Seventy-six years ago, on August 6, Bix Beiderbecke died in his Queens, New York, apartment. He was only 28 years old. Below are a few paragraphs from my book-in-progress . . .
Princeton University was putting on a dance and had hired a band with the understanding that the famous Bix Beiderbecke would be on the stand. No Bix, no band. That was the deal. Problem was, as his buddy Jimmy [McPartland] had noticed, Bix had taken sick. Bix tried to interest the dance committee in another cornetist—McPartland possibly?—but they wouldn’t bite. “When he learnt that his absence would cost his colleagues their jobs he defied common sense, put aside the advice of his friends, and went abroad in the cold night air,” Burnett James wrote in his 1959 biography. “The result was fatal.” [British biographers] Wareing & Garlick tell nearly the same story, and [Ralph] Berton admits that it “sounded a lot like Bix, and for years that story circulated in magazines and in biographical books, until someone thought to look up the date of his death, and started wondering what college boys would be doing running a dance in the middle of summer, and how it happened to snow in August.” But surely that wasn’t the point. Asking whether Bix actually encountered a late-summer blizzard is like asking whether Moses really parted the waters. As James well understood, the point was to demonstrate “Bix’s characteristic courtesy and loyalty to his friends which precipitated his end.” “His last act was, as I say, characteristic,” James wrote.
He would not willingly disappoint his colleagues, and it proved his undoing. His end was in keeping with the rest of his life, in that it was directly brought about by an action and impulse at once generous and foolish. His biography offers many examples of his loyalty to his friends and the unfailing generosity of his nature. If at the end he perished because of that loyalty and that generosity it was at least fitting. In any case, one has the ineffable impression that he didn’t care any more; that he was played out and knew it deep inside himself.
Anyway, the image of snow may have come from the famous last lines of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” from which this story seems to be borrowed. In “The Dead,” Gretta is overcome with grief remembering a former love—a musician like Bix, and “such a gentle boy”—who had died young.
“And what did he die of so young, Gretta?” asks her current beau Gabriel. “Consumption, was it?”
“I think he died for me,” she answers.
Turns out that, like Bix, he had caught a nasty cold. When he defied doctor’s orders and traveled through the night to see his girl, he was dead within the week.
“Better pass boldly into that other world,” Gabriel thinks once Gretta has cried herself to sleep, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
Bix was just eleven years old when Joyce wrote Dubliners, but this is the moment when his legend was born.