Cornetist, pianist, and composer Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke was one of the great musical innovators to emerge in the 1920s. One of jazz’s earliest soloists, he is of enduring importance to the dynamic history of jazz. This Wednesday, WKCR will dedicate 24 hours of programming to Bix in honor of his 118th birthday anniversary.
Young Bix taught himself to play cornet, listening to his brother’s Victrola phonograph and records of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. When his parents sent him to Lake Forest Academy with the hope that he would focus on academics rather than music, they unwittingly sent him nearest jazz capitol: Chicago. When he broke curfew so many times to hear jazz that he was expelled, he began an illustrious career as a professional musician. He joined a seven- man group called the Wolverines in 1923, leaving the group in a year later to play with the Jean Goldkette orchestra. In 1927, he joined the most popular band of the time, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the band of the self-proclaimed “King of Jazz.” Cornetist Rex Stewart recalled, “All of a sudden, comes this white boy from out west, playin’ stuff all his own. Didn’t sound like Louis or anybody else. But just so pretty, and that tone he got. Knocked us all out.” But in 1931, when Beiderbecke was twenty-eight, his alcoholism led to his death. He became “Jazz’s Keats” as Dorothy Baker’s novel, A Man With a Horn, and subsequent Hollywood films mythologized him as jazz’s fallen hero.
Beyond the legend, we remember him for his curious, extraordinary style and pure, cool tone. Bix lives!