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'So far ahead of anyone else': The life and legacy of Bix Beiderbecke
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'So far ahead of anyone else': The life and legacy of Bix Beiderbecke

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The first place Chris Beiderbecke learned of his great-uncle Bix Beiderbecke’s fame was from a World Book Encyclopedia. Beiderbecke, in grade school at the time, looked up his last name while in the library, and found more than he was expecting.

Before that book, he knew Bix Beiderbecke— a world-famous jazz musician in the 1920s — simply as his great-uncle, the man who stood as a groomsman in his grandfather’s wedding and who played piano for his grandmother when she was pregnant to soothe her.

Bix's photograph was in family albums, but his brief and illustrious career as a jazz musician had seldom come up.

"That really blew me away," Beiderbecke said of the encyclopedia entry. "I couldn't believe it."

Bix shook up the jazz world with his cornet and brought his hometown of Davenport to the national stage during the roaring 1920s before he died at age 28. In the Quad-Cities, his legacy spawned the Quad-City Times Bix 7 road race, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society and its annual jazz festival, museum and annual concerts of jazz aficionados at his gravesite at Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport.

While the story of Bix has at times outrun the man, one fact is beyond dispute: His love for music defined his life, and impacted the lives of many.

"I think the answer is really pretty obvious and pretty simple," Beiderbecke — Bix's great nephew — said when asked who he thought Bix was. "He was a young guy from Davenport, who was just absolutely passionate about music."

The life and times of Bix

Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903 in Davenport to German immigrants Bismark and Agatha Beiderbecke. He grew up steeped in music, learning to play piano at a young age and later picking up the cornet.

From the beginning, Bix was playing music in a way no one else did. He struggled his entire life with reading sheet music, and would learn pieces by listening to them.

Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archive Director Nathaniel Kraft said when Bix was a child the piano teacher instructing him and his two siblings figured out Bix was "cheating" by having them play the tune and memorizing what they'd play then replicate it, mistakes and all.

This helped him learn, and in turn fall in love with, jazz music, which is improvisational. Beiderbecke would devour New Orleans jazz records his older brother gave him, and would go to the riverfront or dance halls to listen to traveling bands.

His unique style transferred to how he played the piano and the cornet. Professional cornet lessons didn't go as planned for Bix, the instructor said they couldn't teach him because he was holding and playing the instrument in a nontraditional manner, and it wasn't going to change anytime soon.

Bix played in professional bands in high school before going to Lake Forest Academy near Chicago. The proximity to the city allowed more exposure to jazz, which he dove into at the expense of academics.

After being expelled and returning to Davenport, Bix entered the professional music world and joined the Wolverine Orchestra in 1923. He'd record his first records at Gennett Records, the same studio where Louis Armstrong made his recording debut. The two became friends and would play together after-hours, a decision that would contribute to the desegregation of music groups, Kraft said.

He played for multiple groups throughout the 1920s, and made it to the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1927. But constant touring and recording wore Bix down, as did his addiction to alcohol. Kraft said it's believed that Bix went to rehab twice for alcohol addiction, but it never fully stuck. In the year before his death, however, he wasn't drinking much at all.

After years of traveling, playing and drinking, Bix died in 1931, not yet 30 years old.

Bix made a huge impact on jazz during his relatively short career. The way he played piano and cornet were years ahead of their time, Kraft said, as was the music he played. He was considered one of the best jazz soloists in the industry before soloing was popular, and he and others, such as Louis Armstrong, shaped soloing into what it is today.

What Bix did with piano and cornet wouldn't be popularized for years to come, and he pioneered it.

"What he was doing playing-wise was so far ahead of anybody else at that time," local jazz musician and historian Josh Duffee said.

The myths and misconceptions of Bix

Grand-nephew Beiderbecke likened Bix to a blank slate. Since he died young and not much of his life was recorded beyond his music career, people have assigned different stories and personas to him, not always with the facts to back it up.

“Since there wasn't that much known about Bix, all of this, you know, false information kind of became conventional wisdom,” Beiderbecke said.

One myth that took hold was Bix’s relationship with his parents, and how they disapproved entirely of his career choice. The story goes that Bix would send his parents his records, and when he came home to visit, he found them unopened in a closet.

This is false, Beiderbecke said. His parents were proud of Bix and his career, and didn’t hide it.

The circumstances surrounding Bix's death have also been seen as murky. Kraft said people claim Bix drank himself to death, but he died of pneumonia in his Queens, New York, apartment. After contracting scarlet fever as a child, Bix was sickly throughout his life.

His health may have been worsened by contaminated alcohol distributed during the Prohibition, but that can't be proven.

"The issue with Bix was he cared so much about music that he only talked about music," Kraft said. "And so a lot of issues with understanding him is, most of his friends really didn't know him as a person outside of drinking and music."

Letters Bix wrote to his family and anecdotes from people who knew him demonstrate Bix was a gentleman and a genuinely nice person, willing to help people in need.

Since he was employed during the Great Depression when so many weren't, Bix would give money to bands who needed it. If a group's gig got canceled and they didn't have the money to get home, he'd pay for them.

"By all accounts Bix was a very likable very polite, very well-mannered guy, and he was well loved in whatever bands he played with," Beiderbecke said.

"Even after Bix's death, members of the [Paul Whiteman Orchestra] and even the bandleader ... would visit his parents whenever they were in Davenport or around Davenport so that shows you how much respect they had for him," Beiderbecke said. "He was just an incredibly talented, incredibly gifted young guy, and the family has always been proud of him."

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