Bix Beiderbecke, a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma
Even those closest to Davenport, Iowa-born Leon Bix Beiderbecke never really knew just who he was, or the source of the musical genius as cornetist, pianist and composer that brought him lasting worldwide fame.
Many have called him "an enigma." After all, how probable was it that a mostly self-taught young man from the mid-sized Iowa town on the Mississippi River would ever play and compose such incomparable music.
Bix was born on March 10, 1903, blazed like a jazz comet through the "Roaring '20's,' and died, worn-out and deathly ill, on Aug. 6, 1931, at the age of only 28.
How likely was it that he would be little more than an asterisk to the Jazz Age, if that, or that in more recent years he would be the subject of three films, at least five books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and conversation wherever jazz fans and musicians gather?
He was a wash-out in school, never properly learned to read music, yet astounded his colleagues wherever he played. In his short life, Bix composed just five pieces, work that bear the stamp of genius and further enhanced his reputation.
Music, including the classics, was the one true love of his life, and when he was playing he was immersed and oblivious to anything else. He went from the Wolverines, to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and finally to the very "mountain-top" of the Twenties, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. There were many recordings in between.
Still, he could never get his personal life in order, and those who knew him wondered if musically he ever found what he was looking for, perhaps something dreamed of, but unattainable.
In his autobiography, "Sometimes I Wonder," friend and fellow musician Hoagy Carmichael wrote, "He was our golden boy, doomed to an untimely end." Hoagy also said, "In Harlem, in Hollywood, in the Chicago South Side, in Le Jazz Hot joints in Paris where the city folk come to listen to his records, they still talk of Bix Beiderbecke."
Hoagy told of a time after a gig that he and Bix stopped on a cold night along a lonely country road, took out their horns, and began playing: "Bix was off. Clean, wonderful streams of melody filled the dawn, ruffled the countryside, stirred the still night.
"I bolted along to keep up a rhythmic lead while Bix laid it out. A wind drove autumn leaves around us. Bix finished in one amazing blast of pyrotechnic improvisation. He took his horn away from his mouth, as if in a sleepwalker's dream."
One writer wrote of there being "elusive bars that only Bix could hear."
An unknown jazz musician perhaps summed up the essence of Bix: "Once you hear him blow four notes on that horn, your life will never be the same."