The title of my book-in-progress is Finding Bix, and what better place to go looking for the legendary jazz cornetist than in the text of his only known newspaper interview? The unsigned article, headlined "'Jazz Is Musical Humor,' Says Davenport Composer and Cornetist of Whiteman's Band," appeared in the Davenport Democrat and Leader, Bix Beiderbecke's hometown newspaper, on Sunday, February 10, 1929.
When he died just two years later, Beiderbecke left behind very few words (a handful of letters, some anecdotes from friends), so this interview represents a real bonanza of Bix-speak. And yet biographers have long been skeptical that it reflects his actual words.
Turns out their skepticism was justified. I can now say for sure that it's a fake.
First some background: In the interview, Bix expounds on the origins of jazz and his employer Paul Whiteman's landmark 1924 Aeolian Hall concert, the one in which he premiered Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. "By cacophonic combinations [Whiteman] proved what a change came over the face of Melusina and Terpsichore in a decade," the anonymous Davenport journalist writes. (Who? What?)
Bix goes on to famously suggest that "Jazz is musical humor."
The humor of jazz is rich and many-sided. Some of it is obvious enough to make a dog laugh. Some is subtle, wry-mouthed, or back-handed. It is by turns bitter, agonized, and grotesque. Even in the hands of white composers it involuntarily reflects the half-forgotten suffering of the negro. Jazz has both white and black elements, and each in some respects has influenced the other. It's [sic] recent phase seems to throw the light of the white race's sophistication upon the anguish of the black.
Scholars such as Richard M. Sudhalter (who put the word interview in scare quotes when writing about it in Bix: Man & Legend) and Jean Pierre Lion never came right out and said why they doubted the article's authenticity. But presumably they wondered how a kid who had consistently struggled academically would be given to musings just a few years later on "the half-forgotten suffering of the negro."
I shared that skepticism and decided to dig a little deeper. Phrases like cacophonic combinations and Melusina and Terpischore seemed especially to stick out. It didn't take long before Google pointed me toward So This Is Jazz by H. O. Osgood, published in 1926. "Cacophonic combinations" appears in his introduction, while the other bit comes from his review, reprinted elsewhere in the book, of Whiteman's Aeolian Hall concert.
That's pretty minor stuff, I admit, but it suggested to me that the Democrat's writer wasn't above a bit of plagiarism.* Still, he (or she) didn't appear to be making up Bix's actual words. Or at least that's what I thought until I happened upon a nationally syndicated article, published several months earlier, in The Evening Standard Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida. "The Official How and Why of Jazz -- From a Lawyer" by Louise Garwood is an interview with Edward Abbe Niles, a Harvard Law graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and a fancy-pants Wall Street lawyer (Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft). He also was, at the time, the author of Encyclopedia Britannica's entry on jazz. He even wrote an introduction to W. C. Handy's 1926 anthology of blues.
Niles was an expert, in other words, and a beautifully educated one, too. So at this point it should come as no surprise that he declared jazz to be "musical humor." And unlike Bix, he was given to musings on the half-forgotten suffering of the negro. After the jump, you'll find that Bix's words (except at the very end) are all more or less exactly Niles's words. (Both interviews are there. Compare them for yourself.) There's more to be said, I suppose, but this is enough for now. You can see the Niles interview in its original context here. More on Niles and the blues here.
* The jazz musician Brad Kay pointed out here an instance where the reporter actually seemed to be lifting from an earlier article in the Democrat about Bix's mother.
[Davenport Democrat and Leader; Davenport, Iowa; Sunday, February 10, 1929; image credit]
'Jazz Is Musical Humor,' Says Davenport Composer and Cornetist of Whiteman's Band
Believes Humor of Jazz is Many-Sides; Classifies Catch-as-Catch-Can Music as "Sweet" and "Hot", but Prefers the "Hot" More Than Purring Respectability of the "Sweet."
PLINKY-PLANK! Blooey moans! Crooning tones! Ear-tickling, piercing, soul-wrenching melodies -- that's jazz!
Put them all together and what have you?
"Musical humor," says the world's hottest cornetist of Paul Whiteman's orchestra. Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, who is convalencing [sic] from a recent illness at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. B. H. Beiderbecke, 1934 Grand avenue.
And "Bixie," as his friends all call him, should know! For a year and a half he has played with the king of jazz orchestra on Whiteman's special concert tour and filled every little niche and cranny with catch-as-catch-can tricks of melodic figures and spent hours in the recording library of phonograph and music companies recording his own compositions.
"Jazz is musical humor," he says. "The noun jazz describes a modern American technique for the playing of any music, accompanied by noise called harmony, and interpolated instrumental effects. It also describes music exhibiting influence of that technique which has as its traditional object to secure the effects of surprise, or in the broadest sense, humor."
Those "Barrel-House" Tones!
Tracing the origin of jazz back to the gay nineties when Dixieland musicians played negrotic "barrel-house" tones into "bowlers" and blew moaning saxophones into jugs and lengths of gaspipe. Mr. Beiderbecke pointed to the date Feb. 12, 1924 when Paul Whiteman gave the first jazz concert ever given, in Aeolian hall, New York, and by cacophonic combinations proved what a change came over the face of Melusina and Terpsichore.
"The jazz band's chief stimulus, of course, was the rise of the negro "blues" and their exploitation by the negro song-writer, W. C. Handy," the cornetist stated.
"They at once were melancholic and humorous, and dealt exclusively with the singer's own emotion and philosophy. Their experiments were convert [sic; covert]. In today's jazz they are open. The visual effect of comic instruments and bodily contortions of the musicians is, tho dispensable, a part of jazz itself."
Mr. Beiderbecke classifies jazz as "sweet" and "hot." He likes the "hot," which slightly modifies the original pandemonium of the "Livery Stable Blues," more than the purring respectability of the "sweet," whose hush and muffled throb is heard behind a balustrade of potted palms at debutante dances.
Humor "As You Like It."
"The humor of jazz is rich and many-sided," he said. "Some of it is obvious enough to make a dog laugh. Some is subtle, wry-mouthed, or back-handed. It is by turns bitter, agonized, and grotesque. Even in the hands of white composers it involuntarily reflects the half-forgotten suffering of the negro. Jazz has both white and black elements, and each in some respects has influenced the other. It's [sic] recent phase seems to throw the light of the white race's sophistication upon the anguish of the black."
"Bixie," as his boyhood gang called him, practically grew up with music. His grandfather, the late Charles Beiderbecke, was a composer and pianist of no little fame, and his mother, before her marriage, was organist at the First Presbyterian church in Davenport.
Music was in the air at the Beiderbecke home! "Bixie" took piano lessons for a time from two local instructors, not more than a score in all. When he arrived at prep-school at Lake Forest, Ill., he was dripping arpeggios and mooning over Chopin's nocturnes like any mere high-brow.
Goodbye Grieg and Lizst!
At 17 he became interested in certain insidious and perverse inflections which crept into popular music, so he bought himself a cornet and laid aside his Grieg and Lizst [sic].
"The boys told me to put more American punch into melodies," he said. "A copy of 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' was put before me and I was told play like a he-man."
He did. Figuratively speaking, he taught the cornet to laugh by unexpected thrills, to moan by sudden perky blares, to do stunts, and to hold its head up high. He emphasized exact tempo and decisive rhythm.
After completing his course at Lake Forest, he enrolled in the school of music at the State University of Iowa. Here he droned, "one, two, three, four" on the piano while he transposed and translated notes and melodies into orchestral scores.
With his "huddle system," came the desire to start an orchestra and in the fall of 1925, he organized a motley crowd of ex-collegiates and called them the "Wolverines."
From Chicago to New York the itinerant orchestra played. Later looking for new and lucrative fields to conquer, "Bixie" played for six months with Charlie Straight's orchestra in Chicago and three years with Gene Goldkette's band in Detroit, which broadcast programs over WGN.
We Want More!
It was on one of the musical tours of that organization that Paul Whiteman heard him play and urged him to join his orchestra. But contracts are contracts and not until his contract was up did he make the change.
Since joining Whiteman's orchestra "Bixie" has played one of the three concert pianos besides being a cornetist, and director of one of the Whiteman orchestras.
Among the most recent compositions are "Thou Swell," "Tu Tan Elegante," and "In a Mist," in which Bixie is featured in a piano solo.
"We have great times traveling about," he said -- the "boys" are airplane crazy and movie-shy. We have a new Travelair plane and several are learning to pilot.
"Might come in handy sometimes," he laughed, "in case we oversleep and miss the train, but we're generally on time. In fact, one time we were a bit ahead of the Uptown theatre in Chicago and the curtain went up without warning. "Be nonchalant!" was employed and we picked up our instruments and started to play."
The Official How and Why of Jazz -- From a Lawyer
By Louise Garwood
For NEA Service
New York, Sept. 1, 1928 -- Jazz, that intoxicating stepchild of art, at last has been officially and authoritatively defined. The definition comes from the Encyclopedia Brittanica's [sic] own authority on the subject, Edward Abbe Niles.
Niles is neither a blues-writer nor a saxophone orator. He is a grave young New York lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, the grandson of a Yankee bishop, a graduate of Harvard Law school. He is described by his wife as the "world's worst dancer." But popular music has been a hobby with him for 16 years. He turns to a phonograph record rather than golf for relaxation.
It's "Musical Humor"
"Jazz is musical humor," Niles said. "The noun describes a modern American technique for the playing of any music, embracing tricks of accent and rhythm, characteristic interpolated melodic figures and instrumental effects. It also describes music exhibiting influence of that technique which has as its traditional object to secure the effects of surprise and in the broadest sense, humor.
"Many fantastic explanations have been given for the origin of the word 'jazz.' Few of them are reasonable. For many years the New Orleans negroes have applied it to their music in the sense of 'speeding it up'."
Jazz, as Niles explains it, seems to be both development and a mixture.
Not Unlike a Pudding
"It is not unlike a pudding of many ingredients, recently mixed and still cooking," he said.
"Its rhythmical foundation was rag-time, a name that originated in the late 90's.
"However, jazz is [sic; in] its aspect of instrumental effects and tone-colors, was incubating before and during the rag-time period. Even in the 19th century negro musicians played cornets into buckets, boxes and derby hats, blew into jugs and lengths of gas-pipe, as today. But those experiments were covert. In today's jazz they are open. The visual effect of comic instruments and bodily contortions of the musicians is, though dispensable, a part of jazz itself.
W. C. Handy, Pioneer
"The jazz band's chief stimulus was the rise of the negro "blues" and their exploitation by the negro song-writer, W. C. Handy. They at once were melancholic and humorous, and dealt exclusively with the singer's own emotions and philosophy -- 'I got de blues but I'm too dam' mean to cry!'"
Niles classifies jazz as "sweet" and "hot." He likes the "hot," which slightly modifies the original pandemonium of the old "Livery Stable Blues," more than the purring respectability of the "sweet," whose hush and muffled throb is heard behind a forest of potted palms at debutante dances.
"When I sniff at the sweet jazz of 1928 I become the pelican of the wilderness (Psalm 102)," said Niles. "But frankly, I prefer wit and even honest slap-stick. A fat comedian bouncing down-stairs on a banana peel is worth a thousand Tootsie Rolls.
Rich and Many-Sided
"The humor of jazz is rich and many-sided. Some of it is obvious enough to make a dog laugh. Some is subtle, wry-mouthed, or back-handed. It often is the fun of the comic-strip, but never the joke-book variety. It is by turns bitter, agonized, obscene, grotesque, or all at once. Even in the hands of white composers it involuntarily affects something of the half-forgotten suffering of the negro. Jazz has both black and white elements, and each in some respects has influenced the other. Its recent phase seems to throw the light of the white race's sophistication upon the anguish of the black."
Niles practically grew up with jazz. His development into an authority itself is an interesting story. He started piano lessons at 10 with Milo Bennett, a pupil of Lizst [sic], and later studied with Frank C. Butcher. When he arrived at prep-school he was dripping arpeggios and mooning over Chopin nocturnes like any mere high-brow.
A Broader Scope
"The boys soon found a broader scope for my talents," Niles said. "A copy of 'Everybody's Doin' It' was put before me and I was told to play like a he-man. I fancied myself superior to such condescension, but nevertheless was forced to lay aside my Grief and Lizst.
"About 1913 I became interested in certain insidious and perverse inflections which crept into popular music, the lugubrious laughter of 'St. Louis Blues,' 'Memphis Blues.'"
Niles became better acquainted with "blues," when, during the war, he was in the army air service at Ellington field, Texas. In these southern surroundings he had every opportunity to observe negro music. He relapsed to an occasional sonata when attending Christ Church college, Oxford, after the war. But when he started practicing law in New York in 1921, he fell once more into the hot-bed of developing jazz.
Successful as Writer
He began writing about popular music and achieved swift success. In 1925 an interview he had with W. C. Handy inspired "Blues," the first anthology of American negro secular folk-song and jazz, published by A. and C. Boni.
Niles thinks the major service jazz has rendered to music generally is its revelation of the possibilities of old and new instruments and mutes, and the volume and will seriously influence Ameri-color obtainable by small orchestras. [sic; American music," he said.]
"Jazz will continue to develop and beauty of tone and variety of can music," he said. [sic] "Great music develops gradually, and the higher its development the less national it becomes. Between the music we have and the music we have not yet developed is room for the spirit of strangeness and humor which the best jazz so successfully has managed to convey."