Bix and Louis: The Ultimate Battle

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

Bix and Louis: The Ultimate Battle

I recently created a mix CD directly comparing Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong in 12 of the 17 (at least) songs they both recorded. Besides the ones that appear below, songs both Bix and Louis recorded included “Dusky Stevedore,” “Ramona,” “Chloe,” “The Man I Love” and “China Boy.” Though Louis never released a commercial version of “China Boy,” the online Louis Armstrong discography at http://michaelminn.net/discographies/armstrong/index.php?section2 lists several broadcasts and private tapes of Louis performing “China Boy” in the 1960’s.

What follows is a list of the songs I included in my mix, along with the sources and my own admittedly highly opinionated comparison of the records. Though there are plenty of other valid ways to compare two musicians’ styles by listening to them play the same songs, I’ve long enjoyed making tapes and mix CD’s like this to put different versions of the same song back to back and hear how the various players performed them. One danger in making a comparison like this is that almost all Bix’s records are ensemble pieces, whereas Louis was the leader on most of his dates and was featured as a soloist even when he was ostensibly a sideman, which alone gives Louis a decided advantage over Bix in a song-by-song matchup like this.

“Copenhagen”
Bix: With the Wolverines: Richmond, IN, May 6, 1924.
Louis: With Fletcher Henderson: N.Y.C., October 30, 1924.

Evaluation: Both are great records, but from the moment Louis comes in with his big solo in the Henderson version, he blows Bix away with the power and intensity of the playing. The comparison would be closer if there were more Bix on the Wolverines’ “Copenhagen,” but as it stands Louis takes the prize on this one.

“Tiger Rag”
Bix: With the Wolverines: Richmond, IN, June 30, 1924.
Louis (as “Super Tiger Rag”): With his own band: Paris, October 1, 1934.

Evaluation: Bix and the Wolverines deserve a lot of credit for recording “Tiger Rag” without a trombone, the instrument featured on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s recording and on most performances of the song. Bix’s imagination is febrile enough that even though he’s buried in the ensemble for most of the record, he still shines. But as soon as Louis uncorks his solo on the Paris version (the last and best of the three “Tiger Rag” recordings Louis made in the early 1930’s), once again Louis wins.

“Clarinet Marmalade”
Bix: With Frank Trumbauer: N.Y.C., February 4, 1927.
Louis: With the All-Stars: Milan, December 20, 1955.

Evaluation: From the moment he starts his solo, Bix is “on” at his supercharged best throughout this performance. What’s more, he’s clearly energizing the other players, including Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey (though J. D. thought he hit too many wrong notes on this solo and wished the record company hadn’t issued this take). Louis, working from the title, chose to make his version a feature for his fine clarinetist, Edmond Hall, and doesn’t take center stage until the very end of the record. But even so, it’s hard to imagine anyone besting Bix on this one. An easy victory for the man from Davenport.

“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”
Bix: With Frank Trumbauer: N.Y.C., May 13, 1927.
Louis: With Bing Crosby and orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Billy May: N.Y.C., June 28-29, 1960.

Evaluation: One of Bix’s best known and best loved records -- and also one that features the great Trumbauer at close to his best. Louis’ versions of this and the next three songs on the list are taken from “Bing and Satchmo,” a problematical album he did with Bing Crosby for MGM Records in 1960. This would have been a better record if they’d just stuck Bing in front of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars and let the two of them have at the songs in pure jazz style. Instead the whole LP is weighted down by May’s overwrought arrangements and the added lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which are sometimes quite clever and sometimes just silly. While the combination of Louis’ voice with Bing’s (Bing’s vocal phrasing here is appropriately Bixian) is a treat as always, this tune belongs to Bix.

“At the Jazz Band Ball”
Bix: With His Gang: N.Y.C., October 5, 1927.
Louis: With Bing Crosby and orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Billy May: N.Y.C., June 28-29, 1960.

Evaluation: The best of the four tracks included here from the “Bing and Satchmo” LP. Mercer’s added lyrics are genuinely witty (“It was wonderful/And deductible/From the income tax”) and Armstrong gets some time away from being swamped by May’s arrangement to solo. But Bix still owns this one; once again he’s “on” from the first notes, and it’s a measure of Bix’s genius that he could take a tune that was already considered dated in 1927 and make something exciting and timeless out of it. In fact, Bix’s “Jazz Band Ball” is by far my all-time favorite record of the song.

“Dardanella”
Bix: With Paul Whiteman: N.Y.C., January 20, 1928.
Louis: With Bing Crosby and orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Billy May: N.Y.C., June 28-29, 1960.

Evaluation: Louis’ version with Bing and the Billy May Orchestra is a triumph of phrasing over substance -- in this case, over Mercer’s silly lyrics as well as the elephantine arrangements -- but Bix still wins. Bill Challis’s creative arrangement sets the right mood, frames Bix’s and Trumbauer’s solos beautifully and gives the lie to the decades of mythology about Whiteman’s recordings being commercial garbage only redeemed by those precious moments of Bix. The propulsion of Steve Brown’s string bass behind Bix and Tram also helps big-time.

“Sugar”
Bix: With Paul Whiteman: N.Y.C., February 28, 1928 (take 2).
Louis: With Bing Crosby and orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Billy May: N.Y.C., June 28-29, 1960.

Evaluation: Once again, a lovely Challis arrangement frames Bix’s solo and shows what a great jazz band Paul Whiteman’s could be when its leader let it. The last of the “Bing and Satchmo” tracks epitomizes the frustration of the whole album: Bing and Louis relate together beautifully but it would have been so much better with just Bing, Louis and Louis’ original band (though I love the part in which Bing sings an obbligato to Louis’ vocal led giving the chemical formula of sugar). Still, aided by Bill Challis’s vast superiority as a jazz arranger over Billy May, Bix wins this one too.

“Coquette”
Bix: With Paul Whiteman: N.Y.C., March 2, 1928 (take 3).
Louis: With his own band: Los Angeles, April 17, 1942 (take B).

Evaluation: Once again, the combination of Bix, Bill Challis and the superb Whiteman musicians prove unbeatable. (Dig that three-trumpet ensemble chorus!) Louis rushes this pretty little song both when he’s singing and playing trumpet, and though his solo is good on its own terms it doesn’t project the song effectively.

“Sweet Sue”
Bix: With Paul Whiteman: N.Y.C., September 18, 1928.
Louis: With his own band: Chicago, April 28, 1933.

Evaluation: The first time I heard the Whiteman “Sweet Sue” it sounded so god-awfully overarranged I couldn’t understand how anybody could want to listen to any part of this record other than Bix’s solo chorus. In fact, I was so sure Ferde Grofé had penned this ridiculously pretentious arrangement that when I found out from Philip Evans’ discography that it was actually Bill Challis my response was, “Et tu, Bill?” Well, as I get older this record has started to grow on me. Even Jack Fulton’s eerily exact anticipation of Tiny Tim on his vocal has begun to appeal to me (though had Whiteman tabbed Bing Crosby for the assignment this record would have been quite a bit better). Still, it’s way better than Louis’ version, which is too fast. What’s more, a whole chorus is taken up by Louis and Budd Johnson singing in the so-called “viper’s language” (“vipers” was 1920’s and 1930’s slang for marijuana smokers), and the novelty is clever but dates badly. Bix wins this one.

“Rockin’ Chair”
Bix: With Hoagy Carmichael: N.Y.C., May 21, 1930.
Louis: With his own band: N.Y.C., December 13, 1929.

Evaluation: Had I used the live Louis Armstrong version of “Rockin’ Chair” from the May 17, 1947 concert at New York’s Town Hall (with Jack Teagarden’s superb second vocal), this would have been an easy win for Louis because that’s my all-time favorite version of this great song. Instead I picked the one Louis recorded while Bix was still alive, and even with the presence of composer Hoagy Carmichael as second vocalist his version still falls short of the one Hoagy made under his own name five months later. Despite Bubber Miley’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to this song, Hoagy’s lead vocal and Bix’s superb eloquence win on this one. Oh, if only Bix and Louis could have recorded it together!

“Georgia on My Mind”
Bix: With Hoagy Carmichael: N.Y.C., September 15, 1930.
Louis: With his own band: Chicago, November 5, 1931.

Evaluation: The other way from “Rockin’ Chair.” One would think Bix would be unbeatable on this one, especially with the song’s composer as bandleader, singer and pianist. But on Louis’ record he’s the one who’s “on” from the get-go, starting with his eloquent phrasing of the song’s verse and continuing through his vocal and the interchange between him and the alto sax soloist (either Lester Boone or George James) to his powerful ending coda. I’ve long been amazed that the two best versions of a song that’s clearly a white man’s (and a Midwestern white man’s, at that) dream vision of the South should have been done by Black artists -- Armstrong in 1931 and Ray Charles in 1959 -- but that’s what happened.

“Bessie Couldn’t Help It”
Bix: With Hoagy Carmichael: N.Y.C., September 15, 1930 (both takes since I had room for them).
Louis: With his own band: N.Y.C., February 1, 1930.

Evaluation: Bix’s last known recording, sending his career out with powerful, blasting playing at both the start and the end of the record. (If I had to pick between the two takes I’d go with 3 if only because Jimmy Dorsey hits a clinker in his solo on 2.) Louis is no competition on this one; backed by a mediocre band, he just seems bored with the song.

Conclusions: I scored nine of the 12 songs with Bix as the winner to Louis’ three, though the Billy May arrangements on the “Bing and Satchmo” LP skewed the average against Louis. The comparisons definitely reinforce the impression that Louis was a bold, extroverted musician and Bix was subtler, more interested in making wry little comments than Big Emotional Statements. The difference between Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke turns up again and again in jazz history -- Benny Goodman vs. Artie Shaw, Coleman Hawkins vs. Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie vs. Miles Davis. It has nothing to do with tempi -- Bix could play beautifully at fast speeds and Louis could at slow ones -- but with a difference in overall attitude, not only to music but to life itself, between the passionate, openly emotional Armstrong and the wry, introverted Bix.

Posted on Aug 9, 2015, 7:15 PM

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