We can argue all day, I suppose -- and some seem to want to -- over the precise circumstances that led to the only known interview of Bix Beiderbecke containing almost no words actually spoken by Bix Beiderbecke. Still, I think it's clear that an anonymous Davenport reporter took a nationally syndicated interview of Abbe Niles and inserted Niles's words and ideas into the mouth of Beiderbecke.
But who was Abbe Niles? It turns out he was a pretty interesting writer and thinker. A lawyer by trade with no special training in writing or music, he nevertheless was, by the mid-1920s, a leading popular music critic with a special love for blues and jazz. Here's an excerpt from an essay by Elliott S. Hurwitt in Ramblin' on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues (David Evans, ed.; 2008) in which Niles defends African American folk music from, of all people, James Weldon Johnson:
In an essay in The Nation in late 1926 Niles made one of th his strongest statements regarding the power and originality of America's black musical culture. The occasion was an offer to several writers to discuss influences on American culture from "other than Nordic sources," in the words of the magazine's editors. Niles chose this forum to defend the spirituals both against those who undervalued them and those who felt they had to be made more respectable or improved by symphonic development, in this case including James Weldon Johnson: "More can be asked from no body of folksong than may be found among the spirituals . . . it is difficult to appreciate Mr. Johnson's concern that Negro themes should be commonly employed in this country as material for music in the larger forms."
Niles pointed out that Johnson's "anxiety" ultimately led, "in grosser form," to Paul Whiteman's egregious rhetorical question: "What folksong would have amounted to anything if some great writer had not put it into a symphony?" Niles had an answer for Whiteman, and it shows his usual independence of mind, "Dvorak's use of Negro themes doubtless helped the spirituals toward recognition, but the weaving of an integral living thing like a folksong into the structure of a symphony may . . . invigorate the latter only at the expense of the former; it is by no means written that the 'New World Symphony' will outlive 'Go Down, Moses.'"
Because I haven't read Niles's full argument, I'm not completely sure how a folksong is harmed by its association with a symphony, or why we must value folk music as "integral" and "living" above high art. This smacks of the primitivism that Niles, according to Hurwitt, despised in Carl Van Vechten.(Notice, by the way, that Van Vechten took the photo of Johnson in the Wiki article linked above.)
Anyway, Niles had the opportunity to become influential beyond the intellectual Left when he became the music critic for Bookman magazine. He certainly influenced the woman who interviewed him and whose article was stolen by the reporter in Davenport. She took a sentence from one Niles's Bookman columns and slightly rewrote it for her own story. Here's Hurwitt again:
Niles's journalistic career reached a peak in 1928, when his regular column, "Ballads, Songs and Snatches," appeared in a magazine calledThe Bookman. Niles's work soon caught the eye of people in the music business, and major record companies like Victor began sending him everything they released in the pop music field. he was also sent books, sheet music, and other materials. Before long, Niles and his wife became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of records and other items arriving at their door. His regular column was discontinued a year after it began, and after early 1929 Niles's reviewing and similar activities were much reduced.
He was, after all, a Wall Street lawyer by trade. He must have been busy. Still, it sounds to me like he was a forerunner of the professional newspaper critic. Having served in that role myself, I can relate to the feelings of being overwhelmed by all the new music and, in my case, books, too. It's easy to burn out; more than that, though, it's easy to lose perspective and your criticism suffers as a result.
Whatever the case was with Niles, his words and ideas have managed to live a long life in the mouth of Bix Beiderbecke.
IMAGE: W. C. Handy (center) with Abbe and Katherine Niles. Abbe Niles was a friend of Handy's and an important advocate of his work. This photograph, which appears in Ramblin' on My Mind, comes from the Edward Abbe Niles Papers at the Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford.