Bix Anniversary Honored With Records From Davenport Home
Fourteen years before Aug. 6 was burned into the world’s memory (with the 1945 U.S. atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, killing more than 70,000 people), that date marked another impactful death.
Davenport native and jazz legend Leon Bismark (“Bix”) Beiderbecke died Aug. 6, 1931 at age 28, from alcohol abuse and lobar pneumonia in his Queens, N.Y., apartment. His mother and brother Burnie were on their way to New York but arrived too late. Bix’s body was returned to Davenport with services on Aug. 11, 1931 at Hill & Frederick’s Funeral Home, and burial at Oakdale Cemetery, 25th Street and Eastern Avenue.
Nearly a week after the 49th-annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Davenport drummer, bandleader and jazz historian Josh Duffee is holding another tribute to Bix on Thursday, at his boyhood home, 1934 Grand Ave., Davenport.
On the circa-1895 porch, he will play 78-rpm records from his collection, of the bands that Bix recorded with, as well as records of songs and bands that Bix listened to growing up. The Facebook Live event will be from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at facebook.com/josh.duffee.7.
All tip money from this event will be split between the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society and Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archives at River Music Experience, Davenport. Next year, they will celebrate the 90th anniversary of Bix’s passing at the 50th anniversary of The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival at Rhythm City Casino Event Center in Davenport.
“I thought it would be so moving to hear Bix on record, coming from his house,” Duffee said Wednesday. “When Bix was growing up, he was listening to the Dixieland jazz bands on the Victrola in his family home and he was sitting next to it with his cornet…I have got those records, so why don’t I play them from the porch so people will know exactly what it would have sounded like with that music coming from that home back in the 1910s.
“People can actually hear Bix playing the cornet right there – and you’ll hear him playing with Whiteman, with Goldkette, with Trumbauer,” he said, noting he considered and rejected having a small live band at the house.
“If there’s a band playing there, I didn’t want to make it where there are so many people coming around, not socially distancing, and the cops are called…This way, it’s a great chance for people to hear the records,” Duffee said. “There’s always somebody who’s never heard some of these Bix records before.
“That’s what I love – that I’m playing this music, thinking that this may be somebody’s first time hearing this music,” he said. “I still remember my first Goldkette record that hooked me, that had Bix on it, so it may happen for someone even watching on Thursday.”
That first record was when he was 16, with “My Pretty Girl” by the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. “I was just blown away by the sound, and it’s still one of my favorite songs that I perform,” he said. After the recent virtual fest, the Bix Society signed up 25 new members, Duffee said.
“There’s something about Bix music that people absolutely love and makes them feel good,” he said.
“I know there will be people all over the world thinking about Bix on August 6th, and I hope this event will make them feel like they’re on Bix’s lawn in person,” Duffee added. “I will just be playing music that evening, while responding to comments during the Live event.”
Josh (a Moline High alum) started playing in fifth grade, and first sat in with professionals at 15, in the mid-‘90s, with the Riverboaters jazz band at Hunters Club in Rock Island.
Duffee’s bands have performed at the jazz festival every year since 2002. “It’s been an honor being able to do that,” he said. “Rich Johnson (the former Bix Society music director) was the one that did that. We used to rehearse at West Music when they had the location on Brady Street and we were trying to get our foot in the door. There hadn’t been a local band that performed on the main stage for a long time.”
Johnson came to hear them, playing music of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra (with which Bix played). Duffee recalled Johnson saying, “I would have sworn you were playing the original 78 rpm records, and I looked in the room and here you guys are playing the music, just like the record. I couldn’t believe it.”
“When we performed that year, Alann Krivor, who’s the grand-nephew of Jean Goldkette, he gave us the Jean Goldkette Award of Excellence at the Afterglow of that festival. Here we are a first-year band, getting an award at the end of the festival for how we great we were playing the Goldkette music.”
Duffee mostly performed the fest with his 10-piece orchestra, and after 2014 with his larger Greystone Monarchs — different music than the orchestra, like King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman. The Duffee quartet – which played for this year’s online fest — had regularly performed (until Covid in March) at the Sunday jazz brunch at Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport. For the virtual fest, it included Alan Knapper on cornet, Mason Moss on piano, and Drew Morton on upright bass.
“This just shows how much music is out there from the 1920s,” he said. “I have three different groups – a quartet, a 10-piece big band and a 13-piece big band, and each one is playing different music. That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s even more than that. That just brings to light how much music there truly was that was being written and recorded in the 1920s.”
A brief, blazing life
Bix was born in the Grand Avenue house on March 10, 1903, and grew up here. His father, Bismark Herman Beiderbecke, was a son of German immigrants and was owner of East Davenport Lumber and Coal Company. His mother, Agatha Jane (Hilton) Beiderbecke, was the daughter of a riverboat pilot and was organist at First Presbyterian Church. Bix learned to play the piano by ear in the family home, and by three he could play simple melodies. The Davenport Democrat published an article about his musical accomplishments when he was six years old.
He lived with his family until September 1921, when he enrolled at Lake Forest Academy, near Chicago. Bix was later expelled on May 21, 1922.
After leaving Lake Forest, he played with several bands around Chicago and Davenport, joining the Wolverine Orchestra in 1924. When he was just 24, Bix was making more than $200 a week, which was quite a princely sum in the 1920s, according to bixsociety.org.
In October 1924, Bix left The Wolverines and joined The Jean Goldkette Orchestra. He came home in 1925 (where he wrote and recorded “Davenport Blues”) and briefly attended the University of Iowa that February, before returning to play with Jean Goldkette. In October 1927, Bix joined Paul Whiteman, who premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” three years earlier.
The Whiteman Orchestra, which had its own train, was on national radio, and played every major concert hall in the U.S., including Carnegie Hall, where Bix played his own composition “In A Mist.” Bix continued with Whiteman until September 1929.
According to the Jazz Trumpet Project, Aug. 6, 1931 was a hot, muggy day in Sunnyside, Queens. That night, Bix burst into his apartment hallway screaming and demanding to see his rental agent, George Kraslow. When Kraslow reached apartment 1G, he found Bix trembling and ranting that two Mexican men were hiding under his bed with long daggers. Bix then apparently collapsed into his arms, dead.
“While the official cause of Beiderbecke’s death was lobar pneumonia, most historians agree that acute alcoholism was responsible for the decline in his physical and mental health in the last year or so of his life,” the jazz website says. “According to some accounts, Beiderbecke died only a month or two after moving into the apartment and never left the building except to buy bootleg gin.”
Andy Schumm, a Chicago-based Bix fest veteran and cornet player, has said Beiderbecke “is quite possibly the most influential figure in the entire history of jazz. … Bix had such an unbelievable intensity in his music.” Calling Bix “obsessed with good music,” he wrote that he had “such a pure ideal about music. As a musician, I can only try my best to live up to it. When it comes down to it, Bix just was. A rarity.”
Society and festival keep legacy alive
The Bix memorial society and annual jazz fest started in his memory after the New Jersey-based Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band paid tribute at Bix’s Davenport grave on Aug. 6, 1971, and at a concert that night.
Duffee was on the Bix Society board for 14 years, starting in 2003, and was music director many years, beginning in 2009 following the death of Rich Johnson.
“I was living and breathing his music of the ‘20s, so I was bringing something different to the board than what other board members were,” he said. “That’s how I felt we could be a strong board, if we all brought something different to the table. It could make the organization even stronger.”
“My big thing was, I started hiring more local bands,” Duffee said. “I wanted to see more local bands on the stage. I made a comment during the virtual Bix fest that, I call us local bands because I live here, and we hire Manny’s group and the River City 6, and groups that play around, and for people who come from out of town, we are considered the out-of-town bands.
“A lot of times, the early Bix board said, there are people coming from out of town and they’re coming to hear bands from Chicago and New York; they can come to the Quad-Cities and hear our bands anytime during the year. This is a special weekend,” he said. “That was my big push, to feature our great bands in the Quad-Cities, because we are here 365 days a year pushing Bix’s music.”
In 2011, for the 40th anniversary of the fest, it moved forward a week, separated from the Bix 7 road race, and that year 16 bands performed.
“When I was on the board, we were talking about that,” Duffee said of moving away from Bix 7 weekend. “We were the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society and we were having the jazz festival on a weekend that was far away from the Aug. 6 death date of Bix, so myself and a few other board members brought that up and said, it would be nice to have this festival coincide with that date of Aug. 6, or as close as we can do it.”
For this past July 31-Aug. 1 virtual fest, there were just six bands, including the Bix Youth Band – which in early July recorded performances at Rhythm City Casino, as did Duffee’s quartet. Other bands from across the country submitted videos and the Bix Society encouraged donations.
The virtual fest did not feature the traditional Sunday graveside service at Oakdale.
“That would have pulled out a lot of people and it wouldn’t have been socially distanced,” Duffee said. “How do we do all this? They’re like, it just kills us not to do something there. We need to just do the virtual festival and keep our fingers crossed that we can all be around one another for the big 50th anniversary next summer.”
He wanted to do the Facebook tribute similar to when his family did a Facebook Live event July 4th from his own house, playing patriotic music with his 13-year-old son Chauncey on percussion and wife Crystal on flute and piccolo.
“We were missing the fireworks, and all the music events were canceled and we always loved playing with the Muscatine Symphony Orchestra on the riverfront, and we’d play a Fourth of July pops concert,” Duffee said. “It was the marches of the symphony, and as soon as we were in ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’ they’d start the fireworks behind us over the Mississippi.
“We missed this so much, and why don’t we do something and it will feel like the Fourth,” he said. “For Aug. 6, I needed to do something for Bix, because nothing happened for the festival at the gravesite. I want to do something for Bix.”
Duffee’s son was named after drummer Chauncey Morehouse (1902-1980), with the middle name Goldkette, named after the bandleader (1893-1962) – both of whom played with Bix.
“He has fun playing it,” Duffee said of his son, who also loves writing. “He’s the sweetest kid and so nice. The name just fits him.”
He also hopes Thursday’s music raises awareness of the need to refurbish the Victorian-era home, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. The filmmaking Avati brothers from Italy still own the dilapidated house, and the utilities (water and electricity) are shut off, he said. Pupi Avati directed the 1991 film, “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend,” partially shot at the house. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival.
“The house is in a lot of disrepair,” Duffee said. “It’d be good of them to sell the house to somebody in the Quad-Cities, to maintain it and make sure it doesn’t get in such disrepair that it literally would have to be condemned, boarded up and torn down. We don’t want that to happen to Bix’s house.”
“I want to see this house saved and not just fall apart,” he said. “We should be proud we have it in Davenport.”