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 EveningStandard 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 ofEncyclopedia 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.
UPDATE: Discussion on the Bixography Discussion Group forum begins here andhere.
IMAGE: Bix Beiderbecke, bandmates, and giant snake