As in most sophisticated fiction films, the main action of the 1981 documentary “Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet” takes place in the interstices and under the surfaces. Bix Beiderbecke, the innovator of jazz cornetist, pianist and composer, died in 1931, at the age of twenty-eight, leaving behind a few hundred 78 rpm records, a legend of a self-destructing artist and a treasure trove of stories. guarded by those who knew him. When director Brigitte Berman shot “Bix”, between 1978 and 1981, many of Beiderbecke’s associates were still alive – musicians in their 70s and 80s who had worked and played with him, as well as friends and family in his town. native of Davenport, Iowa. Their deeply moving testimonials about Beiderbecke’s art and personality, their anecdotes about his professional and private life, their vision of his marvelous talent and the obstacles he had to face in developing and deploying it, all make him a fascinating, even essential film, albeit one that leaves its most important questions unexplored.
“Bix,” which opens at Metrograph Wednesday for online viewing and Friday in person, is a literal biography, not critical or analytical; it presents the major chronological framework of Beiderbecke’s life and adorns it with the colorful, detailed and poignant memories of the interview subjects. The stripped-down story is nevertheless itself a kind of art, which resonates far beyond its named subject. A largely self-taught piano prodigy in a solidly middle-class white family, Bix (whose full name was Leon Bismark Beiderbecke) took up the cornet as a teenager and was, within months, an admired soloist – yet he didn’t know read music and never learned to do so with professional skill. His first girlfriend, Vera Korn, says he played high school assemblies and his music “left everyone, well, just a little appalled – no one really understood what he was trying to achieve. say with his music…. It was so different, and no one knew anything like it, no one had ever heard anything like it.
He was won over to jazz by bands he heard – including Fate Marable’s, with Louis Armstrong – on riverboats from New Orleans. (Davenport is on the Mississippi River; geography is fate.) He learned to play on the family’s only jazz record, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band from New Orleans. (His sister, Mary Louise Shoemaker, offers a touching description of his self-taught posture: ear to the Victrola horn, cornet angled down “so as not to hit the Victrola.”) He became a professional musician at twenty, when he joined a regional dance group called the Wolverines, and he made his first recordings with them, in 1924. Later that year he joined Jean Goldkette’s successful and famous Detroit-based group and remained with the group on and off until 1927.
Beiderbecke’s fortunes with Goldkette were limited, according to the film, by Edward King, the band’s label head, who had a negative view of his advanced style. As Goldkette’s pianist at the time, Paul Mertz, recounted, King found Beiderbecke’s solos did not match the tone of a popular band, and Goldkette was forced to cut them back. (Beiderbecke, with little formal training, barely read music, but was obsessed with listening to and learning the works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.) In 1927, when Goldkette was in financial trouble and let Beiderbecke and other band members, Beiderbecke was hired by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Whiteman’s nickname was the “King of Jazz”, and the group was the most famous “jazz” group of the time, both nonsense, when in fact the group was more of a symphonic ensemble. (It was the band that created George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” commissioned by Whiteman.) Beiderbecke had few solo spots with Whiteman’s band, though he did tour with them under harsh conditions. very demanding.
Beiderbecke was an alcoholic, and touring exacerbated his drinking. When his health failed, he returned to Davenport to recuperate, then settled in New York, which with the rise of radio had become the new center of jazz. But he soon began to drink again, and even more abundantly. He collapsed in a recording studio; he suffered from delirium tremens. (Interviewed on camera, musician Roy Maier does a terrifying imitation of the state in which he found Beiderbecke.) Then the Depression hit, diminishing the nightlife, the recording industry and Beiderbecke himself, who did not worked very little. He moved to Sunnyside, Queens; he had a girlfriend named Alice, whom he planned to marry. (She unfortunately does not participate in the film.) Beiderbecke died of pneumonia on August 6, 1931.
Berman elicits extraordinary stories, and their essence illuminates the social and material circumstances of jazz musicians, even privileged whites like Beiderbecke, in the 1920s and early 1930s. “Bix” offers a portrait of a painfully racialized jazz milieu, in which bands were separated, even as musicians fraternized and played together across racial lines, both privately and in speakeasy jam sessions. (Armstrong and Beiderbecke met in Davenport around 1920 and years later performed together privately in Chicago. The film features audio recordings of Armstrong, who died in 1971, talking about Beiderbecke – the film’s subtitle comes from one of his remarks.) Interviews with members of Whiteman’s busy and successful band depict the physical and emotional exhaustion of touring musicians, even white people who faced none of the restrictions and terrors that awaited black musicians on their travels. As the voice-over commentary says, the band traveled from town to town, usually by overnight train, to perform seven days a week, often two shows a day; it was a challenge to find time to eat and sleep, and there was virtually no privacy. Most musicians drank heavily. “The work was so hard you almost had to drink,” says violinist Matty Malneck. Moreover, he adds, the work was musically unrewarding: the same pieces night after night punctuated by a few brief solos. The combination of alcohol and Beiderbecke’s physical impairment took its toll: he slept on the bandstand between solos, according to drummer Herb Weil. A handwritten score of a Whiteman arrangement features, at one particular bar line, the scribbled instruction “Wake up Bix.”
Beiderbecke had a bright, seductive, yet reserved tone and pungent chromaticism, worlds apart from the excitement and kaleidoscopic expressiveness of Armstrong’s playing; on the contrary, Beiderbecke’s terse precision anticipated the introspective tension of Miles Davis’ work more than two decades ahead. But he was active at a time when there were few professional opportunities for the sophisticated jazz soloist. In New York, the commercial demands of radio prove to be as demanding as those of dance bands and symphony orchestras. He managed to make dozens of records with small groups that allowed more room for his ideas and improvisations, albeit within the three-minute length of the ten-inch 78rpm record. In his most notable recordings (such as the famous and influential “Singin’ the Blues”), he partnered with innovative saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. But these weren’t work groups – they were groups of musicians coming together for the recording studio. In the 1930s the balance of jazz began to shift, even in large orchestras, towards the art of the heroic soloist. This change came too late for Beiderbecke.
In telling the story, Berman strikes a difficult balance between authoritatively impersonal voice-overs, which are accompanied mostly by stills and oddly generic stock footage, and intimate and invigorating interviews, which are nevertheless reduced to snippets. very relevant illustrations. There is a moment when the camera rolls for a long time, miraculously: pianist Charlie Davis, a friend and colleague of Beiderbecke’s, recalls an unreleased, unrecorded piano work that Beiderbecke had played to him – Davis says, “I ‘recorded myself, in my own mind’—then plays it itself. But the soundtrack of her graceful and moving performance is interrupted by spoken commentary. In a sense, the film’s cluttered arrangements get in the way of its standouts, namely its interview subjects. The extraordinary reminiscences of Beiderbecke’s associates, friends and family have little sense of exploration, conversation, give-and-take with Berman.
Nevertheless, the images evoked by the words and the music, of history embodied by the presence before the camera of those who were part of it, give the film, despite its lack of form and taste, an overwhelming power. I found myself thinking about other movies, movies that didn’t exist at the time and weren’t being made. John Coltrane died in 1967, Charlie Parker died in 1955, Billie Holiday and Lester Young died in 1959, and many other greats died even less announced (like Eric Dolphy, in 1964, and Bud Powell, in 1966) . Many of their musical and personal associates were still around when Berman was filming his film. Warnings might have flashed at the intersection of jazz and film, calling for the need to create an archive of eyewitnesses and hearingwitnesses while they were still around and to seek cinematic forms in tune with music and musicians. Now, jazz documentaries are numerous; few display such multilevel conceptualizations of gender. And now it’s very late.