Sunday, February 19, 2023

The NRR Project: Bix Beiderbecke and 'Singin' the Blues'


Singin’ the Blues

Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke

Music: Con Conrad, J. Russell Robinson

Lyrics: Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young

Recorded Feb. 4, 1927


Everybody knows about Louis Armstrong. Few, however, are familiar with the other great jazz horn genius of the day, Bix Beiderbecke.

Part of this has to do with Beiderbecke’s short life, and resulting skimpy body of work. What is there is impressively powerful. Whereas Armstrong lived on to be an elder statesman of the music, Beiderbecke was dead by the age of 28, in 1931. But he also produced a different sound from Armstrong – subdued, pure-toned, introspective. It was a sound decades ahead of its time.

Bix was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903. He was an indifferent student, an enthusiastic and self-taught musician, and a dedicated drinker. The last quality would doom him to an early death. He worked his way up from local band to regional touring group to the big time with popular jazz impresario Paul Whiteman. This mainstream work didn’t take advantage of his unique artistry, and he rarely got to show what he could do.

Beiderbecke was a fan of “hot jazz,” the livelier and more adventurous alternative to the staid, unchallenging “sweet jazz” of the day, the kind Whiteman was the epitome of. “Singin’ the Blues” is a prime example of what kind of music he could make if he was allowed.

The swingy, jaunty proceedings are launched by Trumbauer on sax, then passed over to Bix, bounce to the ensemble, jump to Jimmy Dorsey on the clarinet, get a lick from Bix again, then all finish together. The cornetist exuberantly swings around the edges of tune’s harmonics, not riding the melody like Armstrong did. He plays with rhythm and time in a restrained, precise manner. This approach is seen as a precursor to the jazz ballad style, in which no lyrics are referenced and the tune is interrogated thoroughly. It has even been cited as a primitive ancestor of the cool jazz movement of the post-WWII years.

On cuts like this, and “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Clarinet Marmalade” and “In a Mist,” Beiderbecke stretched the boundaries of what jazz could be deemed to do.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Hoagy Carmichael and Stardust.’

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