Bix Beiderbecke: Overrated?

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
Beiderbecke 2.jpgGoldkette/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.

Randy Sandke:

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.”

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  1. Vebiero Molari says

    I am sure that negative comments on Bix are the tardive effect of disasters like the personal views of the Russian refugee Hugus Panassiev or other brilliant writers,NOT HAVING AT THEIR DISPOSAL very few records.Also we have in Europe the MYTH OF THE GOOD SAVAGE (J,J,Rousseau) and in America UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, that have as a must the demonstration of the superiority of Negro musicians over the inventors of Jazz language. Please try to hear in next days the La Rocca long statements in the Albert Haim Bix site.
    Bix WAS a genius,as also Armstrong, Dodds and even Lil Harding,but be serious and LISTEN TO THE RECORDS of 1917-1923 and find somebody of African American extraction playing with swing and precision.Thanks for hospitality.

  2. Jamaica says

    First of all, Beiderbecke was 28, when he died of pneumonia. Second of all, most of what Sudhalter has written about Beiderbecke’s personal life is utter nonsense. The man had a stable, and in fact, warm relationship with his parents. His parents listened to Bix’s radio performances at home, had visited Bix, on the job, as part of The Camel Pleasure Hour in 1930, and were, in fact, introduced by their son to some of the musicians he worked with. Bix was, in every way, a regular guy, but a regular guy who was a victim of his alcoholism. Now, sadly, he is a victim again of the mythmakers.
    Was Bix a genius? Well, Armstrong sure thought highly of Bix’s playing, (as did many black jazz musicians of the time.) I suspect it’s because the guy was white, that people even think to try to re-evalute his worth as a creative force in jazz. The very fact that so many horn players of the time copied Bix’s style, speaks for the level of inspiration his playing evoked; not to mention his style being absorbed into jazz, itself, in arrangements, compositions, and being adapted by players of other instruments. Beiderbecke was a creative force of nature, and he earned every ounce of respect that’s been shown him, and then some.

  3. Barry McCanna says

    This is an old argument, and it’s a strange one. The best way to resolve it is to listen to Bix’s recorded legacy, and to consider his influence, which was considerable. I go along with the proposition that he was a victim of the side-effects of Prohibition, which made drinking a risky venture. That he and we would have been better off if he hadn’t touched a drop is a given. Incidentally, Armstrong was fond of marijuana, which proves what?
    Here is a link to my review of the new 2-CD set, The Influence Of Bix Beiderbecke:

  4. Randy Sandke says

    The only reason Bix is remembered, and revered, today is because of his music. It speaks directly to the heart and soul, and its message is eternal. In the end, his race, his personal problems, and the legends and myths surrounding him don‘t matter at all. It’s just the stories told in the sounds he produced that continue to captivate the listener so many generations later.

  5. Dan Barrett says

    I am a professional trombonist. In fact, I’ve been lucky enough to have performed and recorded with my colleague Randy Sandke many times over the years. I also play cornet at times. Not good for the chops, but there you go.
    This “debate” is all so silly. Are we really still trying to figure out if Bix Beiderbecke was “any good?” Sheesh!
    Mr. Paolicelli writes, “(Bix) might have played his way into a footnote had he lived.” Man, Bix played his way into the main pages of jazz history! In questioning Bix’s talent, I would ask any of you out there reading this to sit down and compose even one piece like “In a Mist,” much less four (or five, counting “Davenport Blues”). Never mind the inventive introductions and endings to the Bix and His Gang sides. (for instance, the ending to “Thou Swell” sounds like something a brilliant arranger might have come up with for a West Coast date in the 1950s.
    Too, there’s what Benny Goodman told Randy Sandke and me over lunch in 1986, with what was Mr. Goodman’s last band. The conversation turned to Bix, and randy asked Mr. Goodman, “if Bix had lived, would you have had him play in your band?”
    Benny looked thoughtful for a few moments, smiled at us, and replied,
    “I think the question is really, ‘would Bix have had me in HIS band?'” He then went on–for some time–in glowing terms about Bix’s genius. With all due respect to Mr. Paolicelli, I’ll take Benny Goodman’s opinion. After all, Mr. Goodman was THERE, man!
    Over the years, I’ve amassed a rather large collection of recordings; 78s, Lps, and CDs. When I want to know what I really think of an artist being discussed, I consider how many recordings I have at home by that artist.
    I have almost every recording by Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. I think they were icons of the 20th Century. However, if I only enjoyed their music, that would be enough.

  6. says

    Ugh. Paolicelli sounds like a moralist with an axe to grind. Aren’t we far enough removed from the era to be able to subjectively evaluate music based on musical criteria, and leave the endless sniping about racism and personal habits to the obsessive-compulsives?
    I’m also incredibly worn-out by the word “genius,” which implies there is some definitive line an artist can cross to attain that category. Bix was great, Armstrong was great, Paul Desmond was great, Ornette Coleman was great, Kurt Rosenwinkel is great, so let’s go listen to some great records.
    (I don’t mean to bag on historical writing–learning about the people who made the music and how they did it is endlessly interesting to me–what I get tired of is discussions of who’s overrated or underrated or better than who.)

  7. says

    I am pleased to read the various rebukes to Mr.Paolicelli’s comments. I will make a few remarks.
    Mr. Paolicelli’s assertion that Bix is overrated is not based on Bix’s music but on two extraneous considerations. 1. Bix was the “great white hope.” 2. Bix was an “out-of-control self-destructive alcoholic.”
    The first reason is a manifestation of the currently fashionable, politically correct concept that white musicians were pale imitations (and stole from) their African-American counterparts. When will the politically correct crowd learn? The great majority of critics, historians, and musicians who view Bix’s music as the manifestation of an unusual musical genius are not white supremacists, but individuals who judge the music by its intrinsic merits.
    The second reason seems to be based on Mr. Paolicelli’s apparent personal dislike of individuals addicted to alcohol. Bix’s music must be evaluated on its own, not on the basis of Bix’s personal habits.
    The question of the relations of Bix with his parents is one that I have researched thoroughly. I presented my conclusions this past July in the recent Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport.
    Since the subject was brought up here, it is important to demonstrate that Bix had a close relationship with both his mother and father. Here are some facts.
    – Bix was welcomed at home when in need of recuperation.
    – Even when not in need of help, Bix spent time at home when he had vacations.
    – Bismark lent money to Bix when he was in need.
    – Bix and and his brother were ushers at their sister’s wedding Nov 8, 1924.
    – Bix was best man at his brother’s wedding on November 9, 1926.
    – Bix’s father and mother visited Bix in NBC’s studio B on Fifth Avenue, during one of the broadcasts of the Camel Pleasure Hour, New York, summer 1930, and Bix proudly introduced his parents to his friends.
    When Bix’s grandmother died, Bix wrote to his father a very thoughtful and deeply felt letter. Here I only quote three sentences from the letter. “It’s kind of hard to write a letter of this kind home because in our happy home I have nothing to write but stories of good times that I’ve had and those I’m going to have.”
    “Of all the troubles that I can imagine and that are bound to come in time the trouble I dread worse is the time come when mother and you & all of course must go and sometimes I feel I’d soon not live to see the time.”
    “Just between you and me Dad I think that we can say that when Oma [Bix’s grandmother from his father’s side] was living we had the best mothers in the world.”
    Here is a telegram Bix sent to his father on March 16, 1931, five months befor Bix died:
    Amherst MA
    The Davenport Democrat and Leader, April 25, 1928 carries the following story.
    “We can always tell when Bix’s horn comes in,” says his [Bix’s] mother. “We [note the plural; we refers to Bix’s father and mother; Bix’s brother and sister were married by then and no longer lived at their parents’ home] know every time Paul Whiteman’s orchestra is on the air and Leon knows we’ll be listening in. “The air is carried out by the other cornetist but the sudden perky blare and the unexpected trills – those are the jazz parts and they are Leon’s.”
    It is noteworthy that Bix’s mother had a deep understanding of Bix’s role in the Paul Whiteman orchestra: he was responsible for the cornet jazz parts.
    It is high time that the myth of Bix’s strained relations with his father be put to rest.

  8. Ken Bristow says

    Played in strict chronological order, Bix’s records start with a hint of that unique style of cornet playing in the early Wolverines, reaching a peak of beautiful style and tone with the later Goldkettes up to around summer of 1928 when the first signs of something going wrong are noticeable. After that he seems to be at odds with drinking and keeping on the wagon. Tram’s ‘Sentimental Baby’ is Bix’s first sign of something amiss.
    Ken, Ealing, London.

  9. says

    I’m a jazz trumpeter myself and I can’t tell you whom I’d consider of being “the best” or “the greatest” because I simply don’t think in these categories. Bix Beiderbecke isn’t overrated at all, nor is he underrated. His music and the music of his umpteen followers speaks for itself. Who cares about his personal life and what had became of him if he hadn’t left that world so early? I personally don’t give a damn about that. All those ‘ifs’, ‘whens’ or ‘would-have-beens’ — not my cup of tea, only wild speculations and theories. The music of those greats is all which counts.
    Also the discussions about black and white — completely redundant nowadays. The really talented guys themselves didn’t care about “race”, when they loved to listen to music, composed or played by black or white women or men. Lester Young didn’t think of color when he listened to Frank Trumbauer or Bix Beiderbecke. He just loved their music because it spoke to his heart. He knew that this way of playing fit best to his own personality. Some may prefer Louis Armstrong and would consider him of being ‘the best’, the alpha and the omega. Let’s take a musician like Miles Davis: he adored Bobby Hackett — and Pops as well! — and I think through him also Bix Beiderbecke. Chet Baker denied Bix’ influence on his own playing. But when you hear him play, you immediately create a connection, but only a musical one.

  10. Linda says

    I prefer Red Nichols over Bix. I think Bix is overrated also. I don’t think he is the genius everyone says he is based on his records I have listened to.

  11. says

    FWIW re: “inventory” and “disease,” AA didn’t even come into existence until the mid-1930s, five years after Bix’s death. I have no idea what, if any, impact it might have made upon either his life or his musical career, but the whole concept of AA simply wasn’t available to him or any other alcoholics of the 1920s.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a clear, hard-eyed look at our jazz heroes and heroines, but I also think sometimes there’s a tendency to overcompensate and try to take the romantic idols down a peg or two for the ornery hell of it. I respect Mr. Paolicelli’s right to his own taste, but it seems nearly impossible to me to dispute Beiderbecke’s considerable influence not just on trumpet players but (along with Frankie Trumbauer) on Lester Young, the Cool School, etc. And if we’re going to start taking personal behavior into account, where on earth does that leave Miles Davis? On the ash-heap of musical history, I suppose.
    For any who might be interested, here’s a link to “Bix Beiderbecke: Never the Same Way Twice,” a one-hour documentary I did several years ago about Bix, including interviews with Richard Sudhalter, trumpeter Pat Harbison, and historian Michael McGerr:

  12. Sergio Calvé says

    If a simple talk with Richard Sudhalter is enough to change your mind regarding your musical idol (because of his personal habits), it’s because you were the drunk, and not your idol.
    Paolicelli may think what he likes, but one thing is certain: he never liked Bix’s music, and he never realized it. So those 78s are now in better hands.

  13. Hans Eekhoff says

    Bix was a genius – of course he was, just listen to his records (which represent only a shadow of his true abilities).
    But Bix had the misfortune of being a victim of prohibition and, like so many other geniuses, took to addiction, which didn’t make him a lesser musician.
    The overly romantic interpretations of Sudhalter, both in his book and (apparently) in conversation do little to see Bix in an objective light and Paolicelli obviously got confused. I think it is unwise to spend too much energy to discuss such twaddle.

  14. Mike Ivers says

    The replies and discussions following Paolicelli’s comments are superfluous.
    Bix speaks for himself with his recorded legacy. May I add his tone and timbre are heard the world over, loud and clear.

  15. JOE MOORE says

    Over seventy years on…and still we get people who judge Bix by his personal habits and not his music. If he were that over-rated, why were so many trumpet players influenced by him?
    Whilst the many books on Bix are a useful guide to his life, if you really want to understand why he is so revered (and rightly in my view), then just listen to the records he made. Everyone has their personal choices, but I would go for “Singing The Blues” and “I’m Coming Virginia”. These sides alone -f ar more than any book – will tell you why so many people DON’T think him over-rated.
    (For the avoidance of doubt, I’m neither a “white supremacist” nor one of those who think all white players are copyists. I enjoy jazz regardless of race, colour or creed.)

  16. Richard Carlson says

    I’m glad my moral code doesn’t require me to choose BETWEEN Bix and Louis, Bird and Hodges, Rollins and Hawkins, Bill Harris and Teagarden, or Bud and Tatum, Dave Tough and Max, Hinton and Mingus. What a great treasure of creation is jazz! Paolicelli’s unfortunate remarks are the best argument I know against taking another drunk’s inventory. There are collections of Bix’ complete output that feature alternate takes with Goldkette and Whiteman. If you doubt the genius of his improvisation, listen to his solos on them. And try to find a first recording of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, with Bix playing the opening on that bluesy second movement. The part was written for him.

  17. Marc Myers says

    amazing that there are still folks out there who fail to get bix–and fail to recognize that jazz is like a glorious pack of pantone colors. like arguing that #347 blue is better than #548 red. simple instructions: put on album, sit back in chair, listen, feel, repeat.

  18. Michael Steinman says

    I came to this discussion by way of Marc Myers’ JAZZWAX, and agree that comparisons like this are pointless (rather than odious). The question of whether we should forgive artists their personal behavior because of their artistry is also one not likely to be settled . . . unless the people disputing happen to be the children or lovers of artists. But the reader who is so incensed at Bix’s naughty drunken behavior conveniently ignores that Louis (someone I revere) broke the law on a regular basis by — whisper it — enjoying illegal drugs. Light up and be somebody, as the vipers said. An intriguing double standard at work here, simply because Louis lived to be a senior-citizen pothead?
    It would be better to listen to the records in awe and joy.

  19. bix-ology says

    Bix is for the ear. Armstrong is for the soul.
    Bix’s sound is just beyond compare. The question I have, is how did he do that?
    Bix had potencial energy, Armstrong kinetic.
    Bix did not grow up in the Jazz mixing pot (New Or.) as Armstrong was.
    When you get a “natural” like Bix, you just wonder “what if?” he was with the best African American jazz.
    Some complicate the race issue. Its rather simple, if you were a composer of classical music you had to link up to Vienna, for jazz, the African American bands were even more so. Many were underprivileged, but not in jazz where Iowa is poverty stricken in regards to jazz.
    Armstrong said “Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain’t none of them play like him yet”.

  20. Marjorie Black says

    “Bix is for the ear. Armstrong is for the soul.”
    Jeez, where do these people come from? That’s like saying “Grilled cheese is for the mouth, french fries are for the soul.” Jeez!
    I ask again: Where do these people come from?