Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet

Sometimes, jazz fans suggest less than enlightened racial attitudes contributed to Leon Bix Beiderbecke’s alcoholism and emotional decline, because the white cornetist was not able to openly play with musicians like his hero, Louis Armstrong. That might be overstating the point, but he surely would have been much happier working with real deal jazz musicians rather than Paul Whiteman’s sweet symphonic band. Beiderbecke put soul into Dixieland, but he didn’t live to see his thirtieth birthday. Brigitte Berman chronicles his life and music in the newly restored documentary, Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet, which opens Friday at Film Forum.

Beiderbecke is Davenport, Iowa’s favorite son, but his prominent family was not exactly thrilled by his musical ambitions. Eventually, their snobbish disregard would contribute to alcoholism and depression. During his short-lived prime, he was arguably the second most respected jazz musician in America, after Louis Armstrong, and the most accomplished white soloist. Unfortunately, like Charlie Parker, he attracted fans who sometimes ill-advisedly encouraged his excesses—in Bix’s case, that was gin.

Given his reputation, Paul Whiteman inevitably decided to recruit Beiderbecke for his big band. Unfortunately, it was not the sort of swinging outfit, where Beiderbecke could have thrived. He more or less knew it too. Initially, Bix turned down Whiteman to play with a real-deal band led by Adrian Rollini, but they were so good, only musicians went to hear them, so Bix was out of work again in three weeks.

Of course, the most important part of Berman’s film is Beiderbecke’s music, which still sounds great. Amazingly, even with its limited audio fidelity, a tune like “Singin’ the Blues” sounds fresh and effervescent—much more so than ninety percent of the music of his contemporaries (not including Armstrong).

Berman does a nice job evoke the vibe and music of Bix’s era. Appropriately, we hear a lot of vintage Beiderbecke and Whiteman recordings, but there are also legit soundtrack performances by Richard Williams on cornet as well as Dill Jones and Earl French on piano (Jones, the late stride specialist notably serves up a lovely rendition of Beiderbecke’s piano composition, “In a Mist”).

When watched from the vantage of the 2020s, Berman’s
Bix feels like a direct precursor to the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking. With its combination of voice-overs (Richard Basehart for you MST3K fans), archival photos, and sensitive music, Bix could easily pass for an installment of Burns’ Jazz.

However, since she conducted interviews over the span of 1978-1980, Berman had the chance to include musicians like Hoagie Carmichael (who passed away in 1981, but sounds quite energetic and often quite funny in his
Bix sit-downs) and Jess Stacy, along with Artie Shaw (who was also frequently seen in Burns’ Jazz) and the great Doc Cheatham. Alas, Whiteman’s famous vocalist Bing Crosby died in 1977, just before Berman started the interview process.

If you do nothing else after reading this review, check out Bix’s “Singin’ the Blues” online. After doing so, you will probably want to watch this film. It does well by Bix. Highly recommended for fans of Dixieland and Hot-style jazz,
Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet opens Friday (8/6) at Film Forum.