While giving tours at Bix Beiderbecke’s gravesite in Davenport, Gerri Bowers has seen grown men cry.
She expects more “happy tears” to fall when the Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archives — a long-planned facility honoring the life of the Davenport-born jazz icon — opens July 24 in the basement of the River Music Experience, or RME, in downtown Davenport.
“Bix is so well loved around the world that they want to visit here and see his cemetery and know more about him,” Bowers, a museum board member and self-described “Bixophile,” said. “People have a strong feeling for him, especially his music.”
The 1,500-square-foot museum, now in the final stretch of a $450,000 construction project, will house more than 100 artifacts relating to Bix (1903-1931), including his cornet and piano and original letters and photos.
“It feels like you just went to heaven,” Bowers, 79, said, standing in the museum's staging room. “We’re so excited we lived long enough to see this finally happen. It's a gift."
The opening date is “excellent timing,” said museum board president Howard Braren, a Rock Island-based Bix relative. The museum will be unveiled the week before the Quad-City Times Bix 7 and two weeks prior to the 46th annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival set for Aug. 3-5.
It’s been a long time coming.
Plans for the museum at RME were first announced in November 2015. In the 1990s, plans were discussed — and dissolved — to build a permanent Bix exhibit hall inside the Putnam Museum.
“The idea started more than 20 years ago,” Bowers said. “We just never had the funds available.”
Braren used his background in fundraising to secure a combination of private donations and grants, including $100,000 from the Bechtel Trusts and $50,000 from the Regional Development Authority. In addition, the museum’s board members have each contributed money, totaling $150,000.
A big portion of that money — $250,000 — went to acquiring major and minor collections of memorabilia. One collection, for example, was purchased from musician and jazz historian Scott Black that includes material from Phil Evans, who wrote two books about Bix based on the collection. It also includes a collection of handwritten letters and photographs purchased from Elizabeth Beiderbecke-Hart, a grand-niece of Bix Beiderbecke.
The museum, featuring music, videos and interactive displays, takes the visitor chronologically through Bix’s beginnings in Davenport, his career and his untimely death at the age of 28.
Bowers doesn’t expect all positive reviews.
“Everybody knows he was an alcoholic,” she said. “We’ll probably get some negative people who say negative things, but we’re here to defend him.”
She is well-versed in Bix history. Bowers co-wrote a book about the jazz musician and put together a CD about his ancestry ranging from 1750 to 1991. Those discs are available for purchase at the museum for $10.
Bowers, who volunteers at the Davenport Public Library, began researching Bix in the early 2000s, when she got looped into a search for Bix’s grandfather.
“For me, it was like gold,” she said. “It’s addicting. I like the good and ugly of searching. I like the truth you find in it.”
And she's ready for the museum to, finally, show that off.
“It’s all for the love of Bix,” Bowers said. “It’s about showing people his life, from beginning to end, from what people had to say about him then and what people are still saying about him.”