“It was 1927!” A few days ago, the Southside Aces rehearsed in preparation for Bix Beiderbecke Night at the Eagles. We’ll be there March 10th, that otherworldly Iowan’s birthday. Any contemplation of Bix’s music invariably leads to the above exclamation. You say it with heavy incredulity, and often add a remaining-in-denial shake of the head. Sometimes you might substitute one of the surrounding years in that sentence, but really, much of the music with Bix at the center that still inspires musicians today happened in 1927. Here we are ninety years later still trying to figure out how his way of playing—so swinging, hot and traditional, yet somehow with a modernity fifteen years ahead of it’s time—was channeled through him so early in jazz history.
On Friday, February 4th of that year, Frank Trumbauer and his Orchestra went into Okeh Studios in New York to wax a few, one of which—“Singin’ The Blues”—became arguably one of their most well-known recordings. When I say “arguably,” it’s because Bixophiles argue a lot. When I say “most well-known,” it’s most often just among Bixophiles that it is most well-known. I say this because my experience has been that if I mention his name out in public, I usually have to say “Bix” at least three times. And countless are the times I’ve had to explain his surmane, “No, it’s not ‘Spiderbeck’, but I can see how you heard that.” It just happened today, in fact. Bix did have a little personal fame outside of musician ranks during his lifetime. But then, as now, it was mostly the musicians who flocked around him. Then, they clogged the floors in front of bandstands, hungry for every note, like a room full of cats running to the sound of a can of tuna being opened. Now, we gather around whatever apparatus we use to play recordings and shake our heads in amazement.
But this Bixophile won’t argue if you tell me “Singin’ The Blues” was one of their best. It was a 1920 song Frankie and Bix and Eddie reworked into a masterpiece of melancholy swing. The Eddie was Eddie Lang, the guitarist on the session. Per usual, he played as if he were two guitarists, perfectly accompanying the soloists with rich chording and runs. Trumbauer on his C-Melody saxophone gives us an opening chorus that is an exquisite composition in itself, and Bix follows with his special brand of hot jazz meets French Impressionism. There is a short solo on clarinet by Jimmy Dorsey, who sounds perfectly subdued by the blueness of the proceedings. Bill Rank on trombone; Paul Mertz on piano, Howdy quicksell on banjo and Chauncy Morehouse on drums complete the cast.
Apparently, the first take was scrapped because everyone in the band wanted a solo, so they were only half way through when they ran out of grooves. The second take is what was released, with the two centerpiece solos of Bix’s and Tram’s.
In The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story by Phil and Linda Evans, they captured an interview with a Bix contemporary, Richardson Turner, who played cornet with the Princeton Triangle Jazz Band. Turner had this to say:
“Bix’s chorus on ‘Singin’ The Blues’ was a great one. They made three takes of it at the date, and every chorus of Bix’s was different. He simply did not know what someone meant when they reminded him of some chorus he’d taken on a record. He wasn’t that kind of musician, which is the point. It had to be different and better every time.”
“Trumbology” and “Clarinet Marmalade” were also recorded that day. Memorable recordings themselves, but none match the relaxed poise of “Singin’ The Blues.” There is a wistfulness to this record that makes it one of my go-to songs on any day I have clouds hanging over my head. By the last few bars, Bix and company heat it up, letting you know that no matter how much you like your melancholy, you can just go ahead and walk it off. Not to mention with a little bit of a strut.