Was Bix aware?

Was Bix aware?

Ken Bristow
Ken Bristow

December 4th, 2011, 11:35 am #1

In the 1920's, jazz was yet to be recognised as a true art form. With the great days of Hollywood musicals and the swing era still to come in the future, in the minds of the general public, jazz was just a small part of the popular music scene, and any band playing dance music to a rhythmic accompaniment was, to dancers and the record buying public, "jazz".
With the rapid development of modern technology in all things, the introduction of radio and then the vast improvement of sound quality in electric recording, the "jazz age" swept the world to become, for those lucky enough to have been there in the roaring twenties, the greatest decade in history.
This happened during the whole of Bix's lifetime. From his first introduction to jazz at the age of fifteen on hearing his brother Bernie's ODJB records, to his early death in 1931, the sound of hot music had changed year on year. When we're playing our collections chronologically, it's easy to hear. But at the time, was the public under the impression that jazz had got as far as it would ever get, that Paul Whiteman's or Duke Ellington's orchestrations, for example, were so modern sounding that future generations would still be enjoying the same hot music sounds for all times into the future?
It's said Bix once described himself as "just a musical degenerate". Was he being serious when he said that? Or his lack of ego? Or wasn't he fully aware of his own God given talents? Did he not realise those beautiful notes emerging from his horn in tone and in the style he had created were unique, never been heard before and would never be heard again? Was he not aware of his own very special talent?
Even on unjazzy titles such as "Proud of a Baby" or "Forget-Me-Not", out of nothing he had the ability to create astonishing solos.
During his own lifetime he was not generally known to the public, and the appreciation of his contribution to American jazz had to wait until the mid 1930's when the subject of all things Bix began to take off.
It's been discussed before on the Forum that his Gang records, when first issued, sold only a few thousand copies on their initial release, when the population of the USA was around 270 million. Today, it's hard for us to believe a new Bix recording back then could only attract such tiny initial sales.
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Glenda Childress
Glenda Childress

December 4th, 2011, 2:47 pm #2

There is an error in Ken's estimate of the U.S. population during the Jazz Age: population at the 1920 census was a little over 106 million and at the 1930 census almost 123 million.

That is a significant difference as populations go, but a minor element in the point Ken was making, that sales of records by Bix and His Gang and other hot jazz groups were a few thousands, unbelievably few to us now. But we must remember that our population was hugely rural and that in 1920 few people had radios or phonograph players at all, and outside large cities, there were relatively few movie houses. A large percentage did not even have telephones. The vast numbers of people never had a chance to hear Bix Beiderbecke play, and even those who were able to tune in to Whiteman's weekly program at the end of the decade were probably unaware of individual musicians in the band.

Things were changing greatly during the late 1920s. Media became mass media during this period, thanks to coast-to-coast radio coverage, and by the 1930s this wider public was gradually exposed to popular music. Bands besides Whiteman's had network radio shows that made them popular nationally. That population born in the 1920s came of age to listen, dance, and buy records. All of this was new at the time, and Bix had no way to know that not only bands but individual players themselves would become household names and that people would be able to hear jazz everywhere they went, even in their cars. And a lot of people heard Bix then and could not get that sound out of their minds--just as is true today.

What Bix would make of YouTube and mp3 players in every ear is hard to guess but he would be happy to know that today we can hear his music anytime we choose, in many formats, and that he is not forgotten.
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Brad Kay
Brad Kay

December 4th, 2011, 8:36 pm #3

The evolution of hot music in the '20s had a great deal to do with Bix himself, who was a stylistic trend setter. Being at the white-hot center of creativity in his field, Bix was too involved with his day-to-day, moment-to-moment activities to have a long view about anything.

Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy were in a similar situation: They were too busy making pictures for Hal Roach to realize just how popular they were. When they finally took a break in 1932, sailing to England for a "vacation," they were flabbergasted at the swarms that greeted them at the dock, and the never-ending adulation that followed them everywhere.

This would have happened to Bix eventually, too, and he would have been just as surprised as Stan & Ollie.

-Brad K
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 4th, 2011, 10:05 pm #4

In the 1920's, jazz was yet to be recognised as a true art form. With the great days of Hollywood musicals and the swing era still to come in the future, in the minds of the general public, jazz was just a small part of the popular music scene, and any band playing dance music to a rhythmic accompaniment was, to dancers and the record buying public, "jazz".
With the rapid development of modern technology in all things, the introduction of radio and then the vast improvement of sound quality in electric recording, the "jazz age" swept the world to become, for those lucky enough to have been there in the roaring twenties, the greatest decade in history.
This happened during the whole of Bix's lifetime. From his first introduction to jazz at the age of fifteen on hearing his brother Bernie's ODJB records, to his early death in 1931, the sound of hot music had changed year on year. When we're playing our collections chronologically, it's easy to hear. But at the time, was the public under the impression that jazz had got as far as it would ever get, that Paul Whiteman's or Duke Ellington's orchestrations, for example, were so modern sounding that future generations would still be enjoying the same hot music sounds for all times into the future?
It's said Bix once described himself as "just a musical degenerate". Was he being serious when he said that? Or his lack of ego? Or wasn't he fully aware of his own God given talents? Did he not realise those beautiful notes emerging from his horn in tone and in the style he had created were unique, never been heard before and would never be heard again? Was he not aware of his own very special talent?
Even on unjazzy titles such as "Proud of a Baby" or "Forget-Me-Not", out of nothing he had the ability to create astonishing solos.
During his own lifetime he was not generally known to the public, and the appreciation of his contribution to American jazz had to wait until the mid 1930's when the subject of all things Bix began to take off.
It's been discussed before on the Forum that his Gang records, when first issued, sold only a few thousand copies on their initial release, when the population of the USA was around 270 million. Today, it's hard for us to believe a new Bix recording back then could only attract such tiny initial sales.
Much has been made of Sylvester Ahola report that, when he met Bix, Bix told Hooley:

This from the 1927 Ahola diary,

<em>I met Bix. We shook hands, and he said with a smile, "I'm only a musical degenerate." He was embarrassed by his limited abilty to read music. He was very modest and unassuming. Not a trace of egotism. Later he confided to me he wished he could play and read as well as I could.</em>

It is hard to tell what Bix was thinking in the absence of the context of the conversation. Here is Nick's interpretation,

<em>I've always thought that the "musical degenerate" remark was more in the way of a welcoming joke. Bix was opening the door for Ahola in being self-effacing. In other words, the reason why Bix made that remark was not because he felt intimidated in the presence of a schooled musician but it was in order to break the ice and make Ahola feel at ease (don't forget, Bix was the star, not Ahola, who was something of a new boy). I think the remark reveals, again, one of Bixs very nice traits, and, what's more, it takes confidence to be self-effacing in this way.</em>

The "musical degenerate" remark is in total contrast with Bix's "panicking the town" comment in his letter to Hoagy Carmichael. Here is the complete letter Bix wrote to Hoagy on December 15, 1925 (includes misspellings).

"Dear Hogey:
I just have a minute boy before leaving for work. Im now playing with Frank in St. Louis and we have absolutely the hottest band in the country. Were playing in the Arcadia here nightly and are panicking the town. Were incidently doing most of the schoolwork around Missouri. I thought maybe youd be intersted in us for something down there. Just for the kick I get out of coming down and seeing that gang go nuts is why Im writing this.
If that bunch at Ind. think the Wolverines & Goldkette were hot Id like to see them when they hear this band.
Weve accepted the Junior Hop at Ann Arbor. Well boy write me not necessarily regarding the above but as a friend.

Bix Coronado Hotel. St. Louis, Mo."



So which is the "real" Bix? The modest, self-effacing  "musical degenerate" Bix, or the confident, even cocky "hottest band in the country" Bix?  Perhaps both. When Bix just met a fellow musician,  his modest self, his desire to put people at ease was his dominant, outward persona. When he was good friends with someone, then his true feelings would be allowed to surface and he was more forthcoming and realistic about the quality of his work. I am really not certain, but I think it is important to provide documentation which demonstrates the very different aspects of Bix's interactions with others, some he had just met, others who were long-time friends.

Albert
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Glenda Childress
Glenda Childress

December 5th, 2011, 12:02 am #5

I think it possible that Bix had two motivations in greeting Sylvester Ahola with remarks about being a "musical degenerate."

He most probably did want to make Ahola feel comfortable and make him feel like a respected colleague right away. A little praise, if it is honest, and it seems his remarks about Ahola's skill in reading and playing were factual, is always a good way to smooth the beginning of a working relationship, which is what a nice guy would aim to do. In addition, it is possible that Bix was, in a joking manner, letting Ahola know that he wasn't a polished sight reader in advance to avoid any embarrassment in the heat of the job, where as Brad Kay pointed out, things were coming at both of them pretty fast at that time. Bix probably was very aware of his own strengths (after all, he had that ear) but he knew that he was in fast company as far as musicianship went by moving into the New York City scene.
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Brad Kay
Brad Kay

December 5th, 2011, 3:59 am #6

I think Bix honestly believed he was a musical degenerate. He knew how lacking in formal training he was, how he was always getting by with his ear and could only read well enough to get by. He DID feel intimidated by the crack, schooled musicians who could read fly specks and execute any difficult score with aplomb. This lack of training got him fired from the Goldkette band in '24, and he never forgot. He knew he was getting away with murder, and naturally, was not proud of it. He wasn't being modest - only sincere.

The proof of this is that in his quest for musical "legitimacy," he embraced the ideals and tenets of the "symphonic jazz" school, which made extreme technical demands on its practitioners. No mere "Jazz Band" in the '20s could have delivered a reading of "Whiteman Stomp" or "A Rhythmic Dream" or "Humpty Dumpty" without the utmost classical training and discipline. Of course, Bix's natural aptitude and genius got him over many hurdles that would have stymied many another "ear" player. But still he would have paled if he was handed Charlie Margulies' trumpet parts by mistake!

Therefore, I think Bix was completely sincere when he made that remark to Mr. Ahola, who of course was in awe of Bix's unique ability - something Bix himself took for granted.

As for the Tram Arcadians "panicking the town" comment - Bix was speaking on behalf of the whole band. He took pride in their collective accomplishment, and as a team player, was happy to be part of such a wonderful crew. He didn't single himself out for praise here. He was proud to be one of the "boys."

-Brad K
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Russell Davies
Russell Davies

December 5th, 2011, 4:56 pm #7

To me, it sounds like a tag adopted by Bix from somewhere else. It's possible, isn't it, that some authority figure -- perhaps in the late stages of his "education" -- had said to Bix "Young man, you're nothing but a musical degenerate!", and that the phrase had stuck in his mind. And perhaps he repeated it ruefully, as if to acknowledge that from the point of view of the conventional culture, he must indeed seem something of a reprobate.
R.D.
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alex revell
alex revell

December 5th, 2011, 6:00 pm #8

I think Bix honestly believed he was a musical degenerate. He knew how lacking in formal training he was, how he was always getting by with his ear and could only read well enough to get by. He DID feel intimidated by the crack, schooled musicians who could read fly specks and execute any difficult score with aplomb. This lack of training got him fired from the Goldkette band in '24, and he never forgot. He knew he was getting away with murder, and naturally, was not proud of it. He wasn't being modest - only sincere.

The proof of this is that in his quest for musical "legitimacy," he embraced the ideals and tenets of the "symphonic jazz" school, which made extreme technical demands on its practitioners. No mere "Jazz Band" in the '20s could have delivered a reading of "Whiteman Stomp" or "A Rhythmic Dream" or "Humpty Dumpty" without the utmost classical training and discipline. Of course, Bix's natural aptitude and genius got him over many hurdles that would have stymied many another "ear" player. But still he would have paled if he was handed Charlie Margulies' trumpet parts by mistake!

Therefore, I think Bix was completely sincere when he made that remark to Mr. Ahola, who of course was in awe of Bix's unique ability - something Bix himself took for granted.

As for the Tram Arcadians "panicking the town" comment - Bix was speaking on behalf of the whole band. He took pride in their collective accomplishment, and as a team player, was happy to be part of such a wonderful crew. He didn't single himself out for praise here. He was proud to be one of the "boys."

-Brad K
As practically, and to all intents and purposes, a non-reader, I do not classify myself as a musician. I'm a busker. When I say this to people who call me a musician, I'm not trying to prove anything, merely stating the truth. In the case of Bix, I'm sure that somebody or the other once made this remark to him and, as Brad said, he remembered it. However, I'm sure he knew his worth and how good he was.
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David Sager
David Sager

December 6th, 2011, 7:20 pm #9

Here is a link to the National Jukebox "Record of the Week" featuring the astonishing Bohumir Kryl. Check out the pedal tones near the beginning!

http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/recordoftheweek.html

DS
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 6th, 2011, 8:27 pm #10


A year ago I posted in

http://www.network54.com/Forum/27140/message/1291209600

about Carnival of Venice played by Herbert L. Clarke.

Albert
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