my age when I first noticed the Savoy’s Bix picture. I had heard of him. Spike Milligan, for instance, mentions him a couple of times in his war memoirs, and the name had come up here and there in other books I had read. But I had never heard a note of the music.
The picture made me curious, though. Bix Beiderbecke seemed to always be written about with awe, but the boyish musician in the photo didn’t seem like the awe-inspiring type. When I found out my girlfriend Sue’s dad had a Time-Life boxed set of jazz records, with part of it dedicated to Bix, I had to hear what all the fuss was about. I taped a couple of the LPs, pressed ‘play’ – and pretty much never pressed ‘stop’ again.
Hearing Bix for the first time, I felt as if I had been lost in a dark hallway for a long time, and had suddenly been welcomed into a ballroom full of bright lights and happy young people. It seemed to me that the music was old and new at the same time — the arrangements and record engineering recognizably of the period, but the playing glowing with hot, timeless vitality.
A lot has been written about Bix’s technical merits — his “bell-like” tone, innovative ideas and phrasing. But one thing that sometimes get overlooked, perhaps understandably, given the sad transit of Bix’s personal life, is the fun of much of his music. Bix himself described jazz, to an early interviewer, as “musical humour.” I think it’s a fitting description his 1927 recording of At the Jazz Band Ball, a cover of a song by Bix’s beloved Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose records he would play along with when he was first learning the cornet.
Click here to listen to At the Jazz Band Ball
Here, he’s surrounded by some of the top white jazzmen of the time – Adrian Rollini’s solo here is particularly juicy – but Bix is the supercharged engine of this ensemble. His playing is so relentlessly intense that you sometimes have to make an effort to notice the other guys.
Still, most of what has been written about Bix in the 80-plus years since his death has stressed the introspective side of his playing, painting him as the cool flip side of Louis Armstrong’s hot showmanship and fireworks style. Like all generalizations this could probably be picked apart, but it certainly applies to one of Bix’s best-known sides, I’m Coming Virginia. There are other good versions of this tune, notably from Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson, but this is the one that makes something deep and moving and permanent out of it. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times over the years, but Bix’s solo still give me goosebumps every time. It is arguably his greatest, and, I think, one of the finest minute-and-a half stretches of music recorded in any genre, period.
I’m Coming Virginia
New York, May 13, 1927
Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra
Frank Trumbauer – cm – dir / Bix Beiderbecke – c / Bill Rank – tb / Don Murray – cl / Doc Ryker – as / Itzy Riskin-p / Bill Challis – a / Eddie Lang – bj – g / Chauncey Morehouse – d
At the Jazz Band Ball
New York, October 5, 1927
Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang
Bix Beiderbecke – c / Bill Rank – tb / Don Murray – cl – bar / Adrian Rollini – bsx / Frank Signorelli – p / Chauncey Morehouse – d