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"Bixing: Myths, lies and political correctnes...

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Extracted from Mainspring Press website:

"BIXING":Myths, Lies, and Political Correctness in Jazz Research

By Malcolm Shaw

Discographer-General's Warning

This article may contain noxious quantities of hearsay, romantic rumor, conjecture, tall stories, political correctness, and trace quantities of trash. Bixing may impair your ability to discern reality from conjecture and truth from twaddle. Severe cases may be harmful to mental health.

So, what's bixing? It's a common habit in jazz history both written and oral, of passing off rumor and opinion as fact. It's named for Bix Beiderbecke because people have probably used more smoke and mirrors to augment and glorify his particular legend than anyone else's. The harm that results is usually minimal and often risible, but bixing creates a folklore tradition that newcomers to our music hear and believe at the expense of truth.

Many if not most of us catch the jazz addiction through one of three figures; Armstrong, Morton or Beiderbecke. In my own case, a friend at boarding school brought his dad's copy from home of "The King of New Orleans Jazz," bearing 14 classic Morton tracks from 1926-27 Victors. A minute into "Black Bottom Stomp," I was hooked for life at the age of 13. High on Jelly-Roll, I then began to seek the same euphoria from other similar sources, and soon found Bix, Louis, Johnny Dodds and other seminal figures. I also started to look for information about them, beyond just the music. This is what I gleaned from friends, liner notes and books of the day, about Bix Beiderbecke:

"Bix started life as Leon Bismark Beiderbecke [look in jazz books written before 1960, if you don't believe me; never mind the birth and death certificates, which give "Bix" as his middle name]. He took to the cornet from the age of 3, though he never read a note of music all his life. Nick LaRocca, of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, taught him everything he knew. He put together a band, the Wolverines, but the other players were lousy compared to him. This upset him so much, it drove him to drink, which eventually killed him.

He left to work for Gene Goldkettle's band [sic, in the same early jazz books] but they only played highly arranged dance music, which he hated. The other musicians were way below his standard, and playing this stuff drove him crazy with artistic frustration, which eventually killed him.

He then joined the autocratic and repressive Paul Whiteman, who didn't understand his genius, making him play syrupy arrangements. Having to play syrupy arrangements was what eventually killed him.

The only time it was fun at all, was in the studio with his Gang and Frankie Trumbauer's Orchestra. There, he could choose his material, so he played only top-flight jazz tunes [like "Wait Till You See Ma Cherie"; "Lila"; "High Up On A Hilltop"?]. Bix would show up, take his horn out of that brown-paper bag he always used to carry it, (one of two hand-built Vincent Bach "Stradivarius" models, probably two grand each by today's standards; who needs a case?) and hit every note with a "bell-like tone." He never used a mute [never mind his famous solo on "Sweet Sue"]. He also never made a bad record or hit a wrong note. His trademark was the ability to bend notes by pressing the valves half-way down, a trick nobody else knew how to do.

He sent home a copy of every record he made, which his parents hid away in the original packing boxes in a second-floor cupboard, without opening them, because they hated his music. Home on a visit, he went to the cupboard to get some clean underpants. To his surprise, he found his records there. It broke his heart and eventually killed him.

He drank too much and ran around with bad company. Always the businessman, Whiteman decided to let him go, and in his weakened state, Bix went for a ride with Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman in an open car on a winter night and caught pneumonia, which eventually killed him.

[Or...wasn't it Isadora Duncan who died from doing the open car thing? And isn't the "cupboard" (marked as such by the present owners) a linen-closet big enough to hold maybe a dozen or two boxed records out of the 200+ he made? Didn't he regard Whiteman (who kept Bix's chair open and Bix on the payroll while he was repeatedly drying out) as a father figure, and the opportunity to play in his band as the success of a lifetime? Wasn't the winter night he died in August, 1931, and excruciatingly hot? And didn't he make his exit leaping around, screaming that there were Mexicans under the bed with long knives, rather than heading heavenward from a tranquil pneumonic coma? Bix's death has more in common symptomatically with Jimi Hendrix's and Jim Morrison's departures (also, technically, pneumonia) than with those of the languishing consumptives in Bronte novels.]

Certainly also, some of his friends helped him kill himself, which is the other popular theory for his downfall; but his parents, other friends, and his employer loved him and tried repeatedly to help him back up when he fell. Neither society, nor the music, nor other people, nor the times caused his demise. It was Prohibition gin Bix bought for himself, and not one drop went down his throat by accident. Tragedy implies inevitability, and Bix could have lived a full threescore and ten, had he chosen to."

So that's what bixing is. Bixing serves the purpose of portraying someone or something in a biased light, whether for better or worse. Whether it consists of puff, fibs or whoppers depends on the bixer. Applied to Bix Beiderbecke, it's pretty much benevolent. It seeks to portray him as a frustrated artist, an introvert who died a classic death in a garret at a young age, after a life of tragedy. It chooses to ignore, for example, that he was vicious and unpleasant when drunk, which both Paul Mertz and Bill Challis have said clearly he was. That's also not good romantic tragedy; it's much more cathartic for the audience for our hero waste away from artistic frustration, than to choke during a self-inflicted fit of DTs. Unpleasant facts get in the way of rosy legend, and become tacitly or explicitly ignored.

Bixing began in the later 30s, with a desire to confer heroic status on favorite performers, especially those who came to sticky ends, like Bix and Bessie Smith. It persisted through the following decades, making legends of Charlie Parker, Chu Berry, Billie Holiday. The pop-music world of the 1960s bixed Robert Johnson into the world's best-known blues singer by acclamation, largely because of yet another mist-shrouded, agonizing death, and the story that he had to die because he sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads. Owing his fame to the fervor of people like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, he's the only pre-war blues singer most people under 50 have heard of.

It continues unabated. Inspiration, divine revelation, emotion-based deduction and wild-assed guessing still occupy an unassailable place alongside fact-based research, eyewitness corroboration and the scientific method. Unfortunately, the injection of romance into historical study may enhance readability, but does nothing for credibility.

The version of Bix's life I first learned, quoted at the beginning of the article, only changed for me by applying the knowledge that writers and enthusiasts across the decades have used their particular brand of grease on the historical lens to cast events in the soft or harsh light they desire to throw. As a result, all too often, romantic notions have become "facts" that "everybody knows..."

Staying with Bix one moment longer, it's interesting that the visual image most Bix books and reissues have used to typify him in the past is the studio shot of a slightly lost-looking 18-year-old (though one book I have does a nice bit of bixing, giving 1923 as the date) in his first tux, holding his cornet on his knee, on his way to one of his early semi-pro gigs before he even left Davenport: a perfect ingenu. Far from being the pale, Byronic introvert such histories would have us envisage, young Bix was extroverted, gregarious, good at sports, going out for football, basketball and baseball at Lake Forest. His correspondence both as a youth and a professional musician shows him to have been forthright and assertive, at times ebullient. As for grammar and spelling, he had no time for rules. Isn't this exactly in character with what we hear in most of his music?

Bixing is open to all comers, of course, not just Davenport's most famous son. But an aura of romance and Schadenfreude is of the essence. Don Murray, for example, died a horrible and tragic death even before Bix did, but he does not have the "doomed by his art" stamp of a Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker, so he isn't lionized in the same way. And who now weeps for Mario Perry, Eddie Lang, even Frank Teschemacher? Their shortened lives, for reasons of their own, don't fit the criteria for Harlequin Romance musical history.

In the realm of blues singers (another heavy-laden field, emotionally) "everybody knows," or at least everybody has heard at some time, that Bessie Smith bled to death when the ambulance called to the scene of her auto accident took her to a whites-only hospital, where the personnel would not treat her. The myth, for such it is, was positively and indisputably dispelled in the sixties. But there still exist diehards who quote it ferociously as gospel. It makes an excellent parable. Set in 1937, it fits a mental image of the times; Pa Joad scrabbling in the dust-bowl dirt, our grandparents' tales of childhood spent finding the way to the outhouse in the dark through the snowdrifts, and the Southern Trees Bearing a Strange Fruit. This is PC bixing. So if it reinforces a truth about race relations in the 1930s with a little white lie, who suffers? The truth is, we all do, for PC bixing fosters ignorance, not enlightenment.

Recently, Ken Burns did a great service to this music, in terms of public awareness, by making his documentary, "Jazz." It undoubtedly engaged many converts, and if you're one such reading this, welcome. It also provided new avenues for bixing in the form of personal opinions expressed as fact, from both hosts and guests, and also writers. Perhaps again, the gain for the music offset the loss of credibility, but not totally so for me. In Episode 4, Louis Armstrong's erstwhile manager, Tommy Rockwell, is referred to as "a tough-talking booking agent with mob connections;" an ugly enough insinuation. It makes him sound like a shady, dishonest, hustling, greedy opportunist, even to my ear, and I know a bit about him. The reality is somewhat different.

Rockwell managed the Chicago OKeh Records division of the Consolidated Music Publishing Company in the mid-20s, and later their New York office. He was personally responsible for giving Louis Armstrong his break in 1925 (on Richard M. Jones's recommendation) to record for the first time under his own name on the Hot Fives and subsequent Armstrong combinations for OKeh, effectively launching Louis' career as the first virtuoso bandleader. This was no small gift to Louis or to us. Rockwell became, essentially, a mentor for Louis' career from then on, and to a greater or lesser extent, a contributor to Louis' success for the whole time he was with OKeh. This history and its contribution to where Louis was by 1929 goes unmentioned. The commentary also doesn't mention that in 1929, when Rockwell summoned Armstrong to come to New York, Armstrong thought enough of this man to drop everything and do it. Could it be because it doesn't fit the film's Leitmotiv of racial exploitation, another example of PC bixing?

Could it also be for the same reason, that Louis' recording the same year of "Knocking A Jug," one of the most important fully integrated studio recordings of the decade, goes unmentioned? Jazz broke race barriers 30 years before American society made it law. Anyone who knows the music can think of five examples without racking brains; Coleman Hawkins, Lonnie Johnson, Clarence Williams, Fats Waller and a good many early blues singers either led or performed with white musicians and bands. I can't see why a program built heavily around Louis and especially the music he played would ignore this, absent an agenda.

However, the film commentary does explain that the call and Louis' move were a breakthrough for Armstrong's career, exposing him for the first time to a wide white audience, which accepted and loved him from then forward, piling success on success. But it doesn't attribute any of this to Tommy Rockwell. To find out how much Louis felt he owed Rockwell, read his own words, it's in his books; but it's also in letters I have seen from him to Rockwell.

Now to the mobster innuendo; that Rockwell booked bands into venues owned or operated by crime figures is indubitable. That was where the gigs were. Agents everywhere had deals to make in a public entertainment network permeated by organized crime. That network, moreover, usually purveyed an illegal substance, whose manufacture and distribution took place substantially under the aegis of organized crime. So anyone doing business in the industry did business with the mob. It was true for Rockwell, true for Irving Mills, Joe Glaser, Sam Lanin, anyone big or small. In that sense, they all had "mob connections." By its choice of words, the film's phraseology insinuates a mob-insider role for Rockwell, which neither the film nor the book then clarifies, sources or substantiates. No-one of my acquaintance who knew or worked with him, including his former employers and a close relative of his, has voiced this idea as even a possibility, let alone confirmed it. I've had to write a page here to rebut seven words, but I draw the line at bixing ill of the dead.

The bixing beat doesn't only go on, it grows, and it isn't even limited to "our" music. A collector I revered in the 1960s told me as gospel that he had "a friend who knew the guy who wrote the melody and lyrics for 'Yesterday,' which he then sold to Paul McCartney for five pounds." Yeah, man, right on! ...

New examples show up every day. Auction sites are a goldmine of innovative bixing. Consider, for example, the advertiser who quotes the personnel of one of the records he has at auction as including one "William McKinley, who later went on to found his much-more-famous Cotton Pickers." Or the one who states of a hill-and-dale Edison for sale, that: "In spite of what the collectors say, you can play these on a regular Victrola; they just don't sound as good." (Nor, perhaps, do they thereafter sound much like anything at all...)

Bixing is a combination of ignorance, mental laziness and reckless enthusiasm, sometimes combined with an agenda, political or personal. It's fun to search out, it's common enough and it can give you a laugh on a rainy day. I think there's a book in it, somewhere. When you come across them, send me your examples, and I'll acknowledge them!

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Malcolm Shaw is editor of Brian Rust's Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942).

He can be reched by email at brushtrain@aol.com or by mail at 1454 Ash Street,

Denver, CO 80220.

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Interesting piece, though not without its own hyperbole -- that many if not most jazz lovers come to jazz through Armstrong, Bix or Morton. This has to be a generational thing. I came to jazz largely through Brubeck, Monk and Mingus and to a lesser extent Miles Davis. I suspect most people in their 30s came to jazz through Miles Davis and perhaps Coltrane or Cannonball. Some teens are probably coming to jazz through the remix projects that are played in Starbucks, etc.

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Ok - so the profile could also fit Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin....etc. It could also go as far back as .......Achilles ?

I agree with the concept - I just hate to see Bix's name as synonymous with bullshitting.

I'd prefer Bushing.

Edited by Harold_Z

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Ok - so the profile could also fit Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin....etc. It could also go as far back as .......Achilles ?

I agree with the concept - I just hate to see Bix's name as synonymous with bullshitting.

I'd prefer Bushing.

:lol:

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and actually he's got it somewhat wrong on Isadora Duncan, who died in a car, but died because her long scarf got caught under the wheels and choked her -

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Yeah, I saw that on an episode of that TV show about Thelonious Monk. Except it wasn't caught in the car wheels, it was caught in an elevator. Man, speaking of stuff you never knew - I had no idea Monk was a white guy and a detective, as well as obsessive-compulsive.

Mike

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Well, I knew he was an obsessive compulsive!

This reminds me of the email correspondance I had briefly with the late Phil Evans regarding Dick Sudhalter's "research" for the Bix bio they both shared. He was so furious that Sudhalter had assured him that he had verified facts that turned out to be no more than anecdotal hearsay. . . . I think he was so upset that he didn't live long enough!

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And hey, I knew Monk was obsessive-compulsive, but I didn't know about being white and a detective and that other stuff! :)

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I should have picked up the clues from his wearing the deerstalker cap.

Maybe someone should write a history of jazz just based on what appeared in movies - Miller Story, Goodman Story, Krupa Story, Young Man And A Horn, Pete Kelly's Blues, Fabulous Dorseys, Lady Sings The Blues, Five Pennies, Bird, The Cotton Club, etc.

Because unfortunately, I suspect that's what the "real world" out there thinks.

Mike

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Sometimes there is a higher truth than the merely factual. Ralph Berton's memoir "Remembering Bix" was probably equal measure fact and fiction. Is it still one of the great memoirs of the "Jazz Age"? Without question.

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I agree, a great read!

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Bessie Smith did not die as a result of having been denied admittance to a whites-only hospital????

Get outta here! You're pulling my leg!

Edited by Christiern

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she did, according to Edward Albee -

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Bixing? I read through the article in anticipation of hearing all of the myths about Bix debunked. But I must have missed that part.

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