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Still blowing his horn Add to ...

The history of jazz, like the history of most everything else, abounds in oversimplifications. Here's one that just now serves a useful purpose: There were two ways to play jazz trumpet -- or jazz cornet, as the case often was -- during the 1920s. First there was Louis Armstrong's way and then, almost immediately, there was Bix Beiderbecke's way.

Where Armstrong was relentlessly virtuosic, Beiderbecke was relaxed and lyrical; where Armstrong was hot, Beiderbecke was cooler, though hardly cold; where Armstrong excited with his attack and his high notes, Beiderbecke seduced with his purity of tone -- a tone that the guitarist and jazz wag Eddie Condon so famously compared to "the sound of a girl saying 'Yes.' "

The polarities between the two styles were symbolically reinforced along racial lines: Armstrong was black and Beiderbecke white. Nevertheless their respective aesthetics have survived over the years, Armstrong's quite robustly and Beiderbecke's, by its very nature, rather more subtly -- so subtly as to go unremarked these days, and Beiderbecke himself to some extent with it.

Today is the centenary of his birth in Davenport, Iowa. And where are the sort of commemorative CD reissue series that celebrated Armstrong's 100th birthday in 2001, or Duke Ellington's in 1999? The major labels, which rarely miss an opportunity to make a quick buck off sentimentality (not to mention recordings paid for nearly 80 years ago), have apparently missed this one.

(Beiderbecke's recordings rest in the loving hands of the small, specialist labels that take an archival approach to jazz history -- the U.S. company Sunbeam, for example, which has just released the fourth of four volumes, three CDs each, in its series Bix Restored.)

In truth, though, Beiderbecke has been sentimentalized for years. He's the eternal young man with a horn, trapped by his death in 1931 at the age of 28 in a role that is as much romance as reality. And yet, unlike other important figures in jazz who died early, their ascendancy cut short -- bassist Jimmy Blanton at 23, for example, and trumpeter Clifford Brown and guitarist Charlie Christian at 25 -- Beiderbecke packed the full arc of a career into just a few years.

It's not an especially happy story. As told in impressive detail by Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans in their 1974 biography Bix: Man and Legend, young Bix -- born Leon Bix -- discovered the family piano at about 4 and taught himself to play the cornet soon after hearing an Original Dixieland Jazz Band record at 15. His parents were nonplussed by his early, untutored interest and later accomplishments in jazz; on one return visit to Davenport, he discovered that the recordings that he had so proudly sent home had simply been packed away, unopened and unplayed.

During his peak years -- the mid-to-late 1920s, a period divided between Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and New York -- he worked with a succession of bands, each better known than the last: first the Wolverines and then the orchestras of Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer, Goldkette again and, finally, The King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman. Along the way, he enjoyed the growing reverence of his fellow musicians and acquired the fondness for alcohol that, in combination with pneumonia and the impecuniousity that attended his fall from grace, killed him.

Thus the Beiderbecke legend. The Beiderbecke legacy is a happier prospect, though one not quite so easily traced. He had his followers in the 1920s, not least among them Jimmy McPartland, who was still capable of playing after a Bix-like fashion in the 1980s. And the most remarkable of Beiderbecke's own solos -- his improvisations, for example, on Singing the Blues and Riverboat Shuffle with the Trumbauer band in 1927 -- survive note-for-note in the repertoires of countless younger, classic jazz cornet and trumpet players today.

(An excellent representation of Beiderbecke's finest moments, including his faux-impressionistic solo piano piece In a Mist, can be found on An Introduction to Bix Beiderbecke: His Best Recordings 1924-1930, issued by the French label Best of Jazz in 1994.)

More abstractly, the lyricism that Beiderbecke introduced into jazz so early on has had a legacy of its own, passed on through Rex Stewart and Bobby Hackett to Miles Davis and through Davis to Chet Baker, Art Farmer and even someone as idiosyncratically modern as Kenny Wheeler. Not that Davis, Baker, Farmer or Wheeler have ever played anything that looks on paper like a Beiderbecke solo. But they -- among many other instrumentalists in jazz -- have all understood how tone, melody and emotion, when carefully nuanced, can be as provocative as any combination of technique, power and range pushed to its fullest.

That's what first caught Alan Matheson's ear about jazz. "The reason I started playing jazz was because of Bix," the Canadian trumpeter remembers, reaffirming the Beiderbecke legacy at a more personal level. He was about nine when he heard a recording that Beiderbecke made in 1928 with Paul Whiteman of The Love Nest. "It had an eight-bar cornet solo and I thought, 'Well, that's what I want to do.' "

Now, 34 years later, Matheson plays both classic and modern jazz in Vancouver, bringing a keen historical perspective to each. (CBC Radio's Hot Air presented his tribute to Beiderbecke and fellow Whiteman alumnus, Bing Crosby, in January.) He does not necessarily see Beiderbecke and Armstrong in the sort of direct opposition that history has placed them. Instead he offers a more modern parallel.

"To me they're complementary in the same way that, say, in 1949, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were. You could hear that Miles came out of Dizzy, but he played a very lyrical way, where Dizzy was volcanic and, obviously, more technical. And yet they were both equally expressive."

He also points to the esteem in which Armstrong and Beiderbecke were known to hold each other's playing. No rivals, these. "I think that's why Armstrong was on record as having so much respect for Bix; here was one guy in the twenties who wasn't trying to sound like him, or copy his thing, or make money off of being a 'second Louis Armstrong.' "

Matheson's Toronto counterpart and contemporary among Canadian trumpeters conversant in both classic and modern jazz, John MacLeod, has also looked at the Beiderbecke/Armstrong dichotomy. He suggests that, in addition to the usual distinctions, "with Bix, you're probably hearing a deeper harmonic concept, although apparently he didn't really understand what he was doing, it was entirely intuitive."

MacLeod recalls transcribing a Beiderbecke cornet solo as a student and discovering the sort of harmonic movement -- "a series of chords inside another series of chords" -- that anticipated the work of John Coltrane about 30 years later. "It was almost like a stroke of genius, where his music was coming from. When I analyzed it, I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

Imagine, then, Beiderbecke's impact in the 1920s on his peers, who could scarcely believe what they were hearing, even as they marvelled at its innate logic and beauty. "All of a sudden Bix stood up and took a solo," no one less than Armstrong himself remembered of one such occasion in Chicago, "and I'm telling you, those pretty notes went all through me. . . ."

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