Elizabeth Beiderbecke-Hart didn’t realize the level of her great uncle's fame until she attended the first jazz festival bearing his name.
In 1971, at the inaugural Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, hundreds of people were impressed by the then 11-year-old's relationship to Bix.
“That's when I remember thinking, ‘Oh, he really is a big deal,’” Beiderbecke-Hart, a Quad-City native who now lives in Springfield, Illinois, said. “People left and right knew my last name. It made me see how important he was to the Quad-Cities and the jazz world. It started a lifelong passion for me.”
Now that the Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archives — a dream decades in the making for Beiderbecke-Hart and other fans of the Davenport native and jazz legend — is on track to open in July, she says his fame is very much alive.
“Having a festival every year is a tremendous tribute,” she said. “Having a museum that you can walk in and see that's there 365 days a year … it's going to be one of the high points of my life.”
The museum is set to debut on July 21 — the week before the Quad-City Times Bix 7 and in time for the 46th annual jazz festival set for Aug 3-5 — in the basement of River Music Experience, or RME, in downtown Davenport.
Construction is on schedule for the facility, which cost $625,000, according to museum board president Howard Braren. Braren, a Rock Island-based Bix relative who has a background in fundraising, said they have about $80,000 left to raise.
“It’s a dream that many Bix fans have had worldwide to have a museum that celebrates Bix’s life and music, where he was born and where he’s buried,” Braren said. “This museum tells the whole story.”
The museum will include 10 sections that follow the life of the Davenport native (1903-1931), with original artifacts, including his cornet and piano; previously unseen photos, letters and news clippings, a recreation of the stage he played at Hudson Lake, Indiana, as well as a life-size figure of Bix.
“People have talked about it for decades and it’s never taken off,” Randy Sandke, a Pennsylvania-based musician and board museum vice-president, said. “We’re finally doing it.”
Plans for the museum at RME were initially announced in Novevember 2015. In the 1990s, plans were discussed to build a permanent Bix hall at Putnam Museum.
“People will get a good idea of who he was, what he was like and why he is relatable today,” Sandke said. "It's what we've wanted for a long time."
Sandke, who says Bix inspired him to start playing the trumpet, named his son, who is now 9, after the famous and “other-worldly” cornetist.
“He had a very intriguing life and he's almost an elusive figure,” Sandke said. “No matter how you research and read, there’s always this feeling that you don’t quite know him. This museum will help with that.”
If the annual jazz festival, which brings people from all over the country and world to Davenport, is any indication, Sandke said the museum stands to draw plenty of tourists to the Quad-Cities.
“Bix music still has a worldwide appeal,” he said. “His music lives on. And it’s more popular today than it ever has. That's a good thing for Davenport.”
The museum includes a collection purchased from musician and jazz historian Scott Black and includes 40 boxes of material from Phil Evans, who wrote two books about Bix based on the collection.
“They went around and interviewed people who played with Bix on tape,” Braren said. “And we have those tapes. It’s a treasure trove of material.”
It also includes a collection of handwritten letters and photographs purchased from Beiderbecke-Hart. In her 20s, she inherited the collection, which originally belonged to Bix's mother.
“Every little note he wrote — and he wrote a lot of them — his mother Agatha saved. They are unbelievably touching,” Beiderbecke-Hart said. “There’s a lot of photos that have never been seen and that’s like the holy grail for Bix fans.”
In the coming months, Braren and Sandke will oversee the finishing touches of the museum with the help of Detroit-based designer Joseph Hines.
“When you see artifacts he actually touched, it’s something you can’t get in books ... you'll feel closer to him," Sandke said. "It's going to be a new way to experience Bix."