Bix and Miles
Bix’s influence extended well beyond the ’20s and early ’30s.
[Note: this item was published November 21, 2008 for Jazz Me News.]
Here is a statement I included in our JazzNotes article for the recently broadcast Riverwalk Jazz show, Davenport Blues: The Bix Beiderbecke Letters:
The list of trumpeters/cornetists directly influenced by Bix’s playing is a long one and includes such diverse figures as Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Red Nichols, Rex Stewart, Tom Pletcher, Jim Cullum, Jr., and Miles Davis.
Richard Miller, Paris, wrote:
I’m sorry, but to associate Miles Davis’ name in any way with Bix’s is demeaning.
Please explain why.
Aside from playing over 50 years I could probably qualify for a degree in jazz history and had never heard anything even close to the statement of Davis’ being influenced by Bix. I thought the statement—without substantiation—was apocryphal.
Nevertheless, not wanting to be flippant with my answer, I reached out to three sources. Two had never heard anything either. But my longtime friend and fellow musician Brad Kay—besides being a marvelous pianist is a collector with over 10,000 78rpm records in his Venice home—confirmed your statement.
Thus, I sit corrected. See below. Give Jim my best when you see him.
Miles and Bix, Again
by Brad Kay
Did anyone notice that practically every word spoken about Miles Davis in part 8 of [the Ken Burns film] Jazz is applicable to Bix?:
Narrator: “…Dr. Davis raised his son in the kind of cushioned isolation that few jazz musicians ever knew. A handsome house in a white neighborhood—a cook—a maid…”
Gary Giddins: “He was different…most of the serious people, the musicians, recognized right away that he had a wonderful lyricism that was quite unusual, and he didn’t sound like anybody else. But he had to invent a style because he didn’t have the virtuosity of a Dizzy Gillespie. So he started to create a style that was based more on timbre and melody. Play very few notes, but make them the right notes…create a sense of mood.”
Narrator: “…he was eager to find a showcase for the distinctive introspective style he was developing…”
Wynton Marsalis: “Miles has the finer sound and a style that has the more delicate side of his nature. Now, he still has that toughness and that blade up in there, so his sound is not weepy or weak. It has another type of delicacy. It has a sentiment that draws the romance out of the music and presents it to people. His sound is very tender to come out of a man. Lester Young was like that before him. Miles has a vulnerability that he’s not afraid of sharing with people that are listening to him. Once he allowed that vulnerability to come into his sound, well, then his sound became irresistible.”
Also, in 2002, in a long interview with British jazz researcher Jim Godbolt, cornet player Ruby Braff said this:
JG: We haven’t mentioned Bix Beiderbecke.
RB: A genius. Y’know, Miles Davis was a great admirer of Bix. He would seek out people who knew him and asked questions about him. You can hear a lot of Bix in Miles.
JG: I’ve never heard that opinion before.
RB: You ask me questions and you’ll find out a lot, believe me. Miles was a very interesting guy. Played like no-one else.
I responded to Mr. Miller’s email this way:
It’s not only the opinion of the commentators you cite in your email. In listening to Miles, I for one hear the same approach to sound and economy of vibrato and notes that Bix pioneered. Also, there is a direct descendance through Bobby Hackett, who was very explicit in his acknowledgement of Bix as a major influence, as was Miles in his acknowledgement of Hackett’s influence on his.
Jim Cullum had not heard much Miles when I first played for him Miles’ Porgy and Bess collaboration with Gil Evans. His first comment was how much Miles seemed to have the same approach to the sound as Bix did.
Lester Young was another one who explicitly mentions both Bix and Frank Trumbauer as major influences. Through Lester, a cooler, more limited-vibrato approach was passed down to Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and a host of other instrumentalists and vocalists of the 1950s through to the present day.
The truth is that Bix’s influence was much more widespread and general throughout the fabric of jazz than has been acknowledged by historians of jazz of any era.
Thanks very much for the quotes.
Then I received the following response via email:
I read with great interest the piece about Bix and Miles. May I express my disagreement with the assertion that Miles was influenced by Bix?
Ruby Braff hears a lot of Bix in Miles. I cannot argue with what Braff hears. I certainly do not hear any Bix in Miles’ music. You and Jim Cullum state that Bix and Miles display the same approach to their sound (economy of notes and vibrato), and you conclude that Bix was an influence on Miles.
Perhaps, economy of notes was a common characteristic of Bix’s and Miles’ styles. However, in my opinion, a lot more is necessary to infer that Bix had an influence on Miles. For me, the factors necessary to establish the influence of one musician over another are structural and emotional. On the structural side, I would list stylistic commonalities, similar melodic constructions, common characteristics in their harmonic inventions. None of these commonalities do I detect in the music of Bix and Miles. Bix constructed his solos by progressive building of phrases of increasing length (the correlated chorus). Miles used phrases in series, one following the other. Melodic invention was of essence in Bix’s improvisations, not so in Miles’ music. On the emotional side, I would assert that the musical sensibilities of Bix and Miles were totally different. Bix’s music was bitter-sweet and complex: as aptly described by Richard Sudhalter, emotionally layered. I view Miles’ music as cerebral, cool.
Ruby Braff tells us that Davis was an admirer of Bix. I do not doubt it. But admiration does not necessarily result in influence. Perhaps Miles was inspired by Bix, but, I reiterate, not influenced. Let me hasten to add that I agree with your more general statement, “The truth is that Bix’s influence was much more widespread and general throughout the fabric of jazz than has been acknowledged by historians of jazz of any era.”
In this context, I want to point out that influence and inspiration must be distinguished clearly from each other. Let me expand on this.
Jimmy McPartland, Red Nichols, Chelsea Quealey, Sterling Bose, Norman Payne, Philippe Brun were influenced by Bix. Their styles, not just economy of notes and introspective feeling, but also the structural aspects of the music they improvised was derived from Bix’s music.
But there is something more subtle which I will refer to as inspiration. Bix was a catalyst for other musicians performing at their best. Pee Wee Russell said, “The thing about Bix’s music is that he drove a band. If you had any talent at all he made you play better. It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. It had to do with his whole feeling for ensemble playing.” This an example of what I call inspiration: Bix inspired his fellow musicians to do their best. But inspiration also means that musicians thought about Bix’s music after they had played with him, or listened to him live or in records during their careers. I hear Bix’s style explicitly in early Goodman (in particular, Benny’s sax solo in “Blue”), but not in later Goodman. Does this mean that Bix’s effect on Goodman ceased? I don’t think so. I would guess that Bix continued being an inspiration for Benny throughout his life.
In the same manner, Bix was an inspiration to most musicians who came into contact with him—Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie Condon, the Dorseys, Miff Mole, Bing Crosby, Adrian Rollini, Danny Polo, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell, etc. Through the musicians he interacted with and inspired, Bix had a long-lasting effect and a far-reaching influence on jazz. Jimmy McPartland says it well in an article in the January 1954 issue of Down Beat: “I think almost any jazz musician besides all the brass men have one way or another been influenced by Bix.”