Once upon a time there was this white boy from Iowa who taught himself to play cornet by ear, using what the music folks call "non-standard fingering", meaning no one else has sounded like him since.
The boy, Bix, fell in love with jazz and eventually blended classical music with New Orleans syncopation (I love that word: syncopation - it describes New Orleans perfectly). After playing with The Wolverines, he joined Frankie Trumbauer and recorded my favorite version of Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.
After playing with a few other jazz greats, Bix began singlehanded creating the image of the jazz musician, the proverbial "Young Man With A Horn": he worked long hours, toured constantly, drank night and day, did multiple stints in various rehab centers (yes, there was even rehab in the Jazz Age), and one hot August night in 1931, he died much too early at the age of twenty-eight.
In the years since Bix Biederbecke has been called the Number One Saint of Jazz, and at one point compared to Jesus (always the kiss of death), with jazz devotees dissecting every aspect of his life from his real name to his sexual orientation, the true cause of his death, and whether or not his contributions were as important as the African-American musicians of the same time period. On most of his original recordings, his name doesn't even appear, being attributed to the orchestras of Frankie Trumbaur, Fletcher Henderson, or Paul Whiteman.
Best quote about Bix, or, rather his playing:
"According to Ralph Berton, he was "as usual gazing off into his private astronomy," but his cornet sounded "like a girl saying yes."
At the time Bix died, he was not a household name. There was one newspaper article in France a couple months later, then nothing until Dorothy Baker published her 1938 novel Young Man With A Horn. That started up the comparisons to Biederbecke, and the various memoirs from musicians who had played with him.
As clarinetist PeeWee Russell said, "He more or less made you play whether you wanted to or not," Russell said. "If you had any talent at all he made you play better."
How did I ever discover Bix?
My grandmother Inez was a jazz baby and long into the early 1960s, she'd put on the old 78's of Bix and ask my grandad to dance with her. There's a mental picture: summer twilight, Bix's cornet music floating in the evening breeze, Arch looking sharp in his fedora, and Inez smiling back at him as they dance to Singin the Blues.