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Fans celebrate the short but rich life of a genius

A century after his birth, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, the original 'young man with a horn,' is hailed.

March 07, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse" is the famous line from the Willard Motley novel (and the Humphrey Bogart film) "Knock on Any Door." It's also a description of the hazardous lifestyle that has been irresistibly seductive to musicians in every era -- from classical to pop to jazz and beyond.

Even a cursory thought brings names quickly to mind: Charlie Parker, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Franz Schubert, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Max Reger, Fats Navarro, and on and on. Different strokes, different folks; some very young, some approaching middle age, but all cut off -- despite their many accomplishments -- before fulfillment of their creative gifts.

On Monday, the 100th anniversary of the birth of yet another shooting-star musical genius, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, will be celebrated, mostly by fans who never had the opportunity to hear him perform.

Beiderbecke died Aug. 6, 1931, during an alcoholic seizure, although the official cause of death was lobar pneumonia and edema of the brain. He was 28 and already a legend to the relatively few fans who had discovered him.

Before the '30s were over, Beiderbecke's life would serve as the inspiration for the Dorothy Baker novel "Young Man With a Horn," which became a 1950 film featuring Kirk Douglas.

A year and a half younger than Louis Armstrong, Beiderbecke paralleled Satchmo in many respects, making his first recording in February 1924 with the Wolverines, less than a year after Armstrong made his first trip to the studio with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Both were admired by their peers, and both performed in small groups as well as -- occasionally and somewhat uncomfortably -- in big band settings.

The results, however, were vastly different. Like Armstrong, Beiderbecke was a pioneer in improvisation based on the spontaneous invention of new melodies derived from a harmonic framework (usually the chord structure of a song).

But though Armstrong did so from a blues perspective, Beiderbecke was more drawn to the coloration of harmonies, especially the lush clusters associated with the French Impressionists. In addition, Arm- strong's sound was a bright and brassy clarion call, distinctly different from Beiderbecke's cool, pointed timbre. (It's not surprising that Armstrong eventually switched to the vibrant sound of the trumpet, while Beiderbecke remained with the gentler timbres of the cornet.)

Despite the appeal of Beiderbecke's cornet, it was heard for less than a decade. The basic timeline of Beiderbecke'scareer doesn't take long to lay out: Born in Davenport, Iowa, he was initially inspired by Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and essentially taught himself to play on a borrowed cornet. In 1924, he played with the Wolverines before joining Jean Goldkette's big band late in the year. He drifted through various groups in 1925 before getting together with saxophonist Frank Trumbauer for nearly a year. In mid-1926, he and Trumbauer returned to the Goldkette organization.

In 1927, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer teamed up in a small group setting to record a pair of jazz classics, "Singin' the Blues" and "I'm Coming, Virginia." In the same year, he recorded his remarkable piano composition "In a Mist," and from late 1927 through 1928, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer played with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. In 1929, he began to have physical breakdowns, largely as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. He briefly recovered in 1930 (enough to record a remarkable solo on "Barnacle Bill the Sailor") and played a random series of gigs before once again deteriorating physically.

Fortunately, Beiderbecke managed to do a considerable amount of recording, most of it preserved and repeatedly reissued over the past 70 years.

Given the quality of his playing, it's hard to understand why his cadre of devoted, dedicated fans is so relatively small, compared with those of other jazz artists from the same era.

Nonetheless, those fans have every intention of making the Beiderbecke centennial into a celebratory occasion. Here are a few upcoming events:

* May 23-26: The 30th annual Sacramento Jazz Jubilee will present the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in a tribute to Beiderbecke. Jubilee tickets and information on the Web at

* June 19: JVC Festival New York will include a Beiderbecke tribute with hosts Dick Sudhalter and Randy Sandke, cornetists and Beiderbecke experts. Information on the Web at

* June 27-July 6: New Orleans Jazz Ascona, one of the world's largest traditional jazz festivals, is dedicating this year's run to Beiderbecke, retitling the event "Bixology" (the alternate title for "In a Mist"). Ascona also includes a program celebrating another under-recognized jazz figure marking his centennial, violinist Joe Venuti. Information on the Web at

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