While Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were blowing on the south side of Chicago, a slightly smaller storm was being created on the north side of Chicago by a white trumpet player by the name of Bix Beiderbecke. Although the Original Dixieland Jazz Band also had white musicians, few in the authentic jazz community regarded their efforts as true jazz.
Beiderbecke, on the other hand, was the first white jazz instrumentalist to play in the authentic jazz style. Born and raised in Davenport, Iowa by upper middle-class parents with some musical training, Beiderbecke was more drawn to the new sounds he heard from the river boats traveling up the Mississippi river. Of particular interest was a young cornet player just three years older than himself, young Louis Armstrong.
When problems in school and at home forced his parents to send him to a military school in Chicago, he found the two great loves of his life: jazz and alcohol. By 1922, the year Armstrong arrived in Chicago, Beiderbecke had succeeded in getting expelled from school and began to pursue his two mistresses full-time. Within a year he had formed a jazz band on the north side of Chicago and began to develop his own style of playing.
On Wednesday nights, King Oliver and his young protégé, Louis Armstrong, would hold “midnight rambles”–concerts designed specifically for the white kids who weren’t comfortable joining the mostly black audiences on the weekends. There, on Wednesday evenings, fans like Bix Beiderbecke, future swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, and drummer Gene Krupa heard the new swinging sound of Chicago jazz.
Borrowing ideas from Armstrong, Beiderbecke began to swing his rhythms and to craft phrases of contrasting lengths with beats on varied accents. But instead of Armstrong’s powerful, pyrotechnic displays of playing, Bix tended towards a softer, more lyrical line of music. His solos tended to create more intimate, almost introspective atmospheres. In this sense, his music wasn’t so much an anticipation of the swing era, as Armstrong’s was, but of the cool era of jazz, when more thoughtful, extended lines were the standard.
By the end of the 1920s, jazz was rapidly migrating out of Chicago and musicians were finding new opportunities to play elsewhere. Armstrong, Hines and others, including Bix moved to the bigger stage of New York City. Bix was hired by Paul Whiteman to play in his popular, if highly structured, orchestra. Whiteman’s arrangements were semi-classical in nature, emphasizing the dance element of jazz, but even in this generally non-improvising ensemble, Bix Beiderbecke shone as an improvising wonder.
By 1931 alcoholism was taking a heavy toll on Bix’s life. When he contracted pneumonia, he decided to go home to Iowa to recuperate. Upon arriving there, he found all of the solo records he had sent home to parents neatly stacked in a cupboard – unopened. His parents never accepted his choice of life; they refused to listen his records. He returned to New York heartbroken and died of complications of his respiratory illness and alcoholism in a boarding house. He was 28.
The jazz sound which matured in Chicago had shed the oom-pah, oom-pah rhythmic shackles of ragtime. It was cool; it was hip; it was swinging; it was ready for New York. Just as the closing of Storyville had forced jazz musicians north to Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City; the new, less tolerant city council of Chicago cracked down on the gangsters, driving them out of town, and shutting down dozens of clubs and dives. Once again, jazz packed up and moved – this time, east.
The 1920s, an age of affluence and alcohol, were described by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald as the “Jazz Era.” If the music didn’t permeate the culture of the upper crust society youth, it certainly was its soundtrack for late night activities.
Even so, the economic crash at the end of the decade was a definite jolt to the nation and to the entertainment industry as well. The carefree party atmosphere of 1928 was gone by 1930 and by 1931 the recording industry, an important part of the jazz musician’s income base, was reeling. Why should people spend money on records when they could hear the same music for free on the radio? Record sales plummeted from over 100 million units a year to 4 million units per year; sales of record players went from over a million per year to less than 40,000 per year. The recording industry all but capsized, sending many independent companies, including most jazz labels, into bankruptcy. Others, like Okeh records, were swallowed up by larger labels like Columbia and RCA. It wasn’t until the invention of the juke-box in the late 30s that the recording industry began to recover.
The economic jolt and the renewed moral crusade which shut down many of the clubs and dance halls in the country at first didn’t seem to affect the musical nightlife of New York City. There, people still gathered to hear jazz and see performers like Armstrong, Earl Hines, and new players like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. In nightclubs like the famous Cotton Club, and dance halls like the Savoy, the swing style introduced by Armstrong and others in Chicago was given a larger voice, more complex harmonies, and highly crafted charts. The sounds of Armstrong were artistically orchestrated into the sound known as “swing jazz.” The “Big Band” era of American jazz was born.
Bix Beiderbecke (far right) and The Wolverine Orchestra, 1924, “Big Boy”