Re: Two articles by William Youngren: one about Bix, another about Louis.
alex revell Posted Feb 15, 2012 3:59 AM
My first reaction on seeing these excellent articles on Bix and Louis was that at last someone had written a straightforward and, importantly, a commonsense critique of both. I then saw that they had been written in the 70s so the at last didnt really apply, only puzzlement that such perceptive and commonsense articles are not more widely known and have since served as benchmarks.
If I may, Id like to make a few points. Firstly, on Bix. Youngrens statement that it was the serious jazz historians in the forties who were offended by the legend. I was around in the forties, listening avidly with friends to every jazz record I could get my hands on, and I dont remember anybody - at least in England- who was offended by the legend of Bix, far from it. Records of the great jazz bands of the twenties were just being released and we were enthralled by what we were hearing. We realised that the Whiteman band wasnt a jazz band in the sense that the Oliver, Morton, Louis, or Bix Gang records we were just discovering were. We didnt care, in respect of the Whiteman records we just waited for that Bix chorus to burst out - or even a just coda or break. The Whiteman records were no available in those days, long out of print. We grubbed around in dirty old junk shops, wading through hundreds of records, just hoping wed find a Whiteman with Bix, or a Denza Dance Band with a Miff Mole solo. We also didnt care if the small groups of improvising musicians were black or white. To us it was all jazz. As for Rudi Blesh. Even in those early days, those of us who loved the jazz of Oliver, Bix, Louis, Dodds, Goodman, Tesch, Teagarden etc, thought what he wrote was nonsensical rubbish and of no account whatsoever.
I would, however, take issue with Youngrens on his view that Bixs records with the Wolverines are his least interesting. In my opinion they are far from that. Bixs lead is always magnificent and his solos no less so. His solo in Royal Garden Blues is a case in point. From the viewpoint of my eighty odd years it still is, as it was when I first heard it in my late teens, a wonder that anyone as young as Bix was at the time could play such a beautiful - and I use the word advisedly - solo. It showed a very mature musical mind - or more likely instinct - at work.
I think that Youngren gets it absolutely right in respect of Bixs attitude to being in the Whiteman band. Jazz enthusiasts and record collectors seem to forget that Bix and other jazzmen were guys who needed to make a living, however much they enjoyed playing jazz. Music was their livelihood. The old cry that they were going commercial is nonsense. Other than the purely recording bands, such as the Louis Hot Fives and Morton groups, all the bands were playing commercially in the sense that they were playing for the public in dancehalls etc. They were earning a living. When the bookers told King Oliver that public taste was now asking for bands with saxophones, he didnt get on his high horse and say that he was a pure jazz musician and he wouldnt change his line up to cater for commercial taste. After all, even the small recording groups were making records for the recording fee - it was just another aspect of their livelihood, an opportunity to make a few extra dollars - even if they were happy that they could express themselves by playing how they wanted.
I was delighted to see that on the question of Bixs drinking, Youngren took the obvious commonsense approach and was not swayed by the necessity of looking for deep physiological reasons in the interest of promoting the legend. As he points out, Bix lived in an environment where drinking, even heavy drinking was endemic. Unlike others, he couldnt handle it and became an alcoholic. Ive know some heavy drinkers - I was one myself in my youth - but only a very few who became alcoholics. Alcohol is an addiction, like many other drugs; some people can handle it, some cant. Sadly, Bix was one who couldnt. Maybe its in the genes, I dont know. Youngren quotes Sudhalter on Bixs drinking, observing that even Sudhalter for once lets us down. and that he lapses into dreary jargon. I agree. The worth of Sudhalter purely as a writer is a matter of opinion, but a biographer he certainly was not. No biographer of any worth or academic standing would make up dialogue between people long dead, in particular intimate, personal conversations between Bix and Ruth, which only they could have known about. People have argued poetic licence, but in Bix. Man and Legend this was going much to far. In my opinion Sudhalter did Bix a great injustice with such bad writing.
I certainly agree that if Bix had lived he would not have been a dixielander at Nicks or Condons. Not sure he would have been far happier in the company of the great black swing musicians. Given Goodmans admiration of his playing, I think he would very likely have been in the first Goodman big bands. They would have given him everything he wanted. Great arrangements to play and plenty of solo place. Great big band jazz. Forget the King of Swing nonsense. Goodman was a hot Chicago style clarinettist, with, like Bix, a wonderful melodic sense.
In his piece on Louis, Youngren makes some wonderful, perceptive points in comparing the tones of Bix and Louis and their approach to playing. However, Im sorry, but I cant agree with him when he says that Bixs playing with the Wolverines was stolid and placid. Far from it, to me its full of enthusiasm and the joy of playing. Where I would strongly disagree with Youngren is his contention that it was when recording that Bix took risks in existential improvising. Any musician who has ever recorded will tell you of the strange effect that little red light has when it goes on. Even to play what you know, and have played without thought a thousand times, for some strange reason becomes extremely difficult. Thats why recordings of live performances are so much better than studio recordings. Playing to an audience, dancing or listening, is so much more inspiring and conducive to improvisation.
To end. Im rather surprised that these two fine articles had elicited so little response and comment from the members of the forum, unlike the question of Bixs last girlfriend. Food for thought there?