Two dedicated Bix Beiderbecke admirers, Robert and Eva Christiansen, had been dining in a California restaurant. When they left, there was a note on their windshield: "You must be Bix fans. I know of a painting you might like."
The stranger had spotted their bumper sticker, which read, "Bix Lives." For certain, the Christiansens would be interested. The Los Gatos, Calif., couple once had purchased Bix's horn and given it to the Putnam Museum in Davenport. Now, an oil painting?
The work was by Bruni Sablan, an artist from Campbell, Calif., who has painted 1,200 jazz masters in an internationally known series. One of her works of Duke Ellington hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"Bix was so important to jazz. It was essential that I paint him," says Bruni, pronounced "brew-nee."
The Christiansens bought the Bix painting and ultimately gave it to the Putnam. That was five years ago. Since then, it has been in museum storage, never displayed.
Today, it goes on view for the first time in a special Bix exhibition at the Putnam, 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport.
It will hang over his grand piano, the one on which he composed "In a Mist," "Davenport Blues" and other important works. Against a stark white background, the portrait will be near Bix's Vincent Bach cornet, the one purchased by the Christiansens at considerable cost.
The painting is big, 30 by 40 inches. It is a Bix look unlike any ever portrayed. He appears innocently benign, staring out into a world that was always his own. There is not the familiar parted-in-the-middle hair, as in so many of his photos. It is of a handsome young man, as he might have appeared when he was blazing so briefly in the springtime of jazz. His face is shallow, not puffy as it appeared before his young death. His eyes are as big as a small child's hand. His horn is secondary in this extraordinary portrait.
At today's portrait premiere, Bix's compositions and music of the 1920s will be played on his grand piano at 2 and 4:30 p.m. in the main Putnam gallery. In the grand lobby, Geoff Powers' Australian Classic Jazz Band will play at 3 p.m. Admission to the exhibit hall where the Bix portrait will be on display is $6 for adults and $5 for seniors.
"I was encouraged to paint Bix by Leonard Feather, the great jazz critic," Bruni says. "He insisted that Bix's music was so significant and must be a part of my Jazz Masters Series."
The Christensens decided to give the portrait to the Putnam after having it in their home for some time.
"The Bix portrait hung in our living room for quite awhile, but was so overwhelming and big that it took over the room," Eva Christiansen says. They decided it belonged in the Putnam, along with the horn they had bought.
"The portrait was so valuable that we didn't trust it to be shipped to Davenport. We drove it to Davenport from California," she says. "That trip was a blast; we stopped at every antique store along the way. Besides, we had Bix' riding with us. It was a lot more fun than flying."
In the five years since the Christiansens gave the portrait to the Putnam, museum staff members have been waiting for an opportunity to highlight it in a special Bix event. Eunice Schlichting, chief curator at the Putnam, calls this never-before-displayed portrait of Bix "an unveiling." She says, "It's a significant work by a noted artist."
Bruni, who was born in Brazil, sketched jazz artists at clubs for 15 years, then painted them in oils. Her portraits hang in the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian. Thirteen of her works were just hung at Jazz Show in the Washington, D.C., Lincoln Center. She usually doesn't paint a single portrait of an artist, but dozens portraying jazz giants such as Chet Baker and Sammy Davis Jr. Her works of Louis Armstrong run the scales from "Pops Plays" to "Satchmo w/Handkerchief." Among the 1,200 other performers who are part of her Jazz Masters Series oils are Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, June Christy, John Coltrane, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett.
She's not committed to jazz alone.
"I paint abstracts and still life, but portraits are a specialty. One that drew acclaim was of Mother Teresa," she says.
Bill Wundram can be contacted at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.