Bix Beiderbecke was born on March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, the son of Bismark Herman and Agatha Jane (Hilton) Beiderbecke. There is disagreement over whether Beiderbecke was christened Leon Bismark (and nicknamed “Bix”) or Leon Bix.
His father was nicknamed “Bix”, as, for a time, was his older brother, Charles Burnette “Burnie” Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke’s father, the son of German immigrants, was a well-to-do coal and lumber merchant, named after the Iron Chancellor of his native Germany.
Beiderbecke’s mother was the daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain. She played the organ at Davenport’s First Presbyterian Church, and encouraged young Bix’s interest in the piano. Bix Beiderbecke was the youngest of three children. His brother, Burnie, was born in 1895, and his sister, Mary Louise, in 1898.
Bix began playing piano at age two or three. His sister recalls that he stood on the floor and played it with his hands over his head. Beiderbecke attended Davenport High School from 1919 to 1921. During this time, he sat in and played professionally with various bands, including those of Wilbur Hatch, Floyd Bean and Carlisle Evans.
In the spring of 1920 he performed for the school’s Vaudeville Night, singing in a vocal quintet called the Black Jazz Babies and playing his horn. He also performed, at the invitation of his friend Fritz Putzier, in Neal Buckley’s Novelty Orchestra. The group was hired for a gig in December 1920, but a complaint was lodged with the American Federation of Musicians, Local 67, that the boys did not have union cards.
Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in October 1924 for a spot with Jean Goldkette in Detroit, but the job didn’t last long. Goldkette recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company, whose musical director, Eddie King, objected to Beiderbecke’s hot-jazz style of soloing; it wasn’t copacetic with the commercial obligations that came with the band’s recording contract.
King also was frustrated by the cornetist’s inability to deftly sight read. After a few weeks, Beiderbecke was bounced from the Goldkette band, but soon arranged a recording session back in Richmond with some of its members. On January 26, 1925, Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers set two tunes to wax: “Toddlin’ Blues”, another number by LaRocca and Shields, and Beiderbecke’s own composition, “Davenport Blues”.
Beiderbecke biographer Lion has complained that the second number was marred by the alcohol consumed by the musicians. In subsequent years, “Davenport Blues” has been recorded by musicians from Bunny Berigan to Ry Cooder to Geoff Muldaur.
The two famously recorded the tune “Singin’ the Blues,” on which their mellifluous tones and melodic sophistication signaled a departure from traditional styles. Beiderbecke also composed works for solo piano, including “In a Mist,” an elaborate piece that injects early jazz with elements of French impressionism.
Despite his successes, his heavy drinking stood in the way of his career, and in 1929, after a nervous breakdown, Beiderbecke was asked to take a leave of absence from the Whiteman Orchestra to recuperate. He never got clean, and two years later, on August 6th, 1931, after a binge on toxic liquor, Beiderbecke died at the age of 28.