Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke was born on March 10, 1903 in Davenport, Iowa to Bismark and Agatha Beiderbecke. Bismark was an executive with the East Davenport Coal and Lumber Company, and the youngest Beiderbecke grew up at the very respectable address of 1934 Grand Avenue.
Everyone called the child Bix, though there is some controversy as to whether this was his actual middle name, or a nickname. According to one of Bix's sisters, May Louise, their father did not want his second-born son to be named after him, but agreed that Bix, a popular nickname for Bismark, was an acceptable substitute. Since Bismark was called 'Big Bix,' and the oldest son, Charles Burnette, was already called 'Little Bix,' a third Bix in the family caused some confusion. Charles joked that when he came home from World War I, people who telephoned the Beiderbeckes had to be asked whether they wanted to speak to the coal man, the soldier, or the musician.
Considered a musical prodigy, and gifted with both perfect pitch and a phenomenal musical memory, Bix could pick out tunes on the piano by the time he could reach the keys. The community was interested in the boy's talents; the Davenport Democrat published an article about his accomplishments when he was six. Bix even accompanied Ernst Otto, the well-known Davenport violinist and a director of the Saengerfest Music Festival, when the musician visited Bix's elementary school.
However, Bix's piano teacher, though impressed with the child's natural talent, quit in frustration because Bix refused learn to read sheet music and wouldn't stop changing around the notes of 'perfectly good' music. His mother, herself an accomplished pianist, also failed to teach Bix how to read music, and gave up the idea of her youngest son becoming a concert pianist.
As Bix was growing up, riverboats were starting to play a different style of music, a style of which the conservative parents of Davenport did not approve. Strains of jazz and blues would drift to the banks of the Mississippi, and Bix, fascinated despite his parents' disapproval, was usually late for supper when a big riverboat was due to cruise by. One night, he didn't come home at all, but returned the next morning—escorted by the captain of the riverboat on which Bix had stowed away. The captain of the boat supposedly told the worried Beiderbeckes that Bix was the best calliope player he had ever heard, and it was too bad the boy was too young to be hired.
It was on a riverboat that Bix first heard a young man called Louis Armstrong play the cornet. Louis was only three years older than Bix, and made an enormous impression on the boy. Bix bought his first cornet, used, and quickly learned to play by listening to the radio and the victrola. He gave his first public performance less than two months later at a Davenport High School (now Central High School) dance, sitting in with the student band. Though Bix didn't have the valves all figured out, and didn't have a strong lip, the more accomplished musicians were apparently amazed at his progress. He practiced constantly, trying, as he told friends, to play the notes as perfectly as he could imagine them.
Unfortunately, Bix couldn't seem to put the same enthusiasm into his studies, and was in danger of failing his senior year. His parents did not want their son to become a professional jazz musician, living from paycheck to paycheck in speakeasies and other seedy places, and they were especially concerned about the social stigma of jazz, which many people believed encouraged immoral behavior. In order to make sure Bix earned a good education to prepare him for a respectable job, they decided to send him to Lake Forest Academy near Chicago, a strict boarding school.
Bix was so far behind academically that he was placed in the Academy's sophomore class, but he was determined to work hard to please his parents. However, the speakeasies of Chicago were within easy reach of the Academy students, and some bands would even let Bix sit in after they heard him play a borrowed horn. Soon, he was pocketing his cornet mouthpiece, staying out all night, and coming to classes half-asleep, and sometimes hung over. Though the thought of his parent's disappointment hurt him, he couldn't give up his music. He loved the acceptance of the other musicians, and the approval of the audiences.
Bix formed a campus band, called Cy-Bix, to play at school dances. Cy-Bix was very popular, though often teachers and chaperones would object to some of their faster, jazzier selections. The headmaster of Lake Forest objected to their many off-campus bookings, and ordered them to play for Academy functions only. As the story goes, the band waited until Sunday services, for which they provided the music for the hymns, to stage their protest. Halfway through the service, they played Rock of Ages—Dixie style. This was the last straw for the headmaster and Bix was asked to leave the Academy.
Bix was only eighteen years old, but he didn't want to go home and face his family. Instead, he headed for Chicago. Though he couldn't get a musician's union card because he couldn't read enough music to pass the exam, he managed to find gigs here and there. He began to make a name for himself, but before he could find a more permanent place in a band, his father found him. Bix returned to Davenport and started working for the East Davenport Coal and Lumber Company, but he somehow talked his parents into letting him return to Chicago for a few months in the summer.
A few months stretched into years, and in October of 1923, Bix managed to fake his way through the exam to get his professional musician's union card, and soon joined a band called the Wolverines. He played with several different bands all over the country for the next seven years. It was while he was playing in St Louis that he began listening to classical composers of the modern school, such as Debussy, Ravel, Holst, and Stravinsky, and incorporating their unconventional modes and rhythms into his own improvisations and compositions. And all the while he developed a horn style that 'seemed to embody the spirit of jazz.'
Bix jammed and recorded with several of the most famous jazz artists of the time, including Hoagy Carmichael, who was a great admirer of Bix's sound. Bix composed and recorded several numbers that are played today, including his first recorded composition, Davenport Blues. He sent copies of every recording he made to his parents, hoping that they would come to understand why he had chosen to play this kind of music.
Bix traveled constantly, playing with the Jean Goldkette Band and the Paul Whitman Band, and never seemed to slow down or take care of himself. He never drank during a performance, but afterwards was another story. He could never refuse anyone who wanted him to play or offered him a drink. Eventually, too much drink and too little sleep took its toll, and in 1928, he went back to Davenport to rest. Bix stayed with his family, who saw his exhaustion as proof that they were right about the evils of the jazz musician's lifestyle. One day, he found all of the recordings he had sent to his parents over the years, unopened. He left for New York soon after.
His drinking was now full alcoholism, and though his music didn't suffer, he did. In late 1929, Bix checked into the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois, to dry out. During this time, he apparently did not touch his horn. After he finished his six-week stay, Paul Wittman wanted Bix back with his band, but Bix was depressed, worried that he wasn't good enough anymore. To fortify his courage, he began drinking again.
In 1930, Bix was hired to play on the "New Camel Pleasure Hour" radio show. The program was a favorite in Davenport, where jazz was now more or less accepted, and the city considered Bix a favorite native son. Even Bix's parents relented, finally visiting their son at his 'legitimate job.' Unfortunately, radio did not allow Bix the musical freedoms he was used to while performing on stage, and he became restless and bored. He began drinking at rehearsals, or skipping them altogether, and staying up all hours playing his kind of music. Even his perfect memory could not hold up under this abuse: during an October broadcast, Bix stood up for a solo, and could not play. He told a friend later that his mind had gone completely blank.
Though it seemed that Bix was well on his way to self-destruction, by early 1931, he had virtually stopped drinking. Some gave credit to a woman named Helen Weiss, a native New Yorker; shortly after they met, Bix was already introducing Helen as his 'future wife.' Unfortunately, Bix still couldn't bring himself to turn down anyone who asked him to play, and no matter how late is was, there always seemed to be someone who could convince him to play one more number. By late summer, the pressure and the heat ran him down, and a persistent cold developed into pneumonia.
Bix Beiderbecke died August 6, 1931of pneumonia complicated by the results of years of excessive drinking. He was twenty-eight years old. His mother and brother, who were on their way to New York to care for him, didn't know until they arrived that he had already passed away. They brought his body back home to Davenport, and he was given one of the biggest funerals the city had ever seen, attended by famous musicians and friends and fans. He was buried in Oakdale Cemetery.
On the fortieth anniversary of his death, August 6, 1971, the first Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival was celebrated in Davenport. Unexpectedly, more than 2,000 people attended, and the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society was immediately formed to make the festival an annual event. The event is now held in LeClaire Park by the Mississippi River, and is usually taped and broadcast over Iowa Public Television.
In 1975, the first Bix 7-Mile Run took place, planned by the Cornbelt Running Club as their contribution to the Memorial Jazz Festival. The course was planned to pass beautiful scenery and historical landmarks, a few of which perched on some of the steepest grades in the city. Seventy or so runners participated in 1975, convincing the Club to make the event an annual one. Due to the increasing number of participants, the course was changed in 1980 to use the wider lanes of Brady street hill. By 1986, over seven thousand runners, some of them Olympic-class, took part in what is now considered one of the top road races in the country.
On July 26, 1997, during the Memorial Jazz Festival, Bix's cornet, for which he paid $400 dollars in the 'twenties, was donated to the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science by Bob and Eva Christiansen, jazz lovers from Los Gatos, California. The Christiansens, who acquired the instrument for an undisclosed amount, presented the horn to Bill Foster, the president of the museum board. The Museum loaned the horn for the evening to Ralph "Little Bix' Norton and the Varsity Ramblers, who performed some of Bix's best-known music at the Festival. In November of the same year, Bix Beiderbecke was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame
Memorials to Bix are scattered throughout Davenport: A small memorial sits by the bandshell in LeClaire Park, with a bust of Bix and quotes from his fellow musicians; a statue of Bix sits with cornet in hand at the corner of River Dirve and 4th Street, watching a pair of bronze runners finishing the race that bears his name; and Bix's face looks out from a musical mural on the City Parking Building on Perry Street. In addition, several books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been written about Bix, a documentary was filmed, and at least two movies have been based on his life. Fesitvals are held all around the world every year, honoring him.
Some might wonder at such memorials to a chronic alcoholic, whose great talent seemed only to drive him to an early death. But those who have heard Bix Beiderbecke's compositions, and can hear his influence in the music and musicians of today, know that his life and gifts were not wasted. The part of himself that he loved best lives on.