The recent Rifftides item about the continuing medical needs of Bix Beiderbecke biographer Richard M. Sudhalter brought interesting comments about both men. You can read it and the comments here. The piece stimulated a correspondence with Paul Paolicelli, blog reader, fellow survivor of the news business and former lead trumpet player. Leaving out parts concerning unproved and unprovable allegations about Beiderbecke’s personal life, here are key parts of the exchange, which expanded with a contribution from trumpeter Randy Sandke revised and forwarded by Sue Fischer of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society in Davenport, Iowa.
Thanks to a long conversation with Sudhalter years ago, I reevaluated my once complete adoration of Beiderbecke, that 27-year-old drunk. I was a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society as a kid and had a considerable collection of old 78s from the Jean
Goldkette/Howdy Quicksell/Paul Whitman era. I think now that Beiderbecke’s contribution has been completely overstated because he was the “great white hope” of that era and, while certainly inventive and interesting, not quite the genius I once thought. So, my adult evaluation of him is as an out-of-control self-destructive alcoholic with a solid but undisciplined talent. Common sense tells you that people don’t die at 27 of natural causes. He wasn’t a stable citizen. He might have played his way into a footnote had he lived.
I should also point out that the very first CD I ever bought was a Beiderbecke compilation, years after my 78s had been stolen. It’s just that after my conversation with Dick and knowing more about Bix’s outlandish personal behavior, I abandoned my idolization. I’m back to Louis Armstrong. In Rome, a jazz saxophonist was doing a workshop with our group. I was the lead trumpet. He asked me who I thought of when I thought of trumpet players. I told him there were too many to even try and remember. He said, “If you had to pick just one, who would it be?”
“Louis Armstrong,” I replied.
“Man that was a long time ago,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “And so was Shakespeare. But if you’re going to speak the English language you’d better damn well know something about him.”
Beiderbecke’s playing profoundly affected many people in many ways. He influenced Rex Stewart, Lester Young, Bobby Hackett, Hoagy Carmichael and Bing Crosby, to name a few. It is well documented that Armstrong understood, admired and was moved by Bix’s talent. The man who created the tag to “I’m Coming, Virginia,” to single out one stunning moment from his discography, was a genius of spontaneous lyrical creation. The multiplier effect of his example is enormous. I’m sorry that he was a boozer and a psychological mess. Nor am I happy about Poe’s laudanum addiction, Lord Byron’s bisexuality and moral vacuousness, Charlie Parker’s heroin habit and satyrism, or Chet Baker’s self-centered, self-destructive life. I will continue to read Poe and Byron and listen to Bird, Chet and Bix, and be amazed.
The cause of Bix’s problems may be even more elementary and tragic. With the advent of prohibition in January 1920, the simple act of taking a drink containing alcohol became a criminal offense. Bootleg liquor became a witch’s brew that could contain poisonous ingredients. A sample sold in the streets of Harlem was taken to a lab and analyzed. It was found to contain wood alcohol, benzene, kerosene, pyridine, camphor, nicotine, benzol, formaldehyde, iodine, sulphuric acid, soap, and glycerin. People who consumed this hazardous concoction often experienced dizziness, blackouts, hair loss, fluctuations in weight, advanced aging, partial blindness and paralysis. It is known that Bix exhibited most if not all of these symptoms.
Just as a by-the-way; don’t buy into the “my father didn’t love me so I had to drink and destroy my talent and life” theory. There are lots of us who found our way out of that morass; first by stopping drinking and then by taking an inventory and changing our lives. We don’t buy the self-pitying “poor me” BS any more than you should. A drunk has a disease. The first step in curing it is simple recognition that it’s beyond the individual’s control. That’s an especially complicated step in the talented (Poe, Parker, Byron and Baker, just to list a few p’s and b’s) or wealthy. They are surrounded by sycophants or enablers who don’t know how or don’t have the will to confront them. And there’s that ridiculous theory that “it’s part of their art.” Alcoholism is alcoholism. A relationship with a father is a relationship with a father. Bix’s father, from all I’ve read, was terribly disappointed in his son’s choices. I think the music was more a symbol of his disappointment and that the broader issue was really his son’s immaturity, lack of self control, and dreadful drinking bouts that the father probably blamed on the musician’s life, again not understanding the fundamental nature of his son’s disease. In those days a respectable citizen just didn’t get drunk. (Same way today in Italy; it’s not a bella figura. Thus, alcoholics tend to drink privately, which adds to the problems. The Italian AA program is purely word of mouth).
Rifftides readers unfamiliar with Beiderbecke’s playing will find plenty of it in this seven-CD box set that also features his saxophone partner Frank Trumbauer and many of the greatest early recordings of trombonist Jack Teagarden. This single CD is a good sampler of some of Beiderbecke’s best-known work, including “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Singin’ The Blues.”