On May 18, 2009, I sat down with the musician Geoff Muldaur, who in 2003 released Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke. We kicked back on Adirondack chairs facing out into the woods of Charlottesville, Virginia, and Muldaur spent a good chunk of the interview watching birds through his binoculars. Nevertheless, we had a pretty good conversation. Here's the beginning of it:
Geoff Muldaur: Talent and character are not connected. It's a horrible realization for most people, but it's absolutely true. And it baffles people, because how could Ray Charles produce such warm and beautiful things when he wasn't this great guy, whereas Benny Carter, greatest guy in the world. It's so random -- obsessive-compulsive slob Beethoven. I mean, total slob. Kept his shitter under his writing desk. I mean, the place was disgusting, and he produces God's music.
So that being the case, I've never been that attracted tot he historical part of each person. But I've been very interested in the music, and on that level, of course, Bix is like this shining little nugget, an absolute diamond -- very singular in our entire history. So he becomes special for that, but when I was in Davenport, the people were starting to talk about this place down the street from the house where they say he might have molested that girl and all that shit, and I was like, man, I didn't even go there. I'm a recovering alcoholic, and to me, so much is answered by that. Why does he write that letter to Trumbauer talking about how his knees don't work? Have you ever seen that? It's to get money! Because he's an alkie, man. And at the same time he's playing these pure notes from heaven, so . . . He's just an alcoholic, man. He had a disease, plain and simple. If Bill Wilson had come along sooner, then perhaps we'd have a guy visiting colleges now and talking about his chamber works. You know, I don't know what would have happened.
[. . .]
To me this is the baffling thing. Why, and not just Bix, but primarily Bix, why do these white guys in the early twenties, in the Midwest, the Chicago area, and of course Bix in Davenport -- they hear the music of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Even Bix, when you're standing in his bedroom, you wonder if he could hear that music coming from the river. It's very romantic to look out across that park and to think about the wanderlust, what sounds were coming across -- So you hear that, and you've got something in your soul, and you've got tons of classical and American popular music in your bones because everyone did, because everyone had a piano in the world, and you decide to pick up the cornet, and maybe you learned a few licks from Nick LaRocca and then this guy -- who's this other guy who came through town, Hardy or whatever it was --
Brendan Wolfe: Emmet Hardy.
GM: Yeah. So, but really, the driving force is Louis Armstrong, Freddy Keppard, these guys out of Chicago, and you decide to play this instrument, and you immediately find your own voice and don't come close to imitating those guys. How does that happen? Today, the first thing kids do is try to get in to what the guys sounds like, what he did, and he didn't do any of that. He didn't play any Armstrong licks. He didn't go for that sound. He just opened up from his soul. And the same from others; look at Pee Wee Russell and a bunch of other guys. Just like, if you're listening to Johnny Dodds on the clarinet and you're a young white guy from Chicago, and you're Frank Teschemacher, and you decide not to play like that, or do you decide? Or do you just pick it up and out starts coming this stuff and you don't think it's your job to even come close to copying somebody as a tradition.
So to me, in this day and age, it's so different than what's done today. It's almost why there's so little going on. Everyone has incredible technical abilities but no one creates a new world.
So that's always been very curious to me, and then of course the whole midwestern thing, with the whole-tone moves and some of these great chordal moves, seems to have died out to black big band music. You know, the dancing became the thing, and having structured, interesting chordal changes like the Trumbauer orchestra or, you know, I'm not a big Goldkette fan, but the Trumbauer stuff is just sick good.
BW: Why the Midwest?
GM: Well, there were probably a lot of parlor pianos and the riverboat music, Chicago, and the black influence coming up from New Orleans, et cetera. I mean, the whole world was this way, but in the United States, music was just everywhere. Even when I was a kid in the early fifties, music was everywhere, man. One the street corners, people singin' quartets and stuff. Electronics almost kind of kills it in a way.
Over the next year, I'll post more of this and other interviews I have collected in the course of researching my book, so stay tuned.
IMAGE: Geoff Muldaur by Petra Hanisch