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Brigitte Berman on Bix Beiderbecke


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Yesterday, I provided you with a link and password to watch Oscar-winning director Brigitte Berman's newly restored documentary, Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet (1981) for free. Brigitte generously made this possible. To recap, you can watch by going here and typing in this password: Solnicki. Don't forget to clear the existing password that's there now before typing in or pasting in the password provided. This password is good only until Friday at 10 p.m. (ET), so watch it as often as you wish now.

Today, as promised, I'm posting my in-depth interview with Brigitte on Bix and what she learned about the cornestist while interviewing Bix's contemporaries and completing the film in 1981:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up and how did you get into film?

Brigitte Berman: I grew up first in Germany, and then in Toronto. One of my best friends was a painter and I saw how focused and centered she was doing something that completely absorbed and fulfilled her. So when I went to Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, I was consciously looking to major in something I was passionate about. I couldn’t draw or play a musical instrument, so I decided to enroll in drama. A couple of weeks into my first year, while in one of the buildings on campus, I asked a professor for directions. We started talking and he asked me what I was studying.

JW: What did you tell him?

BB: I told him about my interest in drama and asked him what he was teaching. It turned out he was teaching film. I was intrigued. He invited me to sit in on his first-year introductory film course. I did and was so inspired that I switched majors, from drama to film.

JW: How did you learn the nuts and bolts?

BB: When a film needed editing in the film department, I volunteered. I learned how to edit on a Steenbeck editing machine and I never looked back. Reflecting on that now, I’m glad I learned how to edit film. The skill has served me well over the years.

JW: What was your first job out of film school?

BB: I was a researcher, which also came in handy when I began making documentaries.

JW: How were you introduced to jazz and which artists were early favorites?

BB: At first my exposure to jazz was limited. The music I loved into my early 20s and still do today was folk and some rock—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tim Buckley and the Beatles, of course. I wasn’t that familiar with jazz, but I did listen to Louis Armstrong.

JW: How did you come to Bix Beiderbecke?

BB: One day a former boyfriend who played the cornet went with me to a record store in Toronto. There, he pulled out every record by Bix that the store had and bought them all. Then he gave them to me and said: “Here, you have to listen to this guy play.”

JW: What did you think?

BB: I was enthralled. The first tune I really listened to was Bix and Frankie Trumbauer's Ostrich Walk. It was my first thorough introduction to Bix and to the wonderful world of jazz. I listened to the rest of the albums and was mesmerized. Then I checked to see if a documentary had been made about Bix to learn more.

JW: What were you doing at the time?

BB: I was working as a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC). When I discovered that no one had made a documentary, I decided I was going to do so. That was how the film began. And almost four years later, I completed researching, writing and directing the film during my off-hours. Over those years, I probably worked about 100 hours a week.

JW: What did you fall in love with?

BB: The magical purity of Bix's tone, his lyricism, his effortless riffs, and the joy and energy with which he plays. When I listen to Bix play, I feel he is pouring everything he has into his music. His melodies always tell a story, and nothing is held back.

JW: How did you get to interview Hoagy Carmichael?

BB: I went to see Don Haig, the owner of Film Arts in Toronto, which was the editing house where many of the CBC documentaries were edited. I knew Don and I also knew that on occasion he would help young filmmakers get their start. I told him what I wanted to do and he offered me a challenge. He said, “If you can get an interview with Hoagy Carmichael, then I’ll help you.” With the help of my jazz friend, I found out that Hoagy lived in Rancho Mirage, Calif. It took some research to find Hoagy's phone number. Then it took a while to build up the courage to call him. When I finally did, I told him I wanted to interview him about his friend Bix Beiderbecke. He asked me some questions about Bix and I must have answered them correctly because he agreed to do the interview. A couple of weeks later, I flew to L.A., hired a crew and drove with them to Hoagy’s home. That was my first interview for the film.

JW: Who else was tough to get for an interview?

BB: Probably Bill Challis, the jazz arranger for the Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman orchestras. He was very protective of Bix’s alcoholism and was afraid that I would focus too much on that to tell Bix's story. I went to meet Bill Challis and I told him why I wanted to make the film and what had inspired me. It still took some time for him to trust me.

JW: How many times did you interview him for the film?

BB: Twice—which is why there are two completely different setups in the film. I did the second interview about a year later. During the first interview, Bill Challis was quite hesitant to even mention the alcohol problem. But when I interviewed him the second time, he felt more comfortable and spoke very openly and freely.

JW: What had changed?

BB: By then he’d heard from other people who I had interviewed, and historian and jazz researcher Norman Gentieu, who was one of the people helping me with the research, also was there during the second interview. He assured Bill Challis that I would be telling the complete story and not a sensational one.

JW: What interview was most gratifying?

BB: That would be Charlie Davis, the pianist and leader of his own Charlie Davis Orchestra that Bix played for in the mid-1920s. I knew he would be a good interview, but I had no idea how good nor did I know he would give me the extraordinary gift of Cloudy, a Bix piano composition that Charlie Davis had committed to memory and played for me in the film. What was so special is that he spoke very openly about Bix, both as a friend and a musician. Charlie Davis had an extraordinary memory and a big heart, and with his honesty, he gave the documentary a very personal and moving ending.

JW: What did you learn about Bix that you didn’t know previously?

BB: I didn’t know that other band members were so jealous of him. They used to make fun of him and played tricks on him, particularly in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Bill Challis talked about that.

JW: Why did they do this to Bix?

BB: Both as an adolescent and as an adult, there was something about him that invited people to pick on him or to play tricks on him. In my assessment, he must have exposed his vulnerability to others and some chose to exploit it.

JW: Did you find yourself becoming emotionally involved with Bix, meaning that your close proximity to the subject guided your conclusions?

BB: No. As a professional researcher, I know how important it is to remain as objective as possible. Of course, one can never be 100% objective, but I always worked hard to keep an emotional distance from any documentary subject. The fact that I continued to work as a current affairs producer during the day also helped me to maintain that distance, both during the interviewing and editing process. That was one of the reasons I wrote the narration with the journalist/writer Val Ross. For that extra perspective.

JW: Was the writing challenging?

BB: It wasn’t an easy narration to write because it was important that the narration remain more on the outside of the story, to give the facts but not get emotionally involved with the facts and make subjective interpretations. I think that when I finished the film, I did have a sense of knowing Bix, not completely because that’s never possible. But definitely his friends talking about him helped me know him better, as did my extensive research and of course Bix’s music.

JW: The interviews illustrated a great deal about Bix on a human level.

BB: Charlie Davis was an important interview, as were Vera Korn, Roy Maier, Matty Malneck and Bill Challis. A number of them opened windows into Bix Beiderbecke’s heart and soul. They had the emotional involvement with him, and I would build my film and the narration around that. Of course, I was affected by Bix's music and appreciated his musical talent tremendously. He played the cornet in a way that no one else could.

JW: What made him special? 

BB: It was his inner musical heart and soul that gave him the gift to play the cornet in such a marvelous way. It really was impossible to imitate him, because Bix’s playing was original, not an imitation of someone else's style. The music just came right out of him. But each time he played, what came out would be completely different. Even now, when I listen to some of the older musicians talk about him in the film, it amazes me how poetic they were when describing him musically.

JW: Was Bix aware of his gift?

BB: I don’t believe he was truly aware of how special he was. His awareness came in the playing. As Paul Whiteman's musician and singer Al Rinker said about Bix, “He didn’t have that big ego, he had talent.”

JW: Was playing a job for Bix or a passion?

BB: Listening to Bix's cornet solos and the spirit and joy that’s in his playing, he clearly loved playing the cornet. That’s when he was most happy. You can hear this. He also loved to jam with his friends. Playing the cornet wasn’t work for him. It came naturally and spontaneously whereas many other musicians had to work at it much harder.

JW: What was the impact of him making his art sound easy?

BB: It probably helped trigger jealousy. Paul Whiteman once said of him, “Bix plays more in three notes than most people play in an entire chorus.” That would make the other musicians pretty envious.

JW: Overall, did you find Bix a good guy or an appealing figure who just happened to play beautifully? Is he someone you would have wanted to know?

BB: I definitely would have wanted to know Bix personally. He was a creative person and he was intelligent and read a lot. He also was very generous with his friends. Like with anyone, there was a good side and a not so good side. We all have our limitations. Perhaps to combat his inner loneliness, he allowed people to take advantage of him, and he had a serious drinking problem. As Bill Challis said near the end of the film, “Now Bix hadn’t been drinking. He’d given it up. He figured, 'I’m never going to drink anymore.’ And it just so happened that he was with a couple of guys and they took a couple of drinks and he had started to drink again. So here he was, he couldn’t help himself.” Unfortunately, Bix did not have the inner strength to stand up to people and say “no.” His alienation as a human being was also triggered by his family who did not understand him and who did not approve of his choices. But I do believe he was a good person and in many ways a very appealing human being, as a number of his friends have corroborated. It was unfortunate that socially he was not well adjusted.

JW: What did Bix and Louis Armstrong think of each other?

BB: Bix respected, liked and admired Louis Armstrong, who'd had an early and very strong influence on Bix when Bix was growing up in Davenport, Iowa. Later, when Bix was in Chicago with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bix would seek out Louis after hours at the Sunset Café. Bix would sit in with Louis Armstrong and his band. They had a deep respect for each other. Hence the subtitle of my film, a quote from Louis Armstrong: “A lotta cats tried to play like Bix, ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

JW: And yet they were quite different.

BB: Louis Armstrong understood the dangers of the hangers-on. As he said in my film, “Bix, he never would say ‘no’ and that’s what hurt him…” Something Armstrong said that I’ve never forgotten but I did not put it into the film: “They killed the goose that laid the golden egg.” That’s a pretty outspoken comment and Armstrong himself had enough experience with hangers-on to know what he was talking about. Armstrong, of course, was much older when he said that and had had a lot of life and music experience by then. He was also a much more balanced person than Bix. But the two had a very close friendship, even though their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different.

JW: Did Bix know he was special at the time or did he become special years later after his death when listeners discovered him?

BB: I don’t believe that Bix knew how special he was. It’s probably why, as Louis Armstrong said: “He never could say ‘no' and that’s what hurt him.” And when you read Bix's last letters home, there is such a sad note of apology in his letters. Had he known how good he was, I think that he might have been more centered and focused as an individual. Also, he never had the strength and introspection that can come from a solid education. And he never received acceptance and respect from those who he wanted it from the most—his parents‚—but he never stopped trying. In his last letters home, you can hear in Bix’s own words, how eager he was to gain his parents’ approval—especially the way the remarkable actor Richard Basehart reads the letters. Yes, Bix did become special, years later, as listeners discovered him.  However, he was also considered special at the time, which is why other musicians and ‘hangers-on' would “hound” him and want to hear him play as often as possible, and would drag him to speakeasies to play.  Musicians would come to hear Bix play with the Jean Goldkette or or Paul Whiteman Orchestras and they would marvel and would try to imitate him.

JW: What five Bix records would you say are most critical?

BB: Wow, this is a tough question. Well, here goes:

  • A high point in Bix’s musical career are the Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer “Bix and Tram" recordings. Almost anything from those recordings demonstrates Bix’s musical mastery. Probably one of the best is Singin’ the Blues. You can hear the joy, the lyrical quality, the marvelous phrasing and that hard-to-describe Bix tone. It’s all there in that one recording. Riverboat Shuffle by Bix and Tram is equally extraordinary and also demonstrates Bix’s musical mastery.
  • In the same month that Bix joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bix put together a small Dixieland group and called them Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang. One of their best recordings is Sorry. I play it in the film with Esten Spurrier listening and commenting. The energy and insistence with which Bix's cornet drives his group of musicians, and the quality of his tone and melody riding high above it all, so effortlessly and clear, is astonishing.
  • I would have to include a recording with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that illustrates how Bix's cornet solo would ring out from that large orchestra. In From Monday On, which also features singer Bing Crosby, Bix’s cornet solo suddenly strides high above the other players. His individuality and remarkable artistry shine through loud and clear and show off his skill at improvising, very much thanks to Bill Challis’s arrangements. This song shows the best of Bix in that large Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which is quite amazing when you consider how large Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra was and how commercial it was.
  • In a Mist is the sole piano composition by Bix that was recorded by him. And the fact that Whiteman had Bix play In a Mist at New York’s Carnegie Hall to tremendous applause shows how much Whiteman valued Bix’s talent. Even though Whiteman’s choice in music often did not allow Bix to shine.
  • I’ll Be a Friend With Pleasure is one of Bix’s last recordings, made in September 1930. He made several recordings during that month, and this shows yet again how driven he was to play and to record, even though it was a difficult time for him. He called this group Bix Beiderbecke and His Orchestra, a choice that speaks volumes, suggesting a greater maturity. His solo work on this recording is lyrical and incredibly poignant, almost foreshadowing that the end was near.

JW: Finally, will we see your Oscar-winning documentary on Artie Shaw, “Time Is All You've Got” restored soon?

BB: The sound is going to take some time. The sound took the longest with the Bix restoration. But I’m definitely going to complete restoring the Artie Shaw film.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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