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Genius Guide to Jazz

Bix, Bubber, and the Giant Lollipop of the Apocalypse

By Published: August 29, 2004
When Oliver went to Chicago in 1922 to play with at the Lincoln Gardens (built in the middle of Abraham Lincoln's garden, which is why his tomatoes never really turned out), he sent for his protégé Armstrong and soon unleashed young "Satchmo" on the world. An interesting side note, Armstrong's nickname "Satchmo" was derived from "satchel mouth," a moniker he acquired because he used to carry his overnight travel needs in his mouth. In fact, his unique gravely voice came from an incident where he accidentally swallowed his shaving kit.

As Armstrong was rising to prominence in Chicago, there was a young cornetist in Davenport, Iowa, (home of the davenport sofa, and sister city of Divan, Indiana) who was beginning his ascent to jazz immortality. Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke (I before E, except after Bix) was a naturally gifted musician who gravitated towards the cornet because, even in the 1920's in staid rural America, tuba players rarely if ever scored. Distressed by young Bix's increasing love of jazz music, his strict and disapproving parents decided to send him to a military school near what just happened to be the absolute center of the jazz world at the time, Chicago, which constitutes one of the great moments in the history of irony. It was in Chicago, exposed to some of the greatest players of the age, that Bix soon developed the astounding tone and unique phrasing that set him apart and made him among the elite of his era. Unfortunately, Bix would never have the opportunity to fully explore his potential, as his personal demons and alcoholism eventually consumed his genius and left him a shadow of himself even before his untimely death at 28.

Chastened by that cautionary tale, I'll be drinking just plain Coke for the remainder of this article.

By the late thirties, jazz had primarily become an ensemble art with the rise of the big bands. Although soloists the caliber of Armstrong and Beiderbecke were in short supply, there were still plenty of great players such as Harry James and Harry "Sweets" Edison (who went by Sweets because James had won the right to be called Harry by knocking Edison out in the fifth round of their Harryweight bout at Madison Square Gardens in 1934. On the undercard, Edward K. Ellington won the name "Duke" from Archduke Ferdinand who was disqualified when it was discovered that he had, in fact, been dead for 20 years).

By the end of the forties, as Be-Bop was beginning to take root and return jazz to the realm of the soloist, the trumpet was once again in the forefront. Dizzy Gillespie introduced new dimensions to the instrument, with his unconventional playing style and blistering runs. Fats Navarro had a sound so large and luxurious you could get in it and drive away. Clifford Brown's clean lines and natural melodic invention composed a veritable textbook on how to play jazz trumpet. I could put some kind of obvious textbook gag here, but I think we respect each other a little more than that.

A player of particular note emerging from this period was the great Miles Davis, who resisted the blazing, high-register acrobatics exhibited by other players and favored a sparser, more intimate sound. Often accused of lacking technical faculty, Davis responded to critics either by flipping them the finger or pretending not to understand English (which is where his brilliant Sketches of Spain came from, maybe). Davis understood that the space between the notes was sometimes just as important as the notes themselves. But he also understood that too much space between the notes, and people would think that the concert was over and go home. This is partially why he is considered a genius today.

Moving into the sixties, perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of the instrument was Lee Morgan. A prolific sideman (and a tasty side dish. For recipe, send SASE to AAJ and hope for the best), as well as a respected leader in his own right, Morgan's bright, clear tone and bold, imaginative runs set the standard for trumpet players of the era. Perhaps the only thing that kept Morgan from becoming a household name was the fact that he was shot by his mistress in 1971 at a club called Slugs in New York.

And chastened by that cautionary tale, I will not be taking a gun-toting mistress to any place called "Slugs." It's just common sense.

Moving into the seventies, we meet Miles Davis again. Wave hello to Miles. Hello, Miles! Now, don't you feel foolish waving at a computer screen? I hope you've learned your lesson.

So then.

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