Thursday, January 8, 2009

Young Bix, 1923-4, and the Chicago Style

wolverines, copenhagen, 1924

New Orleans Rhythm Kings

Up in Davenport, Iowa, in the years around 1920, a teenager with a cornet kept on playing his Original Dixieland Jazz Band records over and over, trying to play along with them on his cornet. Aspiring jazz musicians have done the same ever since, playing along with the recordings of their idols, trying to learn the trick of playing and composing at the same time that is what jazz improvisation is all about, not to mention giving it a little bit on what's in your heart so that you are speaking with your own voice.

Bix grew up in a middle class family with a bit of a taste for music, but his father strongly disapproved of jazz, and this fact cast a shadow over Bix's entire life. Nevertheless, he persisted in learning the cornet, and a wise teacher hired by his parents told them that he played all wrong, but that he was not going to interfere because the young man was "getting excellent results". In fact, Bix was perfecting a unique and wonderful cornet style that still stands out, featuring a beautiful bell-like tone, and perfectly formed eighth and sixteenth notes with an miraculously formed attack. His tone has been compared to "BBs hitting a bell", and, most poetically by Eddie Condon, who compared it to "a girl saying yes". Even Louis Armstrong was impressed: "those pretty notes went right through me".

Bix also had a firm grasp of modern harmony, and his solos are just as well known for their beauty and advanced harmonic conception. On famous composition, In A Mist, recorded on the piano by Bix, is really more of an impressionist piano composition than a jazz piece.

Bix was also recorded early on at Gennett records. He was playing with the Wolverines, a small group formed to play in the clubs and summer resorts of the midwest. As the records filtered out, musicians all over the country pricked up their ears when Bix's clear, beautiful tone leapt out. These early recordings of Bix have a charm all their own, but we will return to Bix later on for a look at his career when he was in the big time.

Also included are some Gennett sides by another northern white group, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. They are known for self-consciously including what were considered "black" elements into their playing, chiefly a bluesy sound that contrasted with the ricky-ticky rhythms and straight intonation that characterized some other white groups of the time. It made a big impression on their peers, including Bix.

All in all, these Gennett recordings document the second generation of jazz players, young kids in the midwest who had never been in New Orleans. It was the good luck of Gennett to be the only record company in the midwest at the point in time when the heart of jazz was in Chicago...

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