Let’s clear up the vision people have of one of Davenport’s most famous native sons, Bix Beiderbecke. He was not an alcoholic, as so many claim, or think they know. He was a class act. He loved his parents and they loved him back. Yes, he drank. You bet he drank. But in the springtime of jazz, a lot of musicians drank. In a weekend of gigs, at least half the members of a dance band could be up to their ears in gin. Bix was surely among them, but he was no sodden boozer.
Also a lot of bunk are tales of a rift with his parents. After one visit to Davenport, he headed back east and his dad, Bismark, wrote him: “You are such a peach, I hated to see you leave.”
Bix always began and ended his letters home with sweet words: “Dearest folks” and “With all the love in the world.”
THE TRUTH about Bix can be found at the new Bix Beiderbecke Museum, which opens to the public on Aug. 3 with a full-size replica of the Blue Lantern stage, where he played at a hot point in his career. It's all at the River Music Experience, or RME, in the Redstone Building in downtown Davenport.
On a visit, the soulful sounds of Bix playing his tune “I’ll Be a Friend With Pleasure” gives me “Goose Pimples,” the name of another Bix tune. I tap a few notes on his Steinway piano and get chills. This was the last piano of the young man with a horn who lived a roller coaster life.
One would not expect a classy spread like this new museum to Bix if he were a lush. Contemporaries were quick to praise his gentle, kindly nature. Esteemed band leader Paul Whiteman once said, “Not only was he the finest musician I have ever known, he was also the finest gentleman.”
Hoagy Carmichael was effusive in his praise. “Bix had manners and looked clean cut. ... He was Bix: the real Bix, not the wild drinking mad man of legend. ... His drinking made him thoughtful, not wild. It’s his gentleness that’s lost in the legends — his ability to charm, to hold friends, to make one feel it was possible to be known and needed by another human being.”
The words of famed Quad-City band leader Russ Morgan echo Hoagy’s summary: “The guy didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
IN ALL THE memoirs about Bix, one word rings out loud and clear like a “high C” on his horn. He was “sweet.” In writings, there is regularly the characterization of Bix as being kind. Hoagy wrote, “Bix once came in the house and my mother asked him to play something for her on the piano. He sat down and played for quite some time and visited with her. He seemed in no hurry. All the time he had a taxi waiting. He was a very kind and sweet person, and at all times a perfect gentleman.”
Some authors have told untrue stories about Bix, such as claiming that his parents never opened the packages of his records he sent home. This is an often-repeated falsehood
Bix loved his family, especially his sister, Mary Louise. In a letter to her: “I have about 20 offers to make a lot of ‘do’ playing formals this Xmas in Chi and country clubs and really I’m on the verge of saying ‘yes’ but each time I think of home and the family.”
In a letter to his brother, Burnie, apparently when he was a student at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago: “Kiss mother and sis for me. Thanks, too, Burnie for the overcoat. It sure is great and thank dad for the stamps and for the $2.”
You'll get a look at the real Bix in the new museum. You’ll hear his music and see reproductions of where he grew up and where he made his music. Posters and sheet music covers liven the walls.
It’s a close-up, colorful look at how our young man with a horn lived until his untimely death in 1931 at the age of 28.
The physician’s report said death was from pneumonia.