Bix and Bird: A lot to think about

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

Arthur Brooks' article on Charlie Parker offers a lot of parallels to Bix, including the obvious one that both could have lived much longer, happier and more productive lives if they'd been able as human beings to live with the same sense of order, structure and discipline with which they functioned as musicians. There's one bit of "Birding" in Brooks' article comparable to the many tall tales about Bix's life which Forumites have called "Bixing": the statement that in the last years of his life "the greatest musician of his generation pawned his instruments and played on the street for loose change from passers-by." Bird habitually pawned his horns for drug money (some savvy club owners insisted on locking up his saxophone inside their club and giving it to him only when he was ready to play) but he was never reduced to working as a street musician.

It's true, as Brooks recounts, that Charlie Parker may not have been able to recover from drug addiction himself but did his best to warn other musicians away from drug use. If Bird encouraged other musicians to use heroin, it was by example. No one who actually knew Bird ever recalled him urging another musician to take drugs. A lot of them remembered him saying things similar to the quote in Brooks' article and basically telling them, "Stay off drugs. Don't ruin your life the way I've ruined mine." (Alas, most of the musicians who told those stories ruefully added, "I should have listened to him.")

The entire history of jazz has been the struggle of musicians to express themselves within the forms handed down by their predecessors and to widen and broaden the music. The original New Orleans players chafed against the restrictions of marching-band music and developed a style looser, freer, more syncopated and swinging. The next generation of jazz players, particularly Louis Armstrong and Bix, pushed the boundaries further and turned jazz from an ensemble-based music to one based on individual expression in improvised solos. Charlie Parker and his contemporaries pushed the boundaries even further by adding newer, more dissonant harmonies and building their melodies from the inner notes of chords. Later musicians like Miles Davis (a protegé of Parker), John Coltrane (a protegé of Davis), Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler abandoned the discipline of unchanging chord structures but found new ways to organize their music and keep it from descending into cacaphony, including basing it on modes (scales) and melodic, not harmonic, variations.

Indeed, in his Jazz Review article "The State of Dixieland" Richard Hadlock argued persuasively that Bix's music anticipated some of the more advanced harmonies of Bird's: Bix, Hadlock wrote, "was practicing in 1927 what a few early 'bop' modernists (Charlie Parker in particular) felt they were discovering some 12 years later. Parker himself claimed to have stumbled onto the idea, in 1939, of 'using higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them up with appropriately related changes.' Which is exactly what Bix Beiderbecke (and, to a lesser extent, Frank Trumbauer) was up to, although most of his cohorts weren't always aware of it and invariably failed to furnish the 'appropriately related changes.'"

Also, both Bix and Bird did their best work with musical partners who were pursuing similar innovations but were also far more grounded human beings who avoided alcoholism, drug abuse and the other pitfalls of the "jazz life": Frank Trumbauer in Bix's case and Dizzy Gillespie in Bird's.

Posted on Aug 29, 2017, 8:43 AM

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