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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bix Beiderbecke, "Singin' The Blues, Vol. 1"

Bix Beiderbecke
"Singin' The Blues, Vol. 1"
Columbia/Legacy (1990)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

NOTE TO DEVOTED READERS: If you've been following along with Tom Moon's 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, you're probably expecting the final Beethoven installment today. Alas, the New York Public Library has only one copy of this six-hour recording, which can only be listened to within the Performing Arts Library, and cannot be uploaded to a computer (I don't understand why not; their rules, not mine). So, until I have time to sit for six hours in the library, I will continue with what comes next in the book. In this case: Bix Beiderbecke.

Beiderbecke was the third of three jazz giants who emerged during the '20s and made improvisation the true calling card of the genre from there on out. The other two were Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, both of whom we have looked at already. His story differed dramatically however. For one thing, he was white, a detail that had arguably little effect on his style, but nonetheless relevant. Beiderbecke grew up in Iowa, far from the Dixieland scene in Armstrong and Bechet's native New Orleans.

Perhaps as a result, Beiderbecke's trademark style resembled the "cool jazz" that would be popularized by artists like Chet Baker during the '50s. The cornetist could play the "hot jazz" like Armstrong, but his improvisations during slower-tempo tracks (exemplified on "Singin' The Blues, Vol. 1" by the consecutive trio "I'm Coming Virginia," "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans" and "For No Reason At All in C") project a bluesier and more contemplative mood than most "hot" music.

Another major difference between the work of Beiderbecke and the other jazz giants of the day was his simple lack of training. His difficulty reading music is well-documented, and although this wouldn't have mattered for more avant-garde fare, it makes the listener wonder if his progressive use of stop-time was as intentional as it seems. The track "In A Mist" features him on piano, and his use of the timing method during this original composition doesn't sound the least bit amateur.

Beiderbecke was also, with no offense meant to him, not as naturally talented as Bechet or Satchmo. The latter two men are noted for how high a register they could push their respective cornets or trumpets during a solo. Beiderbecke's range wasn't nearly as broad, and he wisely chose not to pursue such highs. He made up for it with his creativity, working the middle ranges more for equal fanfare. It didn't lose him any respect, as Armstrong himself said: "Lots of cats tried to play like Bix. Ain't none of them play like him yet."

Unfortunately, it's easier to catch a new listener's ear with soaring highs than middle-of-the-road spunk. Therefore, the Armstrong or Bechet records we already looked at will be a better start for '20s-era jazz. Armstrong's signature vocals add more wood to the fire, for they're far more interesting than those of Paul Whiteman (an appropriate name), whose whitewashed vocals take away from Beiderbecke's feel during the non-instrumental tracks. Make sure you get around to this one at some point however.

INTERESTING FACT: Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa, where there are, appropriately, about a hundred things named after him. This may be a huge Google Maps error, but according to the site, the city misspelled his name "Biederbecke" on such things as a city park and a street name. I checked, and the name on his grave is indeed spelled "Beiderbecke." Davenport residents, let me know what's up.

"I'm Coming Virginia"

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