Q&A: Delving into the Life of the Inscrutable Jazz Legend Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke is an iconic jazz figure, one of the greatest soloists of his era, and a figure of myth -- a myth spread widely by the 1950 hit biopic "Young Man with a Horn." Bix has intrigued people for many reasons: being one of the few white jazz pioneers, rising from the Iowa cornfields to hit it big in a musical genre dominated by southerners, and -- not least -- for drinking himself to death by the age of 28.

Brendan Wolfe, a Charlottesville, Va. writer, was intrigued by all of these things -- and by the fact that Bix was, like him, a child of Davenport, Iowa, where he is still a revered figure. Wolfe talked with The National about his new Bix Beiderbecke biography.

1.  Bix Beiderbecke was once a world-famous jazz legend, but he is less well-known today. What led you to want to write about him?

I grew up with Bix—or at least it feels like I did. We're from the same hometown of Davenport, Iowa, and his name and face are still a huge part of the city's identity. There's an annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, and a Bix 7 road race with tens of thousands of runners, Bix T-shirts, bumper stickers, bobble-head dolls, the whole works. I never heard his music, though, until the summer after I graduated from high school. That's when two Italian brothers, a film director and producer, came to Davenport, purchased and renovated the Beiderbecke family home, and filmed a biopic. It's not a great movie, in my opinion, but it was a finalist for the Palme d'Or in 1991.

Anyway, I landed a bit part and fell completely head over heels for Bix's music. A few years later, I wrote a piece about Bix for a weekly newspaper I edited, after which I received in the mail a letter to the editor—an angry letter to the editor, I think it's fair to say—that was signed "Bix Beiderbecke." That's really when the book began, but I'm going to leave that story for the book.

2.  He was, like you, an Iowan. People think New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta or Chicago when they think about jazz, not Davenport, Iowa. How did “a kid from the cornfields,” as you say, make it to the top of the jazz world?

Iowa is in my blood, and every time I gratuitously mention the place my friends in Virginia yell, "Drink!" Still, it strikes me that the state was unusually influential during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to producing Bix Beiderbecke, it was the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace, Glenn Miller, Grant Wood, Donna Reed, the agronomist Norman Borlaug, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell (also a Davenporter!), and one of the most important arts critics of the Jazz Age, Carl Van Vechten. Some of these folks, like Van Vechten, fled. Others, like Grant Wood, stayed and placed Iowa at the center of their visions.

Either way, the point is that Iowa was less out of the way than you might think, and added up to more—in reality if not always in the imagination—than just a bunch of cornfields. Davenport was a good-sized city in Bix's youth, right on the Mississippi River. He heard jazz music on records and from riverboats. And when his parents sent him to boarding school north of Chicago, he was just a short train ride from what was then the white-hot center of the jazz world.

So it's hardly this crazy thing that he was a jazz star from Iowa. But it's crucial to the Romantic legend that came out of Bix's life that he be understood as coming from nowhere, as being a complete innocent who was "snatched out of a cradle in the cornfields," as Mezz Mezzrow wrote.

Another way of putting it is this: Those cornfields were not particularly important to Bix's life, but they're critical to his afterlife.

3.  Beiderbecke was one of the most prominent white jazz artists. How was his race a factor in his career?

What's interesting to me, and what fueled the writing of this book, is the way in which Bix Beiderbecke seems to show up in so many important and controversial discussions—about race and jazz, for sure, but also about addiction (he drank himself to death), about sexuality (boy, is this ever an explosive part of his story!), and about the role of commerce in art. The same kinds of questions that spring from Bix's life and afterlife have dominated twentieth-century popular culture and I don't think that's an accident. His legend created a kind of template for the modern Romantic artist. We may not well remember Bix Beiderbecke but he's responsible, in a way, for how we understand Elvis Presley or James Dean.

Anyway, I like how you phrased this question, because most often we think of race in terms of assessing the retrospective importance of various jazz stars. "Can Bix Beiderbecke, a white man, be considered one of the most important and influential early jazz soloists?" That's a question that gets asked a lot, but what did it mean for Bix Beiderbecke, during his career, to be white? That doesn't get asked as much. Jazz was invented in New Orleans by black artists, although a white band called (no irony intended) the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was the first to record. And those were the records Bix first heard in 1918. He listened to some black musicians off the riverboats, admired the playing of Louis Armstrong, but his own style seemed unaffected by any of that. And the laws of the day prevented him from playing or recording professionally with black musicians. At least one historian has suggested that this was to Bix's great disservice—that he might have achieved much more if he had been surrounded by better musicians. I think this greatly underestimates the white musicians he played with, men like Frank Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Pee Wee Russell.

Whatever the case, the usual way of thinking about Bix in terms of race is this: What does it mean that the culture has elevated Bix Beiderbecke, the white player, instead of so many deserving black players. To many, the fact that we still talk about Bix at all is reflective of a cultural denial of the music's black roots. Elvis stole black music and made a fortune. People used to say the same thing about the rap star Eminem, and for awhile there was an Internet music site that described Eminem as "the Bix Beiderbecke of rap." I interviewed the critics Terry Teachout and Amiri Baraka for the book and am happy to let them hash this whole argument out.

4.  You write in Finding Bix that the “Great Bix Myth requires that Bix’s death be characterized as a tragedy.” What do you make of his untimely death at the age of 28 in a Queens, New York boarding house – and how big a role do you think alcoholism played in it?

People argue about every last thing related to Bix Beiderbecke—from his name (was it actually "Bix" or was "Bix" just a nickname?) to how he died. He clearly was an alcoholic but he died of pneumonia. Did one lead to the other or was he, as some argue, all cleaned up and ready to go at the time of his death? My own opinion is that yes, he drank himself to death, and attempts to suggest otherwise seem to come from a desire to defend poor, innocent Bix from the slings and arrows of history. A thread that weaves through the book is the way in which people, both in his lifetime and ours, have constantly wanted to defend and protect "poor Bix"—from accusations as minor as slovenliness to charges as serious as sexual assault. It's a reflex that I think ultimately deprives him of his humanity. The real, or what I call the "fleshy" Bix disappears and the legend takes over. He becomes an empty vessel for whatever we want and need Bix to be. I find this to be really interesting but also really sad.

The fact that he died young is really important, though. He was just twenty-eight and had already established himself as one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. Which is amazing! But he didn't live long enough to quite break our hearts. He was still full of so much potential, and that's why his death feels like a tragedy. And on that tragedy the legend of Bix Beiderbecke is founded—just as early death shaped our understandings of Robert Johnson, James Dean, Elvis Presley, and even Kurt Cobain. The Washington Post, by the way, once described Bix as "the Kurt Cobain of the 1920s."

5.  Beiderbecke is one of those rare artists whose fame was largely posthumous. How did he go from being not-well known at his death to being an iconic jazz figure afterward?

Two people: Otis Ferguson and his friend Dorothy Baker. Ferguson, a legendary, Bixian figure in his own right, was a critic for the New Republic magazine. He wrote two essays, "Young Man with a Horn," in 1936, and "Young Man with a Horn Again," in 1940, that drew on a hodgepodge of stories already circulating about Bix and almost from whole cloth created the legend. Bix Beiderbecke is not remotely a real person in these essays, but a Romantic legend—someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere and was touched by genius, creating art that was vulgar and therefore beautiful, and who died young, almost as if he were too good for this world.

That's the gist, anyway, and Dorothy Baker took that template and turned it into her novel of the same name, Young Man with a Horn, published in 1938. She insisted that "the inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life," of Bix Beiderbecke. And yet by the time Kirk Douglas was playing the horn player in the 1950 film version, the distinction had largely become meaningless.

Various early biographers followed the template established by Ferguson and Baker and a legend was born, so to speak. There's another way of looking at it, though. To steal a line from my book, "The story about Bix is that he's the kind of guy you tell stories about." His music seemed steeped in a narrative sensibility and his friends, perhaps in an effort to understand his playing or to get at where it came from, seemed obsessed with telling stories about him. Bix began to do it himself even, so that the stories began to shape the life as much as the life shaped the stories. It's really a fascinating dynamic and one I try to capture in the book.

6.  Beiderbecke’s music, of course lives on – “Singing the Blues,” “Davenport Blues” – they’re even on YouTube. What do you think his lasting influence is?

His influence is both cultural, which I've already gone on and on about, and musical. Were it not for the music, though, the legend would be meaningless. Making sense of the music is the whole point of the legend I think. And Bix's music—oh man. It's wonderful! Like a "choirful of angels," as one of his musician friends described it, or like "a girl saying yes," as another famously put it. Bix fans can be kind of irritating for this kind of enthusiasm, but that's what's so wonderful about art, and about music in particular. It touches you in some really primitive way.

I think jazz historians largely agree that, with Louis Armstrong, Bix was one of the two most important jazz soloists of the 1920s and that he helped create a whole way of thinking about the music that was more melodic and classically influenced. He's in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Lincoln Center Jazz Hall of Fame, and two of his recordings have been preserved by the Library of Congress.

What's really important, though, is how Bix's music has had this really wonderful impact on so many people, myself included. True, I've never gone so far as using it in a marriage proposal, but I met a Danish man who did! As it is, I listen to it every day—his solos are stamped on my brain like language—and I'm lucky to have it in my life.