One of the leading names in 1920s jazz, Beiderbecke's career was cut short by chronic poor health, exacerbated by alcoholism. Critic Scott Yanow describes Beiderbecke as the "[p]ossessor of a beautiful, distinctive tone and a strikingly original improvising style. Beiderbecke's chief competitor among cornetists in the '20s was Louis Armstrong, but (due to their different sounds and styles) one really could not compare them.
Illness frequently kept Beiderbecke out of school, and his grades suffered. He attended Davenport High School briefly, but his parents felt that enrolling him in the exclusive Lake Forest Academy, north of Chicago in Lake Forest, Illinois, as a boarding student would provide him with both the necessary faculty attention and discipline to improve his academic performance. However, the change of scenery did not improve Beiderbecke's academic record, as the only subjects in which he displayed interest were music and sports. Bix began going into Chicago to catch the hot jazz bands at clubs and speakeasies. He often failed to return to his dormitory before curfew, and sometimes stayed off-campus the next day. Beiderbecke was dismissed from the academy due to his academic failings and extracurricular activities. His time now free, he began his musical career.
Beiderbecke also played piano, sometimes switching from cornet for a chorus or two during a song (e.g., "For No Reason at All in C", 1927). He wrote several compositions for the piano, and recorded one of them, "In a Mist" (after it was transcribed from his improvisations by the Goldkette/Whiteman arranger Bill Challis). His piano compositions include "In A Mist", "Flashes", "In The Dark" and "Candlelights." These were later recorded by (among others) Jess Stacy, Bunny Berigan, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Dill Jones and Ralph Sutton.
His spirits also suffered due to declining work around the New York City area. In 1929 bandleader Paul Whiteman sent Beiderbecke back home to Davenport, Iowa, to recover from a breakdown (caused by alcoholism, related physical problems and the stress of touring). His treatment was initially successful, but failed later. During this recuperation period, he discovered in his parents' home a cabinet full of all his phonograph records he sent back home for his parents--all unplayed, after pleading for his parents' respect and recognition through his letters. In an interview in Episode 3 of Jazz, Richard Sudhalter noted that while his mother was slightly supportive, his father was not. Bix was cutting an increasingly sad figure, and while he played intermittently over the next two years, when he was well enough to travel, neither he nor his playing was ever the same.
In late July or early August 1931, he took up residence at 43-30 46th Street, Sunnyside, Queens, New York City, where he went on his last drinking binge. He died in his Queens apartment alone on August 6, 1931, at 9:30 in the evening, just 28 years old. While the official cause of his death was "lobar pneumonia" and "brain edema", Beiderbecke actually died of an alcoholic seizure during delirium tremens.
The production of bathtub gin was tremendous during Prohibition and continued widely until the Repeal of Prohibition some 18 months after Bix's death (or until practical enforcement of Prohibition laws stopped before the official time that the 21st Amendment went into effect), so up to the time that Bix went on his final bender he very likely drank large quantities of bathtub gin with Rotgut properties, since the most readily available alcohol at that time was illegal spirits, as opposed to industrial spirits that were illegally imported.
Beiderbecke is buried in a family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa. Although his penchant for imbibing was legendary, tales of the examining coroner getting drunk from the alcohol fumes are apocryphal.
Beiderbecke absorbed the music he heard of New Orleans jazz cornetists. He was influenced by Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. The LaRocca influence is evident in a number of Beiderbecke's recordings (especially the covers of O.D.J.B. songs.) Beiderbecke also absorbed patterns from Joe "King" Oliver, and clarinetist Leon Roppolo. Beiderbecke's famous two-note interjection on "Goose Pimples" suggests Freddie Keppard, among older New Orleans players.
According to many contemporaries, Beiderbecke was most influenced by Emmett Hardy, a highly regarded New Orleans cornetist of whom there are no existent recordings. Several fellow musicians said that Hardy's influence was very evident in Beiderbecke's early recordings with The Wolverines. New Orleans drummer Ray Bauduc heard Hardy's playing in the early 1920s and said that he was even more inspired than Beiderbecke.
Beiderbecke is remembered today for his own individualistic style of jazz cornet playing, which moved away from his predecessors and influenced those who followed. As Louis Armstrong said, "Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain't none of them play like him yet."
One follower was cornetist Jimmy McPartland, who replaced Beiderbecke in the 'Wolverine' Orchestra in late 1924. He continued to pay tribute to Beiderbecke throughout his long career (McPartland died in 1991).
Bix's influence was most noticeable amongst white musicians, but black players also fell under his spell, notably trumpeters and cornetists John Nesbitt (of McKinney's Cotton Pickers), Rex Stewart of (Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, Duke Ellington's Orchestra), and Doc Cheatham of (Cab Calloway's Orchestra).
Miles Davis was fascinated by Beiderbecke's playing, and sought out people who had known and played with him. Davis' silvery tone and understated, "cool" phrasing clearly hark back to one aspect of Beiderbecke's style.
Beiderbecke's music is featured in three British comedy-drama television series, all written by Alan Plater: The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987) and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988).
Other researchers, including Rich Johnson, have found documents showing his full name to be Leon Bismark. These include records from the Early First Presbyterian Church to which the family belonged, and from Tyler School, which Bix attended. In addition, the will of a relative, Mary Hill, named young Beiderbecke as a beneficiary. His mother signed for his receipt of her gift, writing "Leon Bismark Beiderbecke".
Beiderbecke appeared to dislike his formal name from an early age. For example: in a letter to his mother when he was nine (1912), he signed it, "frome [sic] your Leon Bix Beiderbecke not Bismark Remeber [sic]." (this letter is reprinted in Evans & Evans pp 28-29). The family may have wanted to play down or avoid the more traditional German name of Bismarck during and after the tensions of World War I, when Germany was the enemy.
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