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Bix From Beyond the Grave

Beiderbecke fiend Phil Pospychala is still trying to raise the dead jazz giant.

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In a gloomy March weekend in a windowless banquet room at the Kenosha Holiday Inn, a group of determined people are trying to raise the dead. It doesn't look like a seance--most of the attendees are eating cake, sipping coffee and beer, and munching on sandwiches. The rest are onstage, playing a form of music known as "hot jazz."

The guest of honor is an ill-fated musical genius who's been dead since 1931, Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, whose transcendent cornet playing, hard drinking, and untimely death created a whole new musical archetype in the 1920s. The man throwing the party--as he's done every year since 1990--is Phil Pospychala, who lives and breathes traditional jazz.

Once the bands start playing, the Kenosha Holiday Inn fades. Close your eyes, sip your beer, and listen. Add an imaginary cigar or cigarette (now that we're in the smoke-free new millennium) and the music carries you to another time and place. You could easily be back in Chicago in the 20s, at the Savoy Bar and Grill on Michigan Avenue or at one of Bix's smoky recording sessions.

Last year's "Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke" drew at least 350 attendees from 30 states and six foreign countries. This year's event--starting February 28 in Racine, Wisconsin--almost didn't happen. But Pospychala managed to use his clout and cobble together enough funding to prove once again that Bix lives. The festival is a labor of love not only for him but for other hard-core Bix fans. This year a group of supporters offered to front him several thousand dollars for a down payment on the Racine venue. Pospychala accepted on the condition that he pay them back--not necessarily an easy task, considering that he's lost about $80,000 on the festival over the years. "Big deal, who cares?" he says. "Some people spend that much on a car." He adds, "I do this for my own heart."

Three weeks before this year's event, Pospychala is frantically searching for an E-flat tuba for the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings, a hot-jazz band from England. It's too expensive to ship the large instrument, and local music shops don't have a clue what he's talking about. He's also worrying about the lighting in the Racine banquet room, which is inadequate for live performance, and lining up other gigs for the musicians so that traveling to Wisconsin will be worth their while.

"This is way too much work, and I can't trust anyone else to handle it," Pospychala grumbles, trying to coordinate the details from his cluttered, pet-filled home in Libertyville. "But when you're doing this, you get on a high. And for four days, I'm a little emperor."

Don't confuse Pospychala's event with the "other" Bix fest. For the past 30 years, Bix Beiderbecke has been something of a cottage industry in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Each July this city on the Mississippi holds the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, which draws roughly 15,000 jazz fans. There's a Bix footrace, a Bix house tour, a Sunday jazz brunch, even a Sunday jazz liturgy at the First Presbyterian Church where Bix and his family worshiped. Oh yes--and there's music, with bands from across the country. To Pospychala, the Davenport festival has become "touristy," a Chamber of Commerce event designed to generate income.

Last year's events at Pospychala's tribute included a bus trip to historical jazz sites in Chicago, such as the Congress Hotel's restored Gold Room and the site of the Brunswick recording studio (operating from 1929 to 1935), right across from the old CBS building at 666 N. McClurg Court. Attendees even paid for a visit to Lake Forest Academy, where Bix once went to school. Then there are the records--a real anachronism to generations weaned on CDs, DVDs, and MP3s. But a big part of Pospychala's Bix festival is jazz fans staying up until all hours smoking cigars, drinking beer, and listening to 78s, trying to identify obscure players and tunes, dissecting riffs, and weighing the acoustics and fidelity.

"We 78 collectors don't want to hear anything else," Pospychala says, raving about the laminated Okeh disks for their "beautiful surfaces and wonderful fidelity." In fact Pospychala does a brisk trade buying and selling 78s on eBay, which helps make up for his losses on the festival.

On the last day of the event Pospychala holds a birthday cake celebration for Bix (with frosting designed to look like the original record labels). More bands play, among them last year the Parisian Redheads--five women from France who sound like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The cornet player, a big woman in a loose pantsuit with wavy black hair, announced song titles like "Alligator Crawl" in a soft, shy French voice, then got up and blasted a ballsy, startling solo that was pure Louis Armstrong. Between sets Pospychala takes the stage, joking about the connection between fading male virility and an obsession with 78s.

Pospychala has been a jazz enthusiast since he was 19, when he began collecting 78-rpm recordings by Bix and other hot-jazz players. He played cornet for 20 years--"for my own amusement"--frequently accompanying the recordings of his idols, but didn't feel he was good enough to make it as a professional musician. He worked for years in the can industry ("which probably helped me appreciate beer cans"), retiring in 1985 at age 48 as chief operating officer of Production Tool in Chicago. After that he worked as a consultant and accountant before retiring for good-- if you can call him retired, what with the Bix festival, freelance writing, and the Chicago brewery bus tour he hosts.

Pospychala's event isn't the only traditional jazz in town. The Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz hosts monthly shows at the Glendora Ballroom in Chicago Ridge, with acts like the ten-piece Chicago Footwarmers, the John Burnett Swing Orchestra, Gene Mayl's Dixieland Rhythm Kings, and the Original Salty Dogs. And in May the Berwyn-based West End Jazz Band (a staple at Pospychala's festival) is hosting a Bix tribute concert at the old Blue Lantern ballroom in Hudson Lake, Indiana.

"Phil has been the best thing to happen to us, just because he's keeping this music alive," says Leah Bezin, whose husband, Mike, fronts the West End Jazz Band. Leah--whose stage name is "Leah LaBrea, the Windy City Songbird"--plays tenor banjo and tenor guitar. "True, Phil's a little wacky. But you have to be to take on something like this. He's our own Flo Ziegfeld."

Bix, who got his start in Chicago, played with many of the era's finest jazzmen. A portion of the monolithic Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns documentary is dedicated to Bix--with photos and information provided by Pospychala. Although some purists say Bix's playing couldn't touch Armstrong's, there's no denying that Bix was and is a formidable influence on jazz. In the foreword to Phil and Linda Evans's Bix: The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story, Tom Pletcher writes that "his tone, vibrato and selection of notes could express passion, joy, sadness or humor....No jazz musician before or since could capture so much emotion." Guitarist Eddie Condon is quoted as saying that Bix's playing "sounded like a girl saying yes."

Still, Bix is unknown to many. "Only about 2 percent of the record-buying public buys jazz," Pospychala estimates. "And this doesn't even include the substrata of hot-jazz fans." Beiderbecke's music is readily available on CD, and although some of the arrangements and tunes may seem dated, there's no mistaking the clarity of his cornet's tone and the fresh approach he took to phrasing. No matter how corny the arrangement, Bix's solos sound remarkably contemporary.

Then there's the legend of the self-destructive genius. (The 1950 Kirk Douglas film Young Man With a Horn is based on Bix's all-too-short life.) He was a handsome, self-taught player with a natural talent, coming of age at a time when popular music was experiencing a major upheaval, struggling between his artistic inclinations and a desire for commercial success.

The son of a well-to-do Davenport merchant, Bix began playing piano at the age of three. His first exposure to jazz was listening to his older brother's 1917 recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Entranced, Bix taught himself to play cornet.

But although his freewheeling nature was a perfect fit for jazz, it was not suited to formal music lessons or school. His exasperated parents shipped him off to Lake Forest Academy--a big mistake considering the school's proximity to Chicago. Bix began sitting in on cornet with the city's many jazz bands and listening to greats like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which featured the young Louis Armstrong. He also made the acquaintance of a young Hoosier named Hoagy Carmichael, then a student at Indiana University.

Kicked out of Lake Forest Academy at 18, shortly after he started there, Bix headed to Chicago, where he formed a band with two Northwestern University students. Their seven-piece group, the Wolverines, played the midwest and cut records in Indiana. Bix went on to play with some of the most popular bandleaders of the day, such as Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. However, large commercial orchestras didn't always afford him the creativity he needed, and since he played almost entirely by ear, he struggled with the complex charts. He died from pneumonia complicated by years of excessive drinking at the age of 28.

With the current popularity of swing music, Pospychala hopes younger audiences will discover Bix's music. "Now that they've found the swing era, they just have to go back a decade or two," he notes. There are some encouraging signs, says Eddy Banjura, who heads the Illiana club. Venues like Andy's, the Green Mill, and Joe's Be-Bop Cafe and Jazz Emporium in Chicago, FitzGerald's in Berwyn, and Philander's in Oak Park regularly feature hot-jazz and swing bands. Borders bookstores are even beginning to book live jazz and feature a decent traditional-jazz selection, Banjura points out.

Pospychala concedes that attracting a younger crowd has been a challenge, even though over the years attendance at his event has remained steady or grown. "Every year you lose a few when they die," he says. "You can never get enough young people." Leah and Mike Bezin agree. "We're bringing up the caboose, because nobody is coming up behind us, either to listen or to play the music," Mike says. "Hearing our music would be like somebody from 1935 hearing rap music. It's totally foreign to them."

The Bezins' interest in hot jazz, which goes back decades, is what brought them together. Both of Leah's parents were musicians--her mother was a dancer and the Yodeling Cowgirl on WLS radio's National Barn Dance in the early 40s, her father a guitar and bass player with a western swing band called the Windy City Ramblers. Leah got turned on to hot jazz when she was 12, after hearing a 78 recording of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks. "I joined the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks Club, card number 1031, and became a social outcast among my peer group," she says. She met Mike at the old Chalet Loft in Willow Springs when the West End Jazz Band was playing there. Mike invited her to sit in, and she became a permanent member after they married (Mike told her it would be easier to get to and from gigs that way, she jokes). The West End Jazz Band, which has played all over the country and toured Europe, recently released a CD on its own label. Although neither the Bezins nor the other band members are in a position to quit their day jobs--Leah works as a court reporter, Mike as an electrician for Metra--they love the music and will stick with it.

Besides organizing the Bix fest, Pospychala is a die-hard beer can collector, beer drinker (he wrote for Barfly), and brewery fan. On his four-hour bus tours to the sites of historical north- and south-side breweries (which originate at the Goose Island Brewpub), "We give them a little bit of Elliott Ness and a lot of Chicago history," he says.

The rest of his time he spends getting ready for the next Bix fest--grumbling all the way. "I'm getting too old for this," he mutters. "Who knows, maybe I'll just stop doing it."

Don't count on it.

This year Pospychala's annual "Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke" will be held February 28 through March 3 at the Marriott Hotel in Racine, Wisconsin. The event will feature local, national, and international hot-jazz bands, a bus tour of historic jazz sites, a dealers' floor, and rare jazz films from the late 20s and early 30s. For more information, call 847-362-4016. To contact the Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz, call 219-923-6775 or visit the Web site (www.tradjazz.org). For info on the West End Jazz Band's May Indiana concert, call Mike Bezin at 708-788-5460.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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