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  • "We Called It Music"
    • Brad Kay
      Posted Apr 30, 2009 11:22 AM

      I have finally gotten around to reading Eddie Condon's magnum opus, "We Called it Music" (Peter Davies, Ltd. 1948). There is much about Bix in here, starting with their 1922 gig with Hollis Peavey's Jazz Bandits, including the immortal line, "Finally Beiderbecke took out a silver cornet. He put it to his lips and blew a phrase. The sound came out like a girl saying yes."

      There is much else, which has not, far as I know, been commented on or reproduced elsewhere. A sampling of quotes:

      "Bix was never actually a person; he was a living legend. Nothing which has been invented about him is as accurately symbolical as the everyday things he did. Without effort he personnified jazz; by natural selection he devoted himself to the outstanding characteristics of the music he loved. He was obsessed with it; with the aid of prohibition and its artifacts he drove away all other things - food, sleep, women, ambition, vanity, desire. He played the piano and the cornet, that was all; when he was sick the Whiteman band kept an empty chair for him; when he died no one was glad and many wept."

      In 1925: "Bix stayed at the Rienzi Hotel, down the street from the Rendezvous. Often he came to the Allerton House and played the grand piano. Jim and I sat listening to him by the hour, as hopped up as if we had been blown through an opium pipe. My school books stayed on the table, unopened. One day Bix saw them. "What are these?" he asked. I explained that I was getting an education. He looked perplexed. "What are you going to do with it?" he said. "If you can't read music why do you want to read books?" He sat down at the piano. "By the way," I said, who is Proust?" He hit a chord, listened to it, and then said, casually, "A French writer who lived in a cork-lined room. His stuff is no good in translation." I leaned over the piano. "How the hell did you find that out?" I demanded. He gave me the seven veils look. "I get around," he said."

      I recall a discussion here about the Goldkette band playing the highly exclusive Scarab Ball, at the Greystone Ballroom. According to Eddie, Bix told him and Mezz Mezzrow: "You can't get in for a million dollars. Charlie Horvath can't even get his wife in." That settled it. "We've got to get in," I said. Bix agreed. "You go and get some costumes," he said, "and I'll see what I can figure out." [Bix hatched a plan to sneak them down a coal chute in the rear of the Graystone. It was all set, Mezz and Eddie in Bix's room in their rented clown costumes awaiting the appointed time. Then:] "Suddenly the door opened and Bix walked in. "Look what I've got!" he hollered. It was a card, signed by the president of the Scarab Ball, stating that Mr. Condon and Mr. Mezzrow were to be admitted to the ball as guests. We grabbed it and ran to the Greystone. The gendarmes at the door looked at it and tore a wall down getting us in. Ten minutes later I was in the middle of a champagne party; my hostess was a middle-aged woman in a Chinese costume who was without an escort for the grand ball. She chose me. I stomped around with her, criss-crossing and countermaching, while Bix and the boys played and the newsreel cameras ground away. At one of the turns my hard-heeled shoes kept going the other way and I did a pratfall, almost fracturing my partner. A few weeks later in Chicago a friend stopped me on the street. "I saw you in a newsreel in Detroit," he said. "There was a wonderful close-up of you lying on the floor at the Scarab Ball. I didn't know you were in society."

      Toward the bitter end, in 1931: "He couldn't go back to Whiteman; he didn't have the stamina for the job, or the ability to concentrate. He played college dates and made a few records: one day he ruined twenty-eight masters trying to get a solo right. Joe Sullivan was in the band; he almost cried when he told me about it. But when I heard Bix at the piano nothing seemed changed; he played with the same effortless, unbelievable imagination. It was only when I looked at his face and saw the absence there that things got cold and tight around me and I stifffened my drink."

      Rich stuff this. Whether Eddie stretched a fact here or there doesn't matter to me. His impressions are first-hand and told with an immediacy that no scholarly research could ever convey. Still, I wonder what became of that newsreel of the Scarab Ball...

      -Brad Kay
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