is about musical genius, disability, and the Cradle of RecordedJazz.
Bix was an enigma. He never finished high school; he never properly
learned to read music. Yet he was, by all accounts, an outstanding
In 1903, Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa, to a
middle class family. Bix was a musical prodigy at seven, champion
tennis player as a teenager, but an underachiever academically.
His mother was a church organist and his first music teacher. Bix
was the poster boy for the Roaring Twenties, a time of fast cars,
bootleg alcohol, and hot music, a time when marijuana was legal
and alcohol was not. Bix had self-doubt, probably a learning disorder,
and eventually a drinking problem. His passion was music, and gin
was his ruin.
As a teenager, Bix met Louis Armstrong on a riverboat in Davenport.
Soon thereafter, his parents sent him to Lake Forest Academy outside
Chicago. Bix was soon a regular at the jazz joints on Chicago's
south side where the music and gin came together. He was dismissed
from the academy in the spring; formal education could wait.
Bix formed his own band and began touring the college scene. He
met Hoagy Carmichael at Indiana University. Hoagy knew immediately
that Bix had something special, a lyricism and talent that were
far superior, so this law student and fledgling song writer teamed
with the high school drop-out and cornet virtuoso. Bix renamed the
song "Riverboat Shuffle" for Hoagy. With Bix as a collaborator,
writing music was so much easier, Hoagy later recounted. To our
everlasting thankfulness, Hoagy told Bix of the recording studio
in Richmond, Indiana.
In 1924, before he was twenty-one, Bix was recording at the Gennett
studio in Richmond. A year later he was back in Richmond and recorded
"Davenport Blues" for Gennett. For the next five years,
Bix played with the best. He eventually got to New York where he
played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which included Frank Trumbauer
and singer Bing Crosby. But the drinking was taking its toll on
Bix. The disease process of alcoholism was well underway. He became
less responsible, chronically late, and dead at age twenty-eight.
The year was 1931.
This is the tragic story of the Jazz Age, the addiction that killed
the genius. Bix was greatly admired by Louis Armstrong and Hoagy
Carmichael. To quote Armstrong, "I've heard a lot of cats try
to play like Bix, but ain't nobody play like him yet." For
the past thirty-five years, the people of Davenport have honored
his memory with a Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival. And in
Richmond, on the corner of 9th and South A streets, you can see
Bix Beiderbecke (second from right) and his Rhythm Jugglers as they
appeared in Richmond when they recorded "Davenport Blues."
Richmond has honored Gennett and the great musicians who made Richmond
the Cradle of Recorded Jazz.
Contributed by Bob Jacobsen, Starr-Gennett Foundation