The jazzist take on the relationship between Bix Beiderbecke’s biography and his music goes something like this: While Bix suffered lots of insecurities, doubts, disappointments, and despair in his life — all of which gave rise to the alcoholism that killed him at the age of 28 — he was able to overcome these once he stepped on stage or into the recording studio. As a musician he found a mode of expression and a musical tone that was clear, confident, and assuredly lyrical, in the way that all great jazz is. Bix’s music, in the jazzist account, became the beauty and boldness that he was unable to achieve in life.
The jazzist take gets Bix all wrong of course. Almost without exception, his solos are marked by hesitations, errors, and failings. Even on some of his most famous recordings, such as “I’m Comin’, Virginia,” there are missed opportunities and jazz heterodoxies — times where his solo grows so quiet that it becomes indistinguishable from the ensemble playing behind him, moments where skipped and displaced notes create not so much an exaggerated, bravura syncopation (as they do in, say, Louis Armstrong’s brilliant “Potato Head Blues”) as a sense of incompleteness and fragmentation. While it’s true Bix’s cornet did have a crisp, clear tone and that he played at a slower, more relaxed pace than most jazz musicians of the ’20s, he also was unable to sustain the expressions of exuberance and confidence prized by ragtime and swing. Instead, almost every note he played sounded like a struggle — against himself.
There is another sense in which Bix did not conform to jazz’s expectations, namely the connection between race and musical forms. In the jazz imaginary, “white jazz” has usually been associated with “intellectual” music, with symphonic and structured composition that shares in the idiom of the western classical tradition, and with virtuosity. Blacks, on the other hand, make “expressive” music, music that is less about form and structure than exploring affective registers and communicating them in performance. In the ’40s and ’50s, Gil Evans’s and Miles Davis’s collaborations merged this duality into one music: for jazz, the importance of their music is that the latter gave the former’s exact, finely orchestrated compositions a “soulful” voice. But despite these attempts, the divide survives, and it actually goes much further back, to the ’20s, when Jim Crow was at its height, and arose at least in part from the division of labor: in Bix’s day, the best gig a white musician could get was a chair in Paul Whiteman’s symphonic and classically oriented jazz orchestra, which emphasized musicianship and form, while blacks could at best aspire to a chair in Duke Ellington’s jungle-music band at the Cotton Club or at a club in Chicago with other black musicians, where dancing and improvisatory expression were emphasized.
Bix didn’t fit neatly into either of these categories. Instead, and to confront his awkward position in the jazz world, he invented a minor and novel mode of expression. To accomplish it he didn’t simply add heavy structuration to his solos or make his compositions (of which there are only three) formless bursts of affect. That would be a simple fleeing into the opposite. The songs he wrote do share a certain kinship with some classical music, particularly some of Ravel’s work, in that they have a minimum of form, but this slight frame doesn’t call for unbound expression — in the jazzist sense of expression as purely passionate articulation — on the musician’s part. Instead, a song like “In the Mist” creates a new kind of jazz expression, one that doesn’t rely just on speed and fervency but opens up possibilities for different kinds of joy and for different kinds of sadness. This is the sort of expression he created in his soloing style, one that wasn’t afraid to hesitate, to stutter in its own language, as Deleuze put it. This style was Bix’s escape from jazzist strictures.