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Bix Beiderbecke and New Orleans [1]

Bruce Boyd Raeburn

As Jelly Roll Morton once said, New Orleans is a place where “we had our own way of doing,” [2] this being a rare example of understatement from the self-proclaimed “inventor” of jazz. Morton’s bravado notwithstanding, the argument that jazz was “born” in New Orleans rests on recognizing the special features of a unique cultural environment in which music plays an essential role in defining lifestyle. But that does not mean that New Orleans musicians were immune to outside influences, or that by the mid-1920s they were the only ones making important contributions to the development of jazz.

Perhaps the first musician to capture the imaginations of the New Orleans pioneers — white, black, and Creole — was the cornetist, pianist, and composer from Davenport, Iowa, Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. Bix only made one trip to New Orleans, but the event is one that he may have remembered vividly based on what is said to have taken place there — a near riot on his behalf. Especially on their home turf, New Orleans jazz musicians could be extremely demanding (maybe even intimidating) in their desire for good jazz, as Paul Whiteman found out when he brought his 30-piece concert orchestra with Bix in it to the St. Charles Theatre on October 28, 1928.

At the time, the most recent New Orleans member of the Whiteman organization, the bassist Steve Brown, had departed the band in February (clarinetist Gussie Mueller, the composer of “Wang Wang Blues”, had been with Whiteman much earlier, in 1920, and reed man Al Gallodoro would not join until 1936), but Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer’s presence more than compensated for the lack of “home town heroes” in the minds of the locals. The jazz musicians who were in attendance — and this would have included trumpeters John Hyman, Paul Mares, Nick LaRocca, Abbie Brunies, Louis and Leon Prima, Johnny DeDroit, Johnny Lala, Mike Lala, Stuart Bergen, Johnny Bayersdorffer, Sharkey Bonano, and possibly even Stirling Bose, among others — all knew who Bix and Trumbauer were and expected something special from them. In other words, they expected to hear some jazz. Paul Whiteman was a musical entrepreneur of the first order, and he was a master at winning over New York critics, as demonstrated by the reaction to his Aeolian Hall concert in 1924 when he first championed a “jazz-informed” repertoire against stiff opposition. He had vowed “to make a lady out of jazz,” and as far as most of the critics were concerned, he had succeeded. Unfortunately, the accolades of the New York pundits did little to prepare him for a trip to New Orleans.

This was actually Whiteman’s third visit to the Crescent City, but the first with such an imposing lineup of jazz soloists. His schedule on Sunday, October 28 included two concerts: an afternoon matinee and an evening performance. According to drummer and cornetist Arthur “Monk” Hazel, who was a musical associate and friend of Emmett Hardy’s (Hardy willed him his cornet), there was a confrontation with Whiteman over jazz in the alley outside the St. Charles Theatre during the matinee concert intermission:

Well, the whole first thing [before intermission], they never played one note of jazz. I was delegated to go talk to Whiteman about getting them to play some jazz. I walked up to him, and I said, “Paul, we got to have some jazz.” He looked at me — he and Johnny DeDroit were talking there, and they looked at me like that, you know — and I said, “Now I mean it. We’re going to have some jazz or else.” So he says, “Well, we don’t have anything coming up. The only thing we’ve got, we’re going to play things like ‘Metropolis’ and ‘American in Paris’.” It was a big band, a concert band. So I told him, “Uh-uh, man, we got to have some jazz [or we’re going to break this place up].” So he looked at Johnny, and he looked at me. Johnny said, “Well, the guys are all — man, there’s two hundred jazz men out there! They’ve come in here to hear Bix and Trumbauer.” So he says, “Well, I’ll see what I can do.”

Just for the record, it should be pointed out that Monk Hazel stood about 4'10" and Paul Whiteman was rather tall (six feet) and of considerable girth (over 200 pounds), so the exchange was not without some comic overtones, but apparently Whiteman took Hazel’s self-described “gangster-like” behavior very seriously. Monk continues:

When the performance resumed, [Whiteman] addressed the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have had a lot of requests and threats for Bix and Trumbauer.” And he turns around, and then he looks at them and said, “Boys, you’re on your own,” and he walked off the stage. [Bix and Tram] didn’t know what to do. They never had anything like that happen before. First thing you know, Roy Bargy starts vamping “Singin’ the Blues”, so they played. They played “Singin’ the Blues”, and they played “Melancholy Baby” and a couple of things that Trumbauer played [including “Dinah”]. Everybody was satisfied then.” [3]

In his role as the ombudsman for the white New Orleans jazz community, Monk Hazel’s “requests and threats” expressed the dissatisfaction that local jazzmen felt about the formalization of their city’s music in the hands of outsiders. In making “a lady out of jazz,” Whiteman had taken all the fun out of her, at least as far as the New Orleans musicians were concerned, and he was getting rich in the process. Yet as long as Bix and Trumbauer were in the band, the New Orleans audience knew that fun was at least a possibility. The Prelude, the magazine for the white American Federation of Musicians Local 174, ran a review of the matinee performance in its December 1928 issue. In “King of Jazz Royally Received,” Will Specht described the concert as one in which “the gentle hand of ‘symphonic’ jazz too often obliterates the vitality of a type of music which has coarse virility.” He continued, “The program stated, ‘Yes, jazz is savage,’ but there was little savage to be found in ‘Sugar’ or ‘Gypsy,’ and the ‘Tiger Rag’ was tailored into a polite garment,” adding that “some of us were bored.” This would seem to support the thrust of Monk Hazel’s testimony, but surprisingly, there is no mention in The Prelude of a change of program after the intermission, and, in fact, there are critical remarks about “Metropolis” and accolades for Wilbur Hall’s “comedy number” (on bicycle pump), all of which was slated for the second half of the show, the point at which Bix and Trumbauer’s “liberation” had supposedly occurred.

It seems inconceivable that such a radical departure from the program could have gone unnoticed by the Prelude correspondent, and two reviews that appeared in the Times-Picayune the next day provide tantalizing clues without necessarily resolving the quandary. K. T. Knoblock’s “Whiteman Music Stirs Enthusiasm” concluded that what was offered “was really not jazz,” but differed from The Prelude’s critical assessment of “Metropolis” in describing it as a “thrilling work.” [4] More intriguing is a feature by W. Boyd Gatewood, “King of Jazz Confesses ‘That’s My Weakness Now’ and Names Orleans Food,” based on an interview with Whiteman conducted “back in the wings of the St. Charles Theater while his orchestra played without him,” during which “a cornet virtuoso had just finished a sobbing cacophony in solo that brought down the house out front.” Whiteman then says, “That is what they like and we give it to ’em.” Since the context for discussion had shifted from food to jazz by this point, with Whiteman defining jazz as “America expressing herself in tone and rhythm” and adding “incidentally, what we know as jazz music originated in New Orleans,” one can read the combination of his remarks made offstage, the description of the cornet solo, and the enthusiastic audience reaction as consistent with Hazel’s account. [5] Mel Washburn’s rather haughty review in the New Orleans Item, “Small Audiences Hear Whiteman’s Band,” seemed more concerned about the maestro’s unshaven appearance and the lack of matching ties and spats among the musicians, but he also mentioned that “there was some buffoonery that was intended from the orchestra members and much that was not.” [6] Perhaps this is what Althea Wuerpel meant when she noted in her piece for the New Orleans States, “Whiteman Still Wizard at Jazz,” that numbers such as “Crazy Rhythm” and “That’s My Weakness Now” that were “very popular but not on the program” had also been performed. [7] Suggestive as they may be, these newspaper reviews do not offer conclusive proof of Hazel’s version of events, however. [8]

Was Monk Hazel’s story apocryphal? It is certainly possible, but there remains a didactic value to the tale, revealing something important about how New Orleans musicians felt about jazz, Whiteman, and Bix Beiderbecke. The program for the fall 1928 Whiteman tour is available in the appendices of Sudhalter and Evans, Bix: Man & Legend, and it indicates that a section where requests from the audience would be taken in due course was already built into the final portion of the concert. [9] Perhaps the sections were rearranged to accommodate the jazz interlude, enough to “soothe the savage beast” that was Monk Hazel before the program resumed as scheduled. Obviously, the difference between “satisfaction” and “boredom” for New Orleans musicians was the freeing of Whiteman’s jazz cadre from the usual repertoire in which Dixieland was used only to illustrate how jazz could go from “savagery” to “refinement.” Given the choice, a New Orleans crowd will usually opt for the former. Thanks to the persistent efforts of a few New Orleans jazzmen, the matinee audience got the program it wanted because the locals knew what Bix was capable of doing and were unwilling to settle for less. What they wanted was a jazz performance with an emotional kick, and they supposedly got it. In fact, even the revised matinee program was apparently not enough to satisfy them. According to pianist Armand Hug, Bix, Trumbauer, and Izzy Friedman attended a party at Paul Mares’s house in Metairie between the matinee and evening concerts, a “light afternoon lunch and cocktails” that turned into a jam session. Hug, Paul Mares, Eddie Miller, Monk Hazel, Dan Leblanc, and Snoozer Quinn were all there, the latter establishing a connection with Whiteman that would soon take him to New York. Bix played trumpet for a while, then switched to piano, where he helped Hug through some “rough spots” on “In A Mist,” which he had been trying to learn from the recording. [10] The Whiteman Orchestra was set to play the Strand Theater in Shreveport the next night, and one presumes that Bix and Tram must have slept the whole way after playing two concerts and a jam session in the Crescent City — or maybe not, given the proclivities of jazzmen and the residual waking reverie that often accompanies a trip to New Orleans.

The question is, how did New Orleans musicians become aware of the special talents of Bix Beiderbecke in the first place and why were they willing to threaten violence in order to gain first-hand exposure to them? It is a story that illuminates how the jazz community coalesced in the early 1920s, a process forged through one-on-one personal contact deriving from travel and the proverbial “grapevine,” by communication of musical ideas and information via technology (phonograph records, radio, and sheet music), and by the mutual desire of young people throughout the country (and the world, for that matter) to become a part of this new and strange phenomenon called “jazz.” The beginning of the story is really about Bix’s exposure to New Orleans musicians and not vice versa. His first taste came when he was 15 years of age by way of phonograph records, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag” and “Skeleton Jangle”, the occasion being the return of his older brother Burnie from military service around Christmas 1918, armed with a Victrola phonograph and a pile of records. Bix was so enthralled with the jazz recordings that he began to play cornet with them, initiating what can best be described as a life-altering obsession. In time he felt compelled to seek out the ODJB’s cornetist and leader, Nick LaRocca, but exactly when that happened is difficult to ascertain.

Because of the recordings, LaRocca is often identified as the earliest influence on Beiderbecke, a connection he emphasized in oral history interviews conducted by the Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University in the period 1958–1960. While claiming repeatedly that “Bix was a great man!” he also demanded credit for Bix’s fame. In his recent book, Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, Jean Pierre Lion places Bix and LaRocca’s first meeting in New York in November 1922, but LaRocca remembers that as a second meeting, the first occurring when Bix was supposedly seventeen years old:

I have to give Bix Beiderbecke his due credit — he tried to strike a new style...many of the licks that Bix made I showed him. He came to me as a schoolboy. When he was seventeen years of age, he ran away from home.... At the time there was only one jazz band he liked.... I brought him to my place and he’d play my cornet all day, play on the cornet, asked me to show him different things, which I did. I kept him there a week. And the boys in the band told me, “Nick, you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re harboring a minor, you’re liable to get in trouble. You understand, you better send that kid back home.” So I got him, put him on a train, paid my own money for it, sent him back to Davenport where he lived. 1923 he comes again. This time he plays pretty, he’s playing good cornet.” [11]

Since there is a letter to LaRocca in Bix’s hand dated November 20, 1922, apparently written on the trip back to Davenport, we can correct LaRocca’s memory by a few months, but one wonders exactly when an earlier trip could have taken place. Elsewhere, LaRocca places the first Bix visit at Reisenweber’s, in “the latter part of 1918,” at which point the boy would have been fifteen and as yet unexposed to the ODJB’s recordings, making that chronology extremely implausible. After the band’s sojourn in England, April 1919–July 1920, Bix would have been seventeen, but the ODJB was no longer affiliated with Reisenweber’s. Sudhalter and Evans tried to substantiate LaRocca’s claims but were unable to corroborate a pre-1922 trip, ultimately doubting whether it could have happened. [12]

Yet the question of the exact date of a first trip is a fairly crucial one because it would establish “hands-on” interaction with LaRocca before similar events that invariably enter conversations about Bix’s other early musical heroes, namely, the meeting with Louis Armstrong in Davenport thought to have occurred aboard the riverboat Capitol in May 1920, and the subsequent admiration that Bix developed for New Orleans musician Emmett Hardy during that cornetist’s residencies with Bee Palmer and later Carlisle Evans in Davenport, February–April, 1921 and again at the Friars’ Inn in Chicago in 1922–1923. Leon Roppolo is also cited as an influence from the Palmer, Evans, and New Orleans Rhythm Kings experiences, but it was an oblique connection for various reasons. “Hands-on” musical instruction is how things were done in New Orleans, and it is certainly a more effective approach to learning an instrument and developing a musical style than reacting to a phonograph record. Whatever the chronological order of encounter may have been, the unifying factor within this very diverse group of New Orleans musicians is that LaRocca, Armstrong, and Hardy all spoke highly of Bix and were willing to share some time (and musical knowledge) with him. This is probably the only thing Nick LaRocca and Louis Armstrong ever had in common, and it tells us a lot about Bix as a person and how he was perceived by New Orleans musicians.

Given the uncertainty surrounding a pre-1922 meeting with LaRocca, it is likely that Bix’s first worthwhile “hands on” experience with a New Orleans musician therefore came from Emmett Hardy. Another reason Hardy matters more than LaRocca is because those who heard him play always comment on the affinity between his style and Bix’s, although opinions on this issue, say between Paul Mares and Johnny Wiggs, vary tremendously. The most complete and concise recapitulation of Hardy’s life and musical career is found in Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords, an account that relies heavily on interviews from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University with musicians such as Santo Pecora, Monk Hazel, Steve Brown, and George Brunies, and for the details of comparative playing styles, it is essential reading. [13] Suffice it to say that Hardy became an influence on Bix because, unlike Santo Pecora, Paul Mares, and Leon Roppolo, he was willing to make time for him. At the Friars’ Inn Hardy urged Mares, Roppolo, and Brunies to “let the kid play,” and according to Monk Hazel, he shared secrets for using the third valve rather than a combination of first and second for fast passages, a technique that “gives you sort of a legato style.” [14] In addition, he was probably the first New Orleans musician to bring news of Bix to his colleagues back home when he returned in 1923, a few months before Bix started making records of his own with the Wolverines in February 1924. Here is where personal experience based on contact could render a recording with limited information attached to it intelligible. According to Monk Hazel, when the first Wolverines records impacted the New Orleans market, nobody knew who was on them since jazz discography was a thing of the future and the label only carried title and composer credit. He explains what happened:

Well, I was working for Conn Company in the day and I had the band at the Bienville Hotel and at the Roosevelt [at night]...They had a piano company sharing the building with us called Junius Hart Piano Company, and they sold records. So, I hear this record, this Wolverines band — it was on Gennett. The tunes were the “Jazz Me Blues” and whatever was on the other side. I used to buy the records and I’d bring them up to the house and play them for [Emmett, whose health was declining]. I come out and I was all enthused. I’d say, “I got one you don’t know who it is,” you know, like that. So I put it on and played it. He listened to it and when it got through, he says, “I know who that is.” Nobody had ever heard anything of Bix or anything else — I mean, he told me about meeting Bix up there in Davenport. He says, “That’s a kid from Davenport by the name of Leon Beiderbecke.” And the thing — the trumpet solo — well, the fact is, the whole arrangement, the thing was note for note the way Emmett used to play it, see? The guy had what Bix got from him.... [plus] he had that New Orleans drive. [15]

Comments about Bix’s rendition of “Jazz Me Blues” being a derivative of Hardy’s version aside, Hazel’s tale demonstrates how haphazard the collection of information on early jazz recordings could be, while also providing a case study in how an emerging musician like Bix Beiderbecke who was a stranger to most locals could establish name recognition in New Orleans without the aid of reference works or advance publicity because of an earlier personal contact made elsewhere.

“Jazz Me Blues” was just a beginning. After 1924 Bix’s style and abilities evolved dramatically, so that by the time he finally arrived in the city in 1928, everyone knew about him and considered him as a source of inspiration. Among the New Orleans cornet and trumpet players who are said to have been influenced by Bix’s style are John Wigginton Hyman (Johnny Wiggs), Stirling Bose, and George Girard especially, but various lesser-known players such as Bill Gillen should also be included, along with pianist Armand Hug, clarinetist Harry Shields, and guitarist Snoozer Quinn. As Sudhalter notes in Lost Chords, Johnny Wiggs (who was a friend of Emmett Hardy’s and replaced him in Norman Brownlee’s band) did not view Bix as a derivative player — quite the contrary. This is a quote from an interview with Wiggs in 1977, part of which appears in Lost Chords:

Bix is the only musician who created a separate and distinct jazz style [Sudhalter inserts “white” before “musician” in brackets here, which is not in the original text].... I saw the start of the Wolverines, and before that there was no good jazz music in the country, except Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Other bands had various weaknesses. The original Wolverines, without Bix, would not have been noticed at all. Later on it was a different story. I don’t mean to take one thing away from Louis Armstrong. He took the Joe Oliver style and made something unbelievable out of it; and I think he was the greatest jazzman that ever lived. But Bix was incredible. To this day, I just can’t believe it! Bix pulled his style right out of the sky. He would sit in front of the Joe Oliver band, with Louis in it, enjoy it immensely yet not one phrase or lick did he ever get from them.... And you hear people belittle players who copy other musicians. I’m sorry, people, but the only one I ever heard who did not copy other people was Bix. [16]

Wiggs was well known in New Orleans for his strong opinions, which also included an emphatic preference for African-American rhythm sections whenever possible, so his lauding of a white musician in this manner is significant and maybe even a bit uncharacteristic. Yet it also raises a question: how did black and Creole musicians from New Orleans feel about Bix?

Louis Armstrong’s longstanding homage to Bix is a given on the subject, beginning with the dedication of his first autobiography, Swing That Music, to him in 1936 and continuing through Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans in 1954, where he states, “Every musician in the world knew and admired Bix...we all respected him as though he had been a god.” [17] Should we take Armstrong’s statement literally? We know he heard Bix in concert with Whiteman in Chicago on July 2, 1928, and that according to his recollection they played together in jam sessions the week following. [18] Based on notes taken by Bill Russell in an interview with Paul Mares for the book Jazzmen in 1939, it is also possible that Bix could have met Jelly Roll Morton at the New Orleans Rhythm Kings session for Gennett on July 17, 1923 that included Morton on several sides. Mares gave this account: “Bix was all set to go on the ‘Angry’ record. Rapp and Brunies nixed that. Bix actually cried, as it was his favorite band, the NORK, and he was all ready to make it, but they wouldn’t let him.” [19] Interestingly, Morton never mentioned meeting Bix, which is not entirely surprising given his own self-absorption, and Mares’s anecdote is sufficiently ambiguous to make Bix’s attendance at the session uncertain. Nevertheless, there were a number of other African-American and Creole musicians associated with New Orleans who did interact with Bix in various capacities during the 1920s and later commented upon it, including bassist George “Pops” Foster, trumpeter and saxophonist Norman Mason (born in the Bahamas but worked the riverboats with Marable), trombonist Preston Jackson, and clarinetist Darnell Howard (born in Chicago but trained by Charles Elgar and an associate of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton). Foster encountered Bix at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, in a band with Trumbauer, Pee Wee Russell, and Rod Cless, probably in late 1925 or early 1926. Bix was apparently on piano (although he is usually listed as a cornetist with this group), and Pops remembered him as being a “wonderful pianist who was written up as a wonderful trumpeter.” [20] Norman Mason states that he first met Bix on the riverboat St. Paul in Davenport around 1920 and then later heard him rehearsing with Trumbauer’s band at Westminster Hall in St. Louis (a church that had been converted into a movie theater) while the members of Charlie Creath’s band were there for an audition. [21] This may, in fact, be the same occasion cited by Foster, or maybe not, but it shows how black and white musicians were sometimes exposed to each other, despite segregation, in the routine conduct of their business. Preston Jackson remembered Bix from the Royal Gardens and Sunset in Chicago, and listed him as one of “three great white [jazz] musicians,” the other two being Jack Teagarden and Frank Teschemacher. [22] Interestingly, Darnell Howard talks about playing in public with Bix in a racially-mixed “pick up” band. Howard performed with Muggsy Spanier and Bix in a “patched up little band with no name” in Chicago, probably in the summer of 1924. He recalled that “the band had to play soft; the place was small and the doors were open, as it was summer,” and that it occurred right before Bix was set to leave for New York, presumably with the Wolverines. In an interview with Nesuhi Ertegun and Ralph Campbell in which he is teamed with Pops Foster, Muggsy recalls the pair also “sitting in” with New Orleans clarinetist Jimmie Noone when he was performing at the Paradise [Gardens] in Chicago, possibly in 1922 or perhaps later, in 1925 (coinciding with the Charlie Straight gigs at White City and “after hours” sessions at the Rendezvous), so their interaction with black and Creole clarinetists happened more than once. [23] Given the desire of jazzmen to seek the best musical company available, this should come as no surprise, but contravening segregation anywhere in the United States in the mid-1920s was still risky business and live performances by integrated bands were largely taboo.

Certainly Bix’s meanderings and attitude gave him the opportunity to meet a very diverse assortment of New Orleans players, and after 1922 his talents were sufficiently well developed to usually create a favorable impression among them. For example, when Santo Pecora first met Bix in Davenport in 1921 he did not think much of Bix’s musical ability, complaining that the kid’s playing “gave him a headache” and stating that he “would never be a trumpet player.” Five years later he encountered him again at the musicians union in Chicago, by which time he was so impressed (and maybe even a bit amazed) at Bix’s progress and celebrity with Goldkette that he gave him a hug and apologized, admitting that “he sure played beautifully now.” [24] In an interview with Marshall Stearns for Jazz Hot in 1935, Wingy Manone also remembered multiple interactions with Bix. “When Wingy was playing at the Friars Inn,” writes Stearns,

a young man named Beiderbecke would drop in occasionally and play piano for a while. Wingy had heard him before when he and Louis Armstrong had met Bix on a levee. Bix was playing a piano every Sunday in church. “Did you ever notice how much ‘Davenport Blues’ sounds like a hymn?” asked Wingy. The moment Wingy heard Bix on the piano, he felt there was something different [about him]. Louis thought Bix was wonderful. “Why man,” said Louis to Wingy, “he’s a playin’ fool.” Then Bix took up the cornet. He didn’t have any lip. Wingy listened whenever he could anyway. Bix always was very apologetic about his tone. He thought it was bad.... For a long time, no one paid much attention to Bix. “But Bix had more ideas than the rest of us put together,” cried Wingy. [25]

Johnny DeDroit also tells of meeting Bix in New York at The Balconades Ballroom, very likely in October of 1924. DeDroit was preparing for a Sunday matinee alternating with the Circle Quintet. According to DeDroit, someone within that group decided to “take him down a notch” by inviting Bix into the lineup as a “ringer” to steal the show. DeDroit picks up the story:

Bix played a number and after I heard him I knew we had nothing to worry about. It wasn’t Bix’s fault; it was the accompaniment from the other band who knew nothing about his music. With his own band, Bix Beiderbecke was a star. They used to make good records, but it wasn’t Dixieland.... [It didn’t have that beat.]” [26]

DeDroit uses the anecdote to promote his own talents, but the trumpeter also makes it clear that within a year of the first Wolverines recordings, Bix was widely viewed as “a star.” Having already departed the Wolverines and soon to join Goldkette, he was definitely poised for even greater success. Interestingly enough, Bix’s replacement in the Wolverines was supposed to be Joseph “Sharkey” Bonano, a New Orleans trumpeter who had been playing about as long as Bix had, but his audition was a disaster. According to Sharkey, he begged for a chance to rehearse, but the band refused. He states that he lasted a week and returned to New Orleans (other accounts have him out the same day). Like Bix, Sharkey didn’t read music, yet the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Wolverines became an incentive to learn, and he eventually took tuition from Lucien Broekhoven and Mike Cupero back in the Crescent City. [27] In this case, it was the absence of Bix that influenced a New Orleans trumpeter.

DeDroit and many other New Orleans jazzmen always made a point of emphasizing “the New Orleans beat” or the “drive” associated with home-grown Dixieland, something that they felt could not really be readily acquired by outsiders. When it came to phrasing, however, Bix had a lot to offer the New Orleans players, and several of them comment on it. Stuart Bergen saw Bix’s contributions as a watershed moment in jazz history:

See, jazz changed about that time with Beiderbecke, Teagarden, and Trumbauer — [it became] a little more refined. They played their chords a little better. They played progressions. They didn’t just play chromatics around the melody, you know, like half-tones around the melody, like the old timers — and they didn’t chop it up — they phrased a little different. [28]

Steve Brown, who worked with Bix in the Goldkette and Whiteman bands and roomed with him when they were with Whiteman, goes even further:

Now you’ve heard a lot of talk about Bix, he was a great character. He’s the one that every musician talks about, because his mind was always on music, nothing else.... No, I can’t say that I heard anyone [in New Orleans] phrase like Bix. Bix had an individual phrasing of his own, so many of ’em claimed that he copied it from this one and that one and some of ’em claimed that he copied it from LaRocca. Well, he may have learned the numbers that LaRocca knew, that were recorded, you know, but his phrasing was entirely different...very noticeable to all trumpet players. And if they wanted to tell the truth, they’ll tell you this. It’s no copying of anyone; it’s an individual phrasing of his own. [29]

Yet, the personal contact that led to widespread recognition of Bix’s abilities did not come without a price, as Brown makes clear:

He’d play a job with us that would terminate maybe one or two o’clock in the morning, [then] he’d be out with a group of boys maybe playing or jamming with someone until about four or five in the morning, six in the morning....Bix would come in by the time I was getting up to go out, and [he] was kind of forgetful at times. In one particular instance I remember his leaving the hotel and leaving his cornet, coming on the job, you know, and no cornet. He’d have to get a cab, pay a cab driver to haul his trumpet from where he left it, clean out there to the job. And a great many times, Bix would be late, and he’d have to catch a cab and follow the train to our next destination. Maybe the cab fare would be real high, but Bix didn’t seem to mind that.... You’d have to get around and drink with the boys in order to become known, you know what I mean, and you have to produce something. If you produce something outstanding, you have a lot of admirers, and you can’t afford to fluff them off. Bix was admired by so many musicians, the poor devil would be comin’ in after he’d been traveling all day on the train — all tired — and we’d get into a hotel where all of us would want to stretch out a little and relax for an hour or two before playing that night, and here a whole crowd would meet Bix at the station. And it was during the dry days. They’d have hootch on them and Bix would try to be polite, but when he’d fluff them off there would be another gang waiting for him, see? And they all had a bottle, and so Bix was constantly drinking all the time. That’s what put him to his death, you know. But he was loved. I think Bix was loved by the musicians more than any other musician I know of. [30]

If Bix’s tone, as Eddie Condon described it, was “like a girl saying yes,” his social situation with fans was closer to one “who couldn’t say no,” and in time it came to interfere with what mattered most in his life, the music. Muggsy Spanier once said that “If Bix had lived, he would probably have given all his time to the piano and to the classics,” but that is a moot issue. [31] Yet, there are other things of which we can be sure. When one considers the sheer number of New Orleans musicians (not to mention those from other places) for whom what Bix did mattered — those who played with him, knew him as a person, heard his records or live performances, were influenced or inspired by his genius, or merely responded to the mythology — it quickly becomes apparent that his life served to define the jazz community and, despite his tragic weaknesses (or perhaps because of them), strengthened the power and appeal of the music throughout the world. When Bix arrived to play the St. Charles Theater with Whiteman in 1928 he represented “the real thing” to two hundred New Orleans jazz musicians, defenders of a “home-grown” idiom about which they felt very protective, precisely because of the honesty, sincerity, and beauty that informed his playing. In creating an appealing middle ground between “savagery” and “refinement,” Bix enhanced and expanded the jazz “trick bag” without draining the emotional kick that the New Orleans players relished. That is why they needed to hear him do his own thing. On those terms, Bix was considered to be one of their own then and remains so to this day.


  • Armstrong, Louis. Swing That Music. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936.
  • ———. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1954.
  • Gatewood, W. Boyd. “King of Jazz Confesses ‘That’s My Weakness Now’ and Names Orleans Food.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 29, 1928.
  • Hug, Armand. Bix–Hug. Jazzology JCE-83. 1976, 33 rpm.
  • “Jass and Jassism,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 20, 1918
  • Knoblock, K.T. “Whiteman Music Stirs Enthusiasm: Variety of Features Offered at Two Sunday Concerts.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 29, 1928.
  • Lion, Jean Pierre. Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend. New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • Lomax, Alan. Mr. Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.
  • Menville, Myra. “Wiggs — Self-Explained.” The Second Line 29 (Spring 1977): 3–13.
  • Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Stearns, Marshall. “Wingy Mannone: The Spirit of New Orleans.” Jazz Hot 4 (July–August 1935): 5, 21, 30.
  • Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contributions to Jazz, 1915–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Sudhalter, Richard M., and Philip R. Evans. Bix: Man & Legend. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1974.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
  • Washburn, Mel. “A Voice from the Pit: Small Audiences Hear Paul Whiteman’s Band.” New Orleans Item-Tribune, October 29, 1928.
  • Wuerpel, Althea. “Whiteman Still Wizard at Jazz.” New Orleans States, October 29, 1928.

Interviews Cited

Unless otherwise specified, all are held at the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA.

  • Bergen, Stuart. 1970. Interview by Richard B. Allen. Tape recording and transcript. July 18.
  • Bonano, Sharkey. 1966. Interview by William Russell. Tape recording and transcript. November 9.
  • Brown, Steve. 1958. Interview by William Russell and Richard B. Allen. Tape recording and transcript. April 22.
  • DeDroit, Johnny. 1974. Interview by Richard B. Allen. Tape recording and transcript. March 13.
  • Foster, George. 1967. Interview by Tom Stoddard. Tape recording and transcript. June 23.
  • Foster, George, and Muggsy Spanier. 1957. Interview by Nesuhi Ertegun and Robert Campbell. Tape recording and transcript. April 21.
  • Hazel, Monk. 1959. Interview by William Russell and Richard B. Allen. Tape recording and transcript. July 16.
  • ———. 1967. Interview by Doug Ramsey. Tape recording and transcript. October 28.
  • Howard, Darnell. 1957. Interview by Nesuhi Ertegun and Robert Campbell. Tape recording and transcript. April 21.
  • Hug, Armand. 1960. Interview by Richard B. Allen and Paul R. Crawford. Tape recording and transcript. July 14.
  • Jackson, Preston. 1958. Interview by William Russell. Tape recording and transcript. June 2.
  • LaRocca, Nick. 1959. Interview by William Ransom Hogan. Tape recording and transcript. October 26.
  • Mares, Paul. 1939. Interview by William Russell. William Russell Collection, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, New Orleans, LA.
  • Mason, Norman. Interview by Paul R. Crawford. Tape recording and transcript. February 6.
  • Pecora, Santo. 1972. Interview by Richard B. Allen. Tape recording and transcript. November 11.


[1] This essay was originally presented at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Festival, Davenport, Iowa, on July 27, 2007; it was inspired by comments made by Dan Morgenstern on a panel session, “Bix and His Influence on American Music,” at the Bix Festival in 2006.

[2] Alan Lomax, Mr. Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz.” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), 102.

[3] Monk Hazel, interview by William Russell and Richard B. Allen, July 16, 1959, Reel 4, pp. 61–62, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University (HJA), New Orleans, LA. See also Monk Hazel, interview by Doug Ramsey, October 28, 1967, Reel I, pp. 19–20, HJA in which he describes his comments to Whiteman as being delivered in a “gangster-like way,” including the threat “we got to have some Bix and Tram or we gonna break this thing up.”

[4] K. T. Knoblock, “Whiteman Music Stirs Enthusiasm: Variety of Features Offered at Two Sunday Concerts,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 29, 1928, 21.

[5] W. Boyd Gatewood, “King of Jazz Confesses ‘That’s My Weakness Now’ and Names Orleans Food,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 29, 1928, 3.

[6] Mel Washburn, “A Voice from the Pit: Small Audiences Hear Paul Whiteman’s Band,” New Orleans Item-Tribune, October 29, 1928, 4. “But with its jazz and its culture,” states Washburn, “New Orleans at all times demands that it be respected for its sense of propriety.... Instead of being remembered for a stirring concert of thrilling music, Mr. Whiteman and his orchestra will be more strongly remembered for its nondescript appearance on the stage here.”

[7] Althea Wuerpel, “Whiteman Still Wizard at Jazz,” New Orleans States, October 29, 1928, 9.

[8] In their seemingly casual disregard for jazz as a serious music worthy of critical evaluation, these newspaper reviews of the Whiteman concert are typical of the inconsistent and wildly erratic (pro and con) reportage of jazz in New Orleans newspapers prior to 1933. The range of opinion is illustrated by the anonymous editorial “Jass and Jassism,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 20, 1918, which suggested that the city should be “the last to accept the atrocity in polite society, and where it has crept in we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it,” and “Orleans’ Product: Stale Bread’s Fiddle Gave Jazz to the World,” New Orleans Item, March 9, 1919, in which the impresario Joseph K. Gorham, who brought Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland to Chicago in 1915, claimed New Orleans as the site where the “first and best” jazz originated. For additional information, see Bruce Boyd Raeburn, New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 217–22, 228–31.

[9] Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, Bix: Man & Legend (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1974), 370–71.

[10] Armand Hug, interview by Richard B. Allen and Paul R. Crawford, July 14, 1960, Reel 3, pp. 14–15, HJA. See also John Perhonis, liner notes to Armand Hug, Bix–Hug, Jazzology JCE-83, 1976, 33 rpm. Hug definitely places the Monk Hazel–Whiteman confrontation as occurring at the matinee performance intermission and adds that “Dinah” was among the jazz tunes Bix and Tram played in the jazz interlude, which lasted about twenty minutes.

[11] Jean Pierre Lion, Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend (New York: Continuum, 2005), 46–47. Nick LaRocca, interview by Richard B. Allen, May 26, 1958, Reel I, pp. 47–49, HJA.

[12] Nick LaRocca, interview by William Ransom Hogan, October 26, 1959, Reel I, p. 244, HJA. Sudhalter and Evans discount the possibility of a 1918 or 1919 trip altogether, based on testimony from ODJB drummer Tony Sbarbaro and other sources, Bix: Man & Legend, pp. 81–84.

[13] Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contributions to Jazz, 1915–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 48–62.

[14] Monk Hazel interview, Reel 2, p. 32, HJA.

[15] Ibid., Reel 2, pp. 33–34, Reel 3, pp. 35–36.

[16] Myra Menville, “Wiggs — Self-Explained,” The Second Line 29 (Spring 1977), 9.

[17] Louis Armstrong, Swing That Music (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936), inscription, and Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1954), 209.

[18] Geoffrey C. Ward, Jazz: A History of America’s Music (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 154.

[19] Paul Mares interview by William Russell, n. d. [1939], MSS 519, Jazzmen f. 31, William Russell Collection, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, New Orleans, LA. Thanks to Sue Fischer for bringing this statement to my attention.

[20] George Foster, interview by Tom Stoddard, June 23, 1967, Reel A, p. 4, HJA. Although Foster gives the year as 1922, the only scenario that makes sense is some time between September 1925 and May 1926, the dates of the Trumbauer tenure in St. Louis, which coincides with Foster’s return to the city from California to join Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson on the riverboats in 1925.

[21] Norman Mason, interview by Paul R. Crawford, February 6, 1960, Reel 1, p. 3, HJA.

[22] Preston Jackson, interview by William Russell, June 2, 1958, Reel 2, p. 16, HJA.

[23] Darnell Howard, interview by Nesuhi Ertegun and Robert Campbell, April 21, 1957, Reel 3, p. 9, HJA, and George Foster and Muggsy Spanier, interview by Nesuhi Ertegun and Robert Campbell, April 21, 1957, Reel 1, pp. 7–8, HJA.

[24] Santo Pecora, interview by Richard B. Allen, November 11, 1972, Reel 3, pp. 24–25, HJA.

[25] Marshall Stearns, “Wingy Mannone: The Spirit of New Orleans,” Jazz Hot 4 (July–August 1935), 30.

[26] Johnny DeDroit, interview by Richard B. Allen, March 13, 1974, Reel 1, p. 10, HJA.

[27] Sharkey Bonano, interview by William Russell, November 9, 1966, Reel 2, p. 9, Reel 3, p. 12, HJA.

[28] Stuart Bergen, interview by Richard B. Allen, July 18, 1970, Reel 2, p. 3, HJA.

[29] Steve Brown, interview by William Russell and Richard B. Allen, April 22, 1958, Reel 2, pp. 19–20, HJA.

[30] Ibid., Reel 2, pp. 19–20, Reel 3, p. 35.

[31] Foster and Spanier interview, Reel 1, p. 8.

Author Information: 
Bruce Boyd Raeburn is Director of Special Collections and Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. He is the son of big band leader Boyd Raeburn and jazz vocalist Ginnie Powell and has worked professionally as a drummer in New Orleans for the past forty years. He is author of New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History (University of Michigan Press, 2009).

This article considers the process by which the cornetist, pianist, and composer Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became an iconic presence in the New Orleans jazz imagination. It examines the influence of New Orleans jazz musicians on Beiderbecke and his reciprocal influence on them, tracking numerous exchanges which transgressed class, racial, and geographical boundaries. It details the various means by which contact was achieved and seeks to demonstrate the ways in which a musical idiom that originated within a regionally discrete cultural setting was enriched and duly expanded by collaborations occurring both within and outside of New Orleans.

Bix Beiderbecke, New Orleans, jazz

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. “Bix Beiderbecke and New Orleans.” Current Research in Jazz 4, (2012).
  • MLA 7th ed.: Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. “Bix Beiderbecke and New Orleans.” Current Research in Jazz 4 (2012). Web. [date of access]
  • APA 6th ed.: Raeburn, B. (2012). Bix Beiderbecke and New Orleans. Current Research in Jazz, 4 Retrieved from

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