Bix and Red Nichols: The Second Battle

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

A while back I posted to the Forum a playlist for a mix CD I called “The Ultimate Battle” — comparing recordings of Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong on 12 of the (at least) 17 songs they both recorded. Here’s a list I recently made for what I call “The Second Battle,” comparing and contrasting 13 songs recorded by both Bix and Red Nichols.

The Wolverine Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Jimmy Hartwell (cl), George Brunies (tb), George Johnson (ts), Bob Gillette (bjo), Min Leibrook (b-b), Vic Moore (d) -- N.Y.C., 9/16/24
The Arkansaw Travelers: Red Nichols (c), Miff Mole (tb), Jimmy Dorsey (cl), Fred Morrow (as), Arthur Schutt (p), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 5/10/27
Evaluation: Both are acoustic recordings, since “The Arkansaw Travelers” were a studio band recording for a label that was too low-budget to license the electrical process. Nichols had better musicians (especially Jimmy Dorsey and Vic Berton), and his solo oddly sounds more “Bixian” than the one actually by Bix on the Wolverines’ version, which is unusual for him in that it’s virtually all in double time. Score this one for Nichols.

Lazy Daddy (take A)
The Wolverine Orchestra: As “Sensation” but Brunies doubles on kazoo (same date)
Lazy Daddy
Louisiana Rhythm Kings: Red Nichols (c), Tommy Thunen (t), Glenn Miller (tb, arr), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Babe Russin (ts), Adrian Rollini (bs-s), Jack Russin (p), Wes Vaughan (bjo, g), Gene Krupa (d) -- N.Y.C., 1/27/30
Evaluation: A song that brings out the best in both Bix and Nichols. The series of 23 recordings Nichols made as the “Louisiana Rhythm Kings” for Brunswick and their cheap label, Vocalion, in 1928-1930 are among his very best as a hot player. But as good as Nichols is on this, I score this for Bix despite George Brunies’ tacky and dated kazoo break. It’s slower and features a rare example of Bix going for a blues feeling (he would do it later on “Davenport Blues” and the Bix and His Gang “Rhythm King” but almost nowhere else in his recorded work).

Davenport Blues
Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Don Murray (cl), Tommy Dorsey (tb), Paul Mertz (p), Tommy Gargano (d) -- Richmond, IN, 1/26/25
Davenport Blues
Red Nichols (c), Miff Mole (tb), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Arthur Schutt (p), Dick McDonough (bjo, g), Joe Tarto (b-b), Ray Bauduc (d) -- N.Y.C., 3/7/27
Evaluation: The Nichols “Davenport Blues” heard here is his second version, electrically recorded (there’s an earlier one, an acoustic, with Vic Berton doubling drums and hot tympani) and with some beautiful playing by Jimmy Dorsey. It’s been discussed before, with some Forumites claiming that Nichols’ version is better. No way! Despite J. D.’s lovely solo (when this came up on the Forum before I joked Bix had got the wrong Dorsey brother for his version!), Bix totally blows Nichols away for imagination and creativity.

Riverboat Shuffle
Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms), Don Murray (cl, ts), Doc Ryder (as), Irving Riskin (p), Eddie Lang (g), Chauncey Morehouse (d) -- N.Y.C., 5/9/27
Riverboat Shuffle
Red Nichols, Leo McConville (t), Miff Mole (tb), Pee Wee Russell (cl), Fud Livingston (ts, a), Adrian Rollini (bs-s, gfs), Lennie Hayton (p, cel, a), Dick McDonough (g), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 8/15/27
Evaluation: Nichols’ version scores best when his sidemen are playing -- there’s a lovely early clarinet solo from Pee Wee Russell and some infectious breaks for Adrian Rollini on bass sax. But despite Ralph Berton’s snippy comment that Bix sounded “hurried” on this song (his second recording of the piece; the first, with the Wolverines, is more relaxed but less exciting), the Trumbauer “Riverboat” is a delight from first to last, relentlessly energetic and infectiously jazzy.

I’m Coming, Virginia
Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: As “Riverboat Shuffle” -- N.Y.C., 5/13/27
I’m Coming, Virginia
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: Henry Busse, Ted Bartell, Red Nichols (t), Vincent Grande, Wilbur Hall (tb), Max Farley, Hal McLean, Chester Hazlett (cl, as), Charles Strickfaden (cl, bs), Kurt Dieterle, Mischa Russell, Mario Perry, Matty Malneck (vln), Harry Perella (p), Mike Pingitore (bjo), Gilbert Torres (g), Al Armer (b), George Marsh (d), The Rhythm Boys [Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris] (vcl) -- N.Y.C., 4/29/27
Evaluation: An especially treasurable Bix recording which I particularly love because it’s the closest Bix ever came to recording a two-chorus solo (he takes his formal solo on the next-to-last chorus and plays lead on the last) and the superb accompaniment guitarist Eddie Lang gives Bix. (There’s a reason why these early recordings were billed as “Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra with Bix and Lang”!) It’s a surprise that one of these pairings features the Paul Whiteman orchestra -- and it’s not the one with Bix! It’s an example of how hard Whiteman could swing even before Bix, Tram and Bill Challis joined him, beautifully driven by Steve Brown’s bass, Lang’s guitar, Joe Venuti’s violin and Bing’s beautiful vocal. But the Whiteman “Virginia,” though a superb jazz-dance record, is up against the Bix-Tram masterpiece.

Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke (c), unk. (t), Bill Rank (tb), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms), Don Murray, Bobby Davis (reeds), Adrian Rollini (bs-s), Eddie Lang (g), Joe Venuti (vln), Frank Signorelli (p), Chauncey Morehouse (d), Ed Macy, John Ryan (vcl) -- N.Y.C., 10/26/27
Red Nichols (c), Leo McConville, Bo Ashford (t), Miff Mole, Bill Rank (tb), Max Farley (as), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms), Pee Wee Russell (cl, ts), Adrian Rollini (bs-s), Arthur Schutt (p), Carl Kress (g), Jack Hansen (b), Chauncey Morehouse (d), Jim Miller, Charlie Farrell (vcl) -- N.Y.C., 10/26/27
Evaluation: A highly controversial record in Bixiana because Bix’s presence has been disputed -- though I’m squarely on the side of Bix’s contribution, especially since Bill Rank so vividly remembered him being there. The standard story was that Trumbauer and Nichols had cut a deal whereby they’d save each other money by recording the same song with the same band on the same day for different companies, but when Trumbauer showed up at Okeh with Nichols, producer Tommy Rockwell refused to use him and insisted they find Bix and bring him in. But Nichols’ is clearly the better of the two; the advantages of a sober cornetist, a good Russell clarinet solo, more effective use of Rollini’s great bass sax and a better, swingier pair of singers gives Red the edge on this one.

Washboard Blues (take 4)
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Tommy Dorsey, Boyce Cullen (tb), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Charles Strickfaden (bs), Chester “Chet” Hazlett (bcl), Mischa Russell, Kurt Dieterle, Matty Malneck (vln), Hoagy Carmichael (p, vcl), Wilbur Hall (g), Steve Brown (b), Hal McDonald (d), Bill Challis (arr) -- Chicago, 11/18/27
Washboard Blues
The Arkansaw Travelers: Red Nichols (c), Miff Mole (tb), Jimmy Dorsey (cl), Fred Morrow (as), Arthur Schutt (p), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 1/4/27
Evaluation: Bix’s version is his first record for Whiteman and is a masterpiece, though more for Hoagy Carmichael’s beautiful singing and piano on his own song. Bix is only featured in an instrumental jazz chorus in the middle, taken faster than Hoagy’s vocal portions. The comparison is a bit unfair to Nichols since he made a better record of “Washboard Blues” than this (this one is an acoustic whereas the better one is electrical and has the advantages of Eddie Lang’s guitar and Vic Berton’s hot tympani), but the front line of Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey and Miff Mole make the side. Still, it’s up against Bix, Hoagy and Bill Challis’ creative arrangement; score this one for Bix.

There’ll Come a Time
Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Charles Strickfaden (as), Min Leibrook (bss), Tommy Satterfield (p), Matty Malneck (vln), Eddie Lang (g), Hal McDonald (d) -- N.Y.C., 1/9/28
There’ll Come a Time
Red Nichols, Leo McConville, Manny Klein (t), Miff Mole (tb), Dudley Fosdick (mel), Fud Livingston (cl, ts), Murray Kellner (vln), Arthur Schutt (p), Eddie Lang (g), Art Miller (b), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 5/29/28
Evaluation: Trumbauer’s version was made at a time when he was starting to use more players on his dates and they were beginning to sound simply like smaller versions of the Whiteman band, but there’s still a lovely Bix solo and some fine lead work by him in the midst of all the orchestration. (There’s a great solo by Tram, too.) Nichols benefits from having fewer players, a more Dixieland-ish feel and a great trombone solo by Miff Mole, but Fud Livingston is no Tram or Jimmy Dorsey (his real talent was arranging, not soloing) and the difference between Bix and Nichols on these sides is the difference between genius and talent.

Mississippi Mud
Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke, Charles Margulis (c), Bill Rank (tb), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms, vcl), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Charles Strickfaden (as), Min Leibrook (bss), Tommy Satterfield (p), Eddie Lang (g), Matty Malneck (vln), Hal McDonald (d), Bing Crosby (vcl) -- N.Y.C., 1/20/28
Mississippi Mud
Red Nichols (t), Miff Mole (tb), Dudley Fosdick (mel), Fud Livingston, Pee Wee Russell (cl, ts), Lennie Hayton (p, cel), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 3/7/28
Evaluation: Of the three extant versions of “Mississippi Mud” with Bix, I used the Trumbauer version rather than either take of Whiteman’s, mainly because of Bix’s contributions (he shows how one can be relaxed and swinging at the same time) and also Bing’s vocal (even though Bing became a much better singer after he stopped trying to push up to tenor and sang as the baritone nature had made him). Nichols’ is a good jazz version with more great solo work by Russell and Mole, but once again, class, Nichols was a talent and Bix was a genius. (I suspect the discography is incomplete and there’s a second trumpet on the Nichols side, possibly Leo McConville, joining him for what sounds like a two-trumpet ensemble at the end.)

Bix and His Gang: Bix Beiderbecke (c), Irving “Izzy” Friedman (cl), Bill Rank (tb), Min Leibrook (bs-s), Roy Bargy (p), Lennie Hayton (p, d, harmonium) -- N.Y.C., 9/21/28
Red Nichols, Leo McConville, Manny Klein (t), Miff Mole (tb), Dudley Fosdick (mel), Fud Livingston (cl, ts), Murray Kellner (vln), Arthur Schutt (p), Carl Kress (g), Art Miller (b), Chauncey Morehouse (d, vcl) -- N.Y.C., 6/1/28
Evaluation: A particularly treasurable recording of Bix’s because it preserves him playing the first song he ever learned on cornet. As usual we lament that Bix’s contract with Paul Whiteman prevented him from recording with any but Whiteman’s musicians -- how much better this would have been with Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden instead of Izzy Friedman and Bill Rank -- but Bix’s soloing and the surprisingly good drumming of Lennie Hayton (now that it’s been definitively established that it was indeed he) make this a great jazz side. Nichols’ is faster and once again has great solo work by Miff Mole, but once again Bix’s genius scores over Nichols’ talent.

Futuristic Rhythm (original master)
Frank Trumbauer and His Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke, Andy Secrest (c), Bill Rank (tb), Irving Friedman (cl, ts), Frank Trumbauer (C-ms, as, vcl on “Futuristic Rhythm”), Charles Strickfaden (as), Min Leibrook (bs-s), Lennie Hayton (p), Matty Malneck (vln), Eddie Lang (g), Stan King (d) -- N.Y.C., 3/8/29
Futuristic Rhythm
Louisiana Rhythm Kings: Red Nichols (c, arr), Glenn Miller (tb, arr), Dudley Fosdick (mel), Fud Livingston (cl, ts), Arthur Schutt (p), Vic Berton (d) -- N.Y.C., 2/20/29
Evaluation: Two versions of an inexplicably popular and heavily recorded song of the period, though neither of these is my favorite (that would be the version by “Jimmy McHugh and His Bostonians,” recorded January 8, 1929, with Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden, even though it was acoustically recorded for the cheap Harmony label and featured a vocal by the generally terrible Irving Kaufman, though it was one of his better efforts). Nichols’ version would be better if it had been Jack Teagarden taking the trombone solo instead of Glenn Miller (years later, when Miller was a huge swing bandleader and star, George Simon asked him why he didn’t take more trombone solos, and Miller said, “Who would I be kidding? I don’t play ballads as well as Tommy Dorsey and I don’t play jazz as well as Jack Teagarden”), but it’s faster, jazzier, not burdened by a vocal (Tram sings even worse on his version that Kaufman did on McHugh’s) and Nichols and an unusually good clarinet solo by Fud Livingston give the win to him.

China Boy
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: Charles Margulis (t), Bix Beiderbecke, Andy Secrest (c), Bill Rank, Jack Fulton (tb), Chet Hazlett (cl, as), Irving Friedman (cl, ts), Bernie Daly, Frank Trumbauer (as), Charles Strickfaden (as, bs, oboe), Kurt Dieterle, Mischa Russell (vln), Roy Bargy (p), Lennie Hayton (p, cel), Mike Pingitore (bjo), Mike Trafficante (b), Min Leibrook (b-b), George Marsh (d) -- N.Y.C., 5/3/29
China Boy
Red Nichols (c), Ruby Weinstein, Charlie Teagarden (t), Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller (tb), Benny Goodman (cl), Sid Stoneburn (as), Babe Russin (ts), Joe Sullivan (p), Teg Brown (g), Art Miller (b), Gene Krupa (d) -- N.Y.C., 7/2/30
Evaluation: Whiteman’s version is actually one of the last truly great jazz records his band did, and it features great solos by Bix and Tram (and some quite good open cornet or trumpet breaks, probably by Andy Secrest), but Nichols’ is a masterpiece, easily the best ever made of this song. Those breathtaking solos by Jack Teagarden at both the beginning and the end and the fine playing by Nichols and Benny Goodman in between make this one of the greatest jazz sides ever recorded. Incidentally, reviewers of the Nichols biopic “The Five Pennies” questioned the film’s assertion that the greatest stars of the swing era had played in Nichols’ bands -- but it’s true: no fewer than four of the musicians on this date (Goodman, Teagarden, Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa) became major swing bandleaders.

Waiting at the End of the Road
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: Charles Margulis, Harry Goldfield (t), Bix Beiderbecke, Andy Secrest (c), Boyce Cullen, Wilbur Hall, Bill Rank, Jack Fulton (tb), Chet Hazlett (cl, as), Irving Friedman, Red Mayer (cl, ts), Bernie Daly, Frank Trumbauer (as), Charles Strickfaden (as, bs, oboe), Kurt Dieterle, Mischa Russell, Matty Malneck, Otto Landau (vln), Roy Bargy (p), Lennie Hayton (p, cel), Mike Pingitore (bjo), Mike Trafficante (b), Min Leibrook (b-b), George Marsh (d), Bing Crosby (vcl) -- N.Y.C., 9/13/29
Waiting at the End of the Road
Louisiana Rhythm Kings: Red Nichols (c), Tommy Thunen (t), Glenn Miller (tb), Jimmy Dorsey (cl, as), Irving Brodsky (p), Dave Tough (d), Ken Sisson (arr) -- N.Y.C., 9/10/29
Evaluation: A beautiful and unjustly neglected song, written by Irving Berlin for the 1929 all-Black classic film “Hallelujah” (in which it’s performed by star Daniel Haynes as a minister who goes from preaching to rapping and then all-out singing). Whiteman’s version is noteworthy for Bing’s vocal (though I could have done without that corny banjo behind him on bars 9-16) and Bix’s last solo with the Whiteman band, a piece of crystalline perfection he somehow rallied himself long enough to put on wax. (Yes, I know it’s been disputed, but no way is that Andy Secrest.) Once again, Nichols’ version is faster and has the marvelous free feeling of his Louisiana Rhythm Kings sides, with nice lead work by Nichols as well as a good Jimmy Dorsey solo, but Bix and Bing can’t be beat on this one.

Final score: 13 songs in all, nine for Bix and four for Nichols.

Other songs Bix and Nichols both recorded: “Sweet Sue” (Bix with Whiteman in a pretentious “concert” arrangement, Nichols with the Louisiana Rhythm Kings) and three for which the Nichols versions I have are from his 1949 album “Red!” (good work but not really comparable to the way he was playing two decades earlier): “Louisiana,” “Clarinet Marmalade” and “Tiger Rag.”

Posted on Apr 18, 2017, 1:45 PM

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