There is no question that the two most important trumpet/cornet players of the 1920s were Bix and Louis. Although their childhoods were totally different, their early musical careers as professionals had some common features. They both were in or around Chicago in the early 1920s. Their early recordings (1923 for Louis with King Oliver, 1924 for Bix with the Wolverines) both for Gennett, were pure jazz recordings (contrary to of what Rudi Blesh writes about the Wolverines). One difference, of course, Bix was the driving force behind the Wolverines, whereas Louis did not have quite as predominant a role in the King Oliver band. In 1924, they both left a jazz band to join a dance band, Bix went with Jean Goldkette, Louis with Fletcher Henderson. The King Oliver band and the Wolverines were small bands, about 7-8 musicians each, whereas the Goldkettte and Henderson bands were considerably larger, about a dozen or more musicians. The King Oliver band and the Wolverines played "head" arrangements, whereas the Henderson and Goldkette bands used formal arrangements. A caveat: the Wolverines and the King Oliver band were also dance bands. A huge difference between Bix and Louis: Louis was very successful with the Henderson band, whereas Bix's first experience with Goldkette turned out to be a failure. They both had their first recordings under their own names in 1925. Between 1925 and 1929 their careers diverge, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s both were in New York. Of course, Bix died a premature death at age 28, poor and unknown, whereas Louis lived to he ripe age of 71, well-known and loved throughout the world.
All reports tell us that Bix and Louis respected each other, and at least on one occasion, they participated in a jam session. Louis made several statements about Bix (some can be heard directly in Louis' own voice in John Grover’s M.S thesis, available in the Bixography website.) There is only one comment about Louis from Bix. Sudhalter and Evans write about a conversation between Bix and Dick Turner in 1931 in which Bix is quoted to have said, “Hell, there are only two musicians I’d go across the street to hear now. That’s Louis and LaRocca.”
Finally, I will address the question of influences. I discussed the general question of influences in the past. Red Nichols was influenced by Bix. We can hear Bix’s characteristic sound in several of Red’s recordings. Using the word influence in this sense, it is clear that Bix and Louis did not influence each other. I don’t hear Louis’ sound in Bix’s recordings, and vice versa (with the possible exception of the Southern Serenaders 1925 recording of “Alone At Last”; is this still controversial or has it been accepted as a Henderson side with Louis?). I would assert that Bix and Louis inspired each other, stimulated each other, but I would not use the word influence to describe their interactions, if any.
Louis and Bix travelled via parallel paths in the landscape of jazz, each developing a unique style. Conventional wisdom provides various characterizations of the differences between Louis and Bix: extrovert versus introvert; spectacular versus subdued, hot versus pensive; Louis made use of his extraordinary technical virtuosity and histrionics to convey his musical messages; Bix used the middle range of his horn and “talked” or “whispered” to his listener to communicate his emotions. When Bix and Louis convey sadness or melancholy, they do it in totally different manners: Louis in the sense of “what did I do to be so black and blue;” Bix as a manifestation of an inner, wistful sensibility.
Their best works –and the two most important jazz recordings of the 1920s- “West End Blues” and “Singin’ the Blues” by Louis and Bix, respectively- show clearly two distinct styles, two divergent personalities each unique and not influenced by the other. Bix’s masterpiece is a lyrical ballad, permeated by his European sensibility; Louis’ monumental work, although not a blues composition, has a feeling of the blues. Bix communicates in a subtle, thoughtful manner; Louis makes use of his spectacular technical skills.
In summary, my opinion is that Bix and Louis respected each other, probably stimulated each other –it couldn’t be otherwise: two giants producing distinct musical contributions were bound to inspire each other- but did not directly influence each other.
On the question of Bix's melancholy. I find most of Bix's cornet music rather bittersweet, sometimes sad, occasionally buoyant. Sudhalter refers to it as "emotionally layered." From my posting in 2006,
Bix had a variety of musical utterances, buoyant and pensive, confident and vulnerable, bright and dark, etc. Note that I say “and” not “or.” Even in his darker moments, there was an uplifting quality to Bix’s playing. Even in his more effervescent moments, there was an introspective character in Bix’s music. Common to all of Bix’s work there is a complexity, a special “style” that leads to my assertion that it was a characteristic of Bix’s playing, a fingerprint/DNA marker if you like, unique to him and very easily identifiable. No, there weren’t several Bixes that differ from each other, so much so that he became unrecognizable: there was only one Bix, with a rich variety of expressions, a multidimensional palette. To borrow Randy Sandke’s felicitous phrase, there were unexpected turns, but they were inevitable in the context of Bix’s overall conceptions.
Bix was a unique musician who left a total, integrated body of work that allows me to easily identify him in all kinds of very different contexts: the huge, semi-symphonic Whiteman, the hot dance Goldkette, the small jazz Gang, the creator of ballads with Trumbauer, the chamber style with the Chicago Loopers, the originator of solos bursting forth like musical lightning in ordinary pop songs, etc. etc.
Bix was confident.
Of course, Bix's music is emotionally layered, as Sudhalter tells us. But in many solos, Bix is super confident, he knows he is creating something rare. I would go as far as saying he is heroic! Even in the midst of melancholy, such as in "I'm Coming Virginia," he recovers with a spectacular burst of confident creativity.
One more point. The bittersweet character of Bix's music is totally different than the emotion in the blues. The blues give me a sense of despair on the part of the performer. I don't ever hear that kind of sentiment in Bix's music: there may be melancholy, wistfulness, but never despair. Contradictions, yes, as Randy Sandke puts it, "One moment he sounds strong and confident, the next questioning and vulnerable." Poignant, yes, but hopeless, no!!
In a way, Bix's music is like his photos and his playing: never the same twice!