Bix? Is That You? | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Bix? Is That You?

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By Frank Youngwerth

With daylight fading, the oversize bus turns into Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park and rolls slowly up a narrow one-way lane. The driver stops, and our sprightly tour director jumps off to search the desolate rows. Minutes pass. He can't find what he's looking for. He motions to the driver to back up a hundred yards or so, and after more futile exploration, waves him back again. We peer out impatiently at his flashlight beam dancing across a sea of engraved anonymity.

Then, finally, pay dirt. About half the group--20 or 25 people, mostly couples in their 40s, 50s, or 60s--disembarks to join him and read the stone's simple inscription: Frank Teschemacher, 1906-1932. Hours earlier, we'd visited the corner of Magnolia and Wilson, where Tesch, of the famed Austin High Gang, met his demise in an auto accident, thrown from a car driven by Wild Bill Davison.

This might sound like a stop on one of those Untouchable Gangster Tours you see around town, but though Tesch and Wild Bill both did some work for Capone and his cronies during Prohibition, it was only in the capacity of playing hot music in gangster-run speakeasies. The Austin High Gang, a loose collective of jazz talent responsible for establishing what's known as the "Chicago style," also included future big names like Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Gene Krupa, and Eddie Condon.

Without exception the gang idolized self-taught cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke, who died of pneumonia in 1931 at age 28, and so does our grave-stalking guide, Libertyville resident Phil Pospychala. This tour of historic 20s and 30s jazz sites around Chicago kicked off his 11th annual Tribute to Bix, held in March--the month of Beiderbecke's birth--and headquartered at the Holiday Inn Express in sleepy downtown Kenosha. The location holds no special significance: he held the first ten Bix tributes at a Best Western near his home in Libertyville, but differences with the management of the restaurant there persuaded him to relocate the festivities.

Less well-known and more sparsely attended than the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, held every summer in the musician's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, Pospychala's tribute attracts between a hundred and two hundred record collectors and traditional-jazz enthusiasts from across the country and overseas with several days of concerts, vintage films, seminars, and late-night record-spinning sessions. Tribute participants treat the jazz of Bix's era not as relics you might stumble over in your grandma's attic or even just as some of the most exciting and innovative music of its day, but as music still worth listening to, getting excited over, and debating about.

Bix, one of the earliest in a long line of self-destructive jazz giants, pioneered a lyrical style that's been cited as a formative influence on Miles Davis. His life was the loose premise for Dorothy Baker's 1938 novel, Young Man With a Horn (made into a Hollywood movie starring Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in 1950), and his playing inspired his friend and fan Hoagy Carmichael to compose pop standards like "Stardust" and "Skylark," whose melody lines at many points recall Bix's distinctive approach to improvisation. Despite the brevity of his career, Bix is one of the most heavily researched figures in early jazz. In their landmark 1974 biography, Bix: Man & Legend, authors Phil Evans and Richard Sudhalter provided an almost day-by-day account of his whereabouts and activities.

One of the most perplexing episodes in Bix's life occurred in early 1929, while he was on the road with the hugely successful Paul Whiteman Orchestra, also featuring nascent crooner Bing Crosby. Only three months earlier, the band had given a concert at Carnegie Hall, where Bix had performed his own piano composition "In a Mist." In an era when every musician dreamed of someday making it to Carnegie Hall, he arrived on his own terms--a well-paid jazzman playing original material to boot. But in a nasty turn of events brought on by his alcoholism, he suffered a violent mental and physical breakdown in a Cleveland hotel room. Whiteman left him behind under a nurse's care, giving him leave to return home to Iowa and recover. Two weeks later, though, the band returned to New York only to find their star cornetist already there, and in a miserable condition, beaten up and slashed.

Nobody has ever figured out where Bix actually went or what he did during the days bookended by these two tragic incidents. But a couple of years ago, a California collector named Brad Kay found an obscure dance-band record made in Chicago's Brunswick studios on January 24, 1929--exactly when Bix was MIA. And curiously, it includes a 16-bar cornet solo that's got a familiar ring.

While it's no masterpiece, this mystery solo on "Cradle of Love" by Ray Miller and His Orchestra is big news for collectors. Though Bix recorded frequently between 1924 and 1930, he rarely got a chance to stretch out in the studio, even to play a full-length solo. The record business at this time operated under a kind of reverse racism. Labels would encourage black jazz musicians to play without restraint and solo liberally on record, to appeal to the tastes of the "race" market, but typically demanded that white musicians like Beiderbecke keep it buttoned up, playing pretty, peppy, and polite for the white audience. On occasion Bix managed to find his way around these barriers and cut loose for posterity, but not nearly often enough to satisfy his admirers.

At Pospychala's 1999 tribute, Kay had introduced Bix's solo on "Cradle of Love" as one possible such occasion. He analyzed it in detail, breaking it down into short phrases and comparing them to similar runs from known Bix passages. The analysis was interesting, but skeptics pointed out that under close scrutiny the solo really didn't sound so convincingly like Bix, and that by the time the record was cut, it had become fashionable among horn players in dance bands to imitate him, which could explain the similarities. Kay argued that while the playing might be shaky in spots, the solo's construction revealed an unusually high degree of creativity, beyond the capabilities of a mere imitator of that period. But over the months following his presentation Kay failed to win over Evans (who died last year), Sudhalter (who maintained that the solo just didn't sound like Bix), or any other recognized expert.

For this year's tribute Kay returned with more and better ammunition, though at first it didn't seem so. Another collector had found and forwarded to Kay an alternate take of "Cradle of Love" from the same session. Now there were two examples of the mystery cornetist's playing. The new one sounded less like Bix than the original, but rather than get discouraged Kay got an idea. Years before he had stunned the jazz-collecting world after noticing that two different takes of a Duke Ellington medley recorded in 1932 sounded like they might be the same performance captured with two different microphone setups. He synchronized the two takes, and presto, he had an astonishing true stereo recording of the revered Ellington band, made a quarter century prior to the commercial introduction of stereo.

With his "Cradle of Love" takes, Kay realized he had two different performances of the same arrangement and solo lineup, but he didn't see any reason not to try synchronizing them anyway, just to see what would happen. When he presented the results at the tribute, using a minidisc player, the effect on the audience was electrifying. First, though, he played a combination of two solos Bix was known to have recorded with Paul Whiteman's band on the song "From Monday On" in 1928.

Ever since jazz records started getting reissued, alternate takes have been offered, allowing the listener to compare a player's different attempts at the same solo passage. But as far as I know, nobody's ever thought of playing the solos simultaneously. I'd heard the two "From Monday On" solos countless times before, but they'd never sounded like this. They meshed so well, in counterpoint rhythm and harmony, that it was as if a three-dimensional image of Bix's spirit had materialized in the room.

But Kay meant for this to be more than a party trick. As he played more pairs of Bix solos, a pattern emerged: the cornetist apparently never repeated himself, even when the takes were recorded only minutes apart. Yet he inevitably remained true to his inner conception of the piece and its chord structure--that's what made the different lines so congruent when played simultaneously.

Next, Kay juxaposed pairs of alternate takes by other famous jazz soloists of the 20s-- Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Dorsey, Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Frank Trumbauer, and others. Together these suggested that it was not unusual at the time for even the greatest jazz musicians to stick with pretty much the same solo, phrase by phrase, from take to take.

Then Kay played the two "Cradle of Love" solos. And though they still didn't shine like Bix in top form, they combined much the way his other alternate pairs had--enough so to make a good case that either an inspired unknown imitator worked a lot harder than he had to to come up with two distinct Bix-like solos for an indifferent dancing public or "Cradle" was the real thing. A few audience members still grumbled their disapproval, but most said they were persuaded.

Weeks ago, Bixography, a Web site devoted to Beiderbecke, reported the discovery of evidence that a third take of "Cradle of Love" was recorded, sans vocals, for foreign markets and released in Germany; collectors are now hot on its trail. Meanwhile, Pospychala has put himself at Kay's disposal, assembling old train timetables, hotel registers, and recording studio ledgers to help determine a chain of events that might have led Bix to the studio that day. For next year's tribute, Pospychala hopes to take his tour group on an approximation of Bix's possible trail, from the old LaSalle Street train station to the Hotel Sherman (on the site of what's now the James R. Thompson Center), a popular place with musicians where he might've run into members of Miller's band, to Brunswick (in what's now a Columbia College building on South Wabash).

Unless someone actually finds studio documents that list Bix as a guest musician, Kay will probably never prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he played on "Cradle of Love." But Kay's presentation did offer a novel way to look at--or rather listen to--the creative process in jazz.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Courtesy the Bixography Web at http://www.bixbeiderbecke.com, with permission from Albert Haim.

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