In high school, way back then, everyone was listening to the likes of Dion and the Belmonts, The Shirelles, Frankie Valli, Jan and Dean (and the little-remembered early incarnation Jan and Arnie), Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others of that genre.
Through no fault of my own, I got introduced to Bix Beiderbecke’s music and the whole Dixieland Jazz era. Not only because it was different than what everyone else was listening to, but also because it was so smooth, so slick, so original-American, I became a fan nearly overnight. And over no more than two nights I learned to recognize the golden cornet of Bix Beiderbecke, even among all the other instruments in the various bands, big and small, that he played with over the years, bands that included Jean Goldkette’s and Paul Whiteman’s. Bix also recorded several numbers with his own band, The Wolverines.
He composed some pieces, too. Not a lot, not many that are played today; some barely remembered. One in particular, a piano composition entitled In a Mist is available as a recording and its wonderful syncopation and near-disharmony as fingers roll across the keyboard represent, to me, the easy coolness that Bix embodied.
Hailing from Davenport, Iowa, Bix taught himself to play the cornet. He devised his own method of fingering and some believe this contributed to his signature sound. He died too young, a mere 28 years old, victim of his own dissolute life and anecdotally a long night-time ride in an open car while unwittingly or otherwise plagued with a case of pneumonia. He was living in Queens at the time, and his neighbor’s account of the night he died is quite tragic-sounding, with Bix hallucinating about threatening Mexicans hiding under his bed. This was moments before he died in his neighbor’s arms. Other than among musicians, he was largely unknown at the time of his death.
A major fan and also a budding artist, I drew his likeness from images found here and there (no easy task finding them, other than from LP covers: there was no Google Images then) and some of these images were turned into placards or posters, each bearing the homage “Bix Lives!” One such poster graced the door to my bedroom for several years.
As my meager budget and near-rare finds of albums featuring Bix allowed, I managed to acquire nearly a dozen vinyl LPs on which he could be heard performing, the mellow tones of his horn always managing to breach the surface of the music and my brain always formed the words, silently, “That’s Bix.” Almost all his recorded music is on iTunes now. Finding Bix would have been so much easier back then if there were such a thing as streaming music. You can sample a 90-second section of In a Mist there. (Make sure you listen to his own recorded version; there are others, but their fingering… not the same.)
One time I was apparently boasting about the acquisition of a new vinyl featuring Bix, and my young companion, very young and naïve, asked me “What’s a big spider-back album?”
Had my head been transparent then, you would have been able to watch as I took a beat; as my mind descended into a mist, and the wheels, cams and cogs turned slowly in my brain, with tumblers eventually falling into place, trying to make sense of what I had just been asked.
What would be special about spider backs, that they should be in an album?
And a big album? Are there enough of them to warrant a big album? Or are the backs themselves big?
Aren’t spiders’ bellies more interesting, and only a few at that: the Black Widows with their distinctive vivid red hourglass marking that might warn suitors of an early demise, for example? Are there others with such interesting, distinctive marks that could fill an album big or small?
And then, finally, emerging slowly from the mist:
Big spider-back album. Bix Beiderbeck album.
Oh, kiddo. You’ve just opened yourself up for a mild pummeling from me, for your — ignorance? no, innocence — and I understand why you are in the dark. I guarantee you, a week from now you won’t make that mistake again, because as you’re about to learn, Bix lives.