Bix Beiderbecke

By: Mark Kingwell
March 10, 2012

The first jazz riff BIX BEIDERBECKE (1903-1931) ever played was his excellent euphonious name. Bix was short for Bismark, and the life was short too. Just twenty-eight years old and with no popular following when he died of complications from constant alcohol abuse in a Queens apartment, Beiderbecke was the original Romantic Victim of jazz, the doomed young man with a horn. Lauded, sentimentalized, emulated, blown larger than life, he fixed the pattern of early passion and early exit. I first heard that magic name, along with that of close pal Hoagy Carmichael, from my father, otherwise a committed Hank Williams man. Working in a used record store the same year I found, among the multiple discarded copies of Bat Out of Hell, some old Bix sides. The cornet, not the trumpet, was his instrument, its conical bore producing a pure-toned, lilting, mellow sound that contrasts subtly with the piercing trumpet. Self-taught Bix fingered his horn’s valves quirkily and improvised syncopated strings of cool but clever phrases, at once light and precise, that provide the proper soundtrack to the giddy pleasures of the Jazz Age, like a frothy silver-shaken sidecar or neurotic Scott Fitzgerald beauty rendered in sound. Eddie Condon is on record as saying the sound is “like a girl saying yes,” but that’s too narrow: the sound of Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet is like the universe saying thank you.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Boris Vian, Rick Rubin, and Neneh Cherry.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.


Cuspers, HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music