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Bix Beiderbecke
Eyes in a mist

          What is it about this little-boy-lost that haunts me?

          The talent, obviously - one listen to his cornet work on “Singin’ the Blues” (which his pal Hoagy Carmichael turned into “Stardust”) tells everything about that.

          Then there’s the legend of Bix. Although he wasn’t technically part of the “Lost Generation,” having been only 14 when the U.S. entered World War I, in many ways the hard-drinking kid from Davenport, Iowa personified the ’20s. After all, years later, Kirk Douglas turned him into "The Young Man With A Horn."

          But mostly what haunts me is his piano composition, “In a Mist,” and The Picture. There’s really only one famous picture of him; he didn’t live long enough to drown in his own publicity.

          Legends aside, the facts of Bix’s life alone are the stuff of high drama - the almost Mozartian prodigy playing piano by ear at 3, failing school, flying in the face of middle-class conventions and his parents’ wishes by running off to play on a riverboat. And then the meteoric rise and the inevitable crash, exacerbated by leeches and hangers-on who knew he could never refuse a drink. Booze helped kill him in 1931, at the obscenely young age of 28.

          But other facts show Bix was no tragic hero, brooding loner, or tormented genius. Most first-hand accounts paint him as a gentle soul, generous with his time to aspiring musicians who adored him, an All-American boy who loved to play baseball, and enjoyed both the company of beautiful women and a good practical joke.

          But look at The Picture. You know the one, taken in 1924, of an intense-eyed young guy with a cornet on his knee. Those eyes, coupled with some more facts and a little speculation, suggest that beneath the booze and the laughs, his too-short life was permeated with an underlying sadness.

          He loved Ravel and Debussy; there was a piano in the apartment where he died. Some say his inability to fluently read music was part of his undoing. Others believe his difficulty with sight-reading and school are evidence of some form of attention deficit disorder or other neurological hardwiring problem, something we don’t even fully understand today. Maybe if someone had known all this, they could have “saved” Bix, and he, like Satchmo, could have died old and rich and happy.

          Or then again, maybe this is all perfect 20/20 hindsight, and it doesn’t matter, anyhow. That’s probably what he would have said. But listen to “In a Mist” and look at The Picture and the eyes tell you it could have never been any other way.

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1920s Essays

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The 1924 photograph of the Wolverines is in the public domain and comes from Wikimedia Commons.

This page updated August 3, 2016