Brendan Wolfe: You grew up in New York?
Geoff Muldaur: Outside of New York. It was the doo-wop thing. The first records I bought were 78s. And then immediately 45s. I was at the very tail end of 78s. And they were doo-wop things I bought, and then these 45s came out and all of a sudden we're dancing to Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed and we're white kids in the suburbs of New York.
BW: How big was your town?
GM: How big was my town? I don't know. You know, I really don't know. It's a major suburb, you know. It's the next one over from the Bronx. Pelham, New York.
BW: Fairly close to the city.
GM: Yeah, twenty minutes by train. There was a golden era goin' on when this whole thing happened with Bix, and it was a golden era in opera, it was a golden era in almost every style. And out of this comes these kids from the Midwest, Bix being the most brilliant of them all, and why does this happen? Why so uniquely personal? It's different music, man. It isn't Dixieland. It's totally different music.
Amos Garrett was very steeped in Bix Beiderbecke, my longtime co-conspirator in music, and he came out of barbershop quartets, and I think a lot of that quartet singing, lots of singing with augmented chords, and these different moves and changes, than in the New Orleans thing -- not that they didn't use augmented chords, I'm not saying that, but just the way they approached music. And I think -- also, as you already know, these guys listened to so much Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel . . .
BW: It seemed like Bix's ear wasn't merely sharp, it was omnivorous. He listened to everything and took it all in.
GM: Right. And he was a savant. I mean, let's face it. And he got hooked on booze. He's one of those guys like, there's a pretty large body and work, and when we went through it, 209 cuts or whatever it was [while working on Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke (2003)], we went through every one of them that the Italians put together in that set, put together for the Bix thing [the film Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend (1991)], and it isn't as big a body of work as everybody would like to think. There's an occasional solo here in a piece-of-crap tune that's good, and you know you've really got two CDs worth of great music. And then you got the piano pieces, only one of which was recorded by him, and of course we, I, and quite a few others, don't feel he even came close to his potential. I'm grateful for what he did for me. He really had a profound effect on me.
BW: How did you come to first listen to Bix?
GM: Well, you know, that room of my brother's was just a treasure trove, man.
BW: Your older brother, right?
GM: Ten years older, so I'm six when he's sixteen, and he's collecting 78s when he's sixteen. So Muggsy Spanier came out to the house for dinner, you know. We went up and listened to Muggsy's records, and then we listened to Bix's records. I was only a peanut.
BW: What did your parents do?
GM: My father was in advertising. This is an interesting part of this culturally, too, for me, is that, you know, sort of Eisenhower Republicans, you know: the wife doesn't work, the father wears the gray flannel suit and goes to New York on the train.
BW: Man Men.
GM: Yeah, and they were crazy for good music. And the whole idea that it's generational and the kids today aren't going to listen to your music, you're not going to understand them -- that's all crap! They loved it! They weren't as much loving what I was getting into with the doo-wop world, but I was cuckoo over what they loved. And my father, when he went to Princeton, he helped put on the dances, so he was hiringFletcher Henderson and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. I mean, unbelievable bands down there. So he had it good, and everyone had their story about the night they were with Bix. If you added up all those old grads when I was a kid that said they'd hung out with Bix you'd have a population twice the size of the United States.
BW: And he would have had a fifty-year career.
GM: It was an impossibility! But maybe a few of them had, but it was part of the whole thing about how music was everywhere. But that room -- I didn't have a happy childhood, which I don't want to go into, a lot of it. But that room became the way out. And I'm not alone in that. And it wasn't just Bix, because there was so much else there, with those X label RCAs, and those funky women blues singers, and Sydney Bechet, and of course Louis, and all this stuff. Those three Columbia LPs, and I din't know when they came out, of Bix --
BW: The ones George Avakian produced?
GM: Probably. They had various iterations in their covers. We lived with them. But you know Bix & Tram was one of them, and I just can't tell you how many times we listened to them. And we take them up to our place in the summer on Martha's Vineyard. Have you ever heard of a trombonist named Roswell Rudd? Very famous avant-garde, complete-beyond-bop, maniac-monster trombone player. World famous. And I met him when I was fourteen and he was summering on the Vineyard and I hired him a few years ago for a session. I met him again in London about ten years ago for a concert that we did together.
BW: Did he remember meeting you?
GM: No, but he remembered when I said, You're not going to believe this, but you used to come up to my house and put on these Bix albums and roll around on the floor in ecstasy, and he remembered that. And he used to go down to the Yacht Club and sit in with the band on cornet, this was not trombone at the time. He was a cornetist. As a kid. So maybe he was eighteen and I was thirteen or fourteen. For some reason there was a Bix connection, and it isn't huge, but if you had been doing [this kind of book] thirty or forty years ago, you'd have thousands of people to interview. And they're gone.
Stay tuned for part three: "The basis of my musical experience and what comes through me and what eventually gets into my arrangements and my vocalizing comes from these early records and Bix is a prime mover in that, probably the most -- he's probably way over my head in some ways and in others he isn't. So what's the question?"
IMAGE: Geoff Muldaur by Issa Sharp