A book about widely honored jazz player Bix Beiderbecke has been making waves in his hometown of Davenport.
“Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend,” written by Davenport-native Brendan Wolfe, is described as “Wolfe’s personal and often surprising attempt to connect Bix Beiderbecke’s music, history, and legend.”
How “Finding Bix” came to be
Despite growing up in Bix’s hometown, it wasn’t until he was a high school graduate that Wolfe started to learn anything about Bix. He took an interest in the music and life of Bix after he was hired to appear in a movie about the musician’s life.
“It was amazing I was just completely in love with the music and the whole vibe,” Wolfe said, “and being surrounded by other musicians who knew a lot about Bix and were excited about his music too.”
Wolfe’s interest in digging deeper was triggered a number of years later when he wrote an essay on a book about Bix for an Iowa City newspaper.
“I got an angry letter to the editor from a guy who’s return address was Bix Beiderbecke.”
One of Bix’s nephews had written the letter to Wolfe, claiming he had gotten facts wrong, was using wrong sources and was being disrespectful to the family.
“It was sort of alarming to feel that I had done that,” Wolfe said, “but it was also really interesting to realize for the first time that Bix is actually at the center of a lot of really contentious arguments.”
Wolfe said he began his research for the book in March of 2003. The book was published in May of 2017.
What research uncovered
In “Finding Bix,” Wolfe said he “is bringing together all the different voices who’ve talked about Bix over the years and letting them hash it out on the page.”
In his own research, Wolfe said he uncovered an interview with Bix from 1929 that the Davenport Democrat had published. He said the interview was “a real goldmine” that appeared to let you inside of Bix’s thoughts.
Longtime skepticism of the article led Wolfe to do something no other biographer had not been able to do through the years.
He Googled it.
“I just started throwing quotations from this article into Google until I was able to figure out that pretty much everything in this article is plagiarized,” Wolfe said. “All of the quotations from Bix, except for one or two, come from an interview with another scholar.”
Wolfe said that discovery was both exciting and depressing because “it can be hard to pin down the real Bix… and this interview made it that much more difficult to figure him out.”
“The book is not simply about particular controversies in Davenport,” Wolfe said, “it’s about how Bix is sort of situated in the current culture, in arguments about race, alcoholism addiction... the role of commerce in art, sexuality, lots of sort of really kind of relevant contentious arguments that Bix is still at the center of.”
While some reviews refer to the book with words like “engaging,” ‘worth reading,” and “compelling.” Wolfe said he has faced a mixed bag of feelings about “Finding Bix.”
“There is a small group of what I call “Bixophiles,” and I think they call themselves Bixophiles - I wrote about them a little bit in the book - who spend an awful lot of time writing about and thinking about Bix Beiderbecke, and no, they do not love this book,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said opponents of the book argue that many of his facts are wrong, but he counters that the book contains “things that they would prefer not be written about.”
“There are people who argue that when you write about this stuff, you’re almost by definition trashing Bix.”
A historian’s thoughts
Historian Jim Petersen, who is a distant cousin of Bix, gives talks on the jazz player’s life.
Citing many books on Bix’s life and stories that have been passed down, Petersen said he prefers to focus on the music and what he accomplished in his life.
Petersen said Bix’s musical talent was discovered very early on, when he was a child getting music lessons. After only a couple sessions, Bix asked his teacher to play the next lesson so he could hear what the composition should sound like.
“So the professor sat down and played the next lesson, and when he came back he asked Bix to play. Well he played it,” Petersen explained, “including the mistake the professor made. He wasn’t reading the music, he had it in his head, and he was playing it by ear.”
That was the end of the lessons.
On top of the musical talent, Petersen said Bix was well liked.
“The people he was around all loved him, they all called him a sweet guy, perfect gentleman, and that sort of thing,” said Petersen.
As far as how people view Bix, Petersen said, “I always figure, anybody who’d want to run him down is counter-productive, because you should look at all he’s accomplished.”
In the jazz world, Bix is remembered for his emphasis on the cornet’s middle register, according to Britannica, as well as his many piano compositions. He played in several different orchestras and has a long discography. Click here to learn more.
Those accomplishments have served as inspiration to the Quad Cities to celebrate his music at the Bix Jazz Festival for 46 years. The festival’s president Steve Trainor said he’s heard reviews about the book, but puts most stock into what the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society’s historian has uncovered.
“He wasn’t perfect, but we’re here for the music and we support the man… none of us are perfect, but we focus on the music and the fun and we want to keep (the festival) going,” Trainor said.
Bix in today’s world
Despite disagreements, research continues, books are written, events are held in Bix’s honor, and the music still plays.
“I think the music stands on its own… I think that Bix’s stuff is worth listening to, not because he’s from Davenport, or not because he was some special dude from the 1920s, not because it’s jazz and we need to do something about jazz music, it’s because it’s really good,” Wolfe said.
“If you care about his life, if you care about how he’s sort of still present in the current culture, then read the book. If you don’t care about any of that and you just want to listen music then do that. And nothing else matters.”