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Liz Beiderbecke-Hart lives 139 miles from Davenport (outside Springfield, Ill.), but makes the pilgrimage back every year in honor of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival and her famous family.
“Bix is a part of my soul, he’s a part of who I am,” she said recently, in advance of the 50th anniversary of the fest, Aug. 5-7 at Davenport’s Rhythm City Casino Event Center. Beiderbecke-Hart, 61, is the granddaughter of Charles Burnette (“Burnie”) Beiderbecke, older brother of Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903-1931), the Davenport native and legendary jazz cornetist, pianist and composer. (Bix is a nickname of his middle name, Bismark.)
“I feel a spiritual connection with him, almost as if I knew him,” Liz said. “I take being a representative of the Beiderbecke family very seriously and do so with much pride. I only ever want to make Bix, as well as all my Beiderbecke ancestors, proud of me. Before each year’s Bix Fest’s Saturday morning graveside service, I decorate every headstone in
the Beiderbecke family plot. While doing so,
I play Bixie’s recordings through my car speakers.
“During this emotional, annual ritual of mine, I like to think that Bix is looking down on me, as well as all my ancestors buried there, and that they’re all smiling,” she said. “That I make them proud. God knows they make me proud and that I smile up at them.”
Liz’s father, Richard Bix Beiderbecke, was born in December 1930 in Davenport while the elder Bix was home convalescing after his struggle with alcoholism. He returned to New York City in February 1931, and died within six months – Aug. 6, 1931 – from lobar pneumonia aggravated by alcoholism, in his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Liz’s grandfather Burnie died in 1972, and her father passed away in 2004. Including Bix, all are buried at Davenport’s Oakdale Memorial Gardens at 25th and Eastern.
“I place flowers on each headstone and I speak out loud to each soul,” she said recently. “On Bix’s headstone, I place a single red rose and scatter rose petals down the length of his grave. To me, this is hallowed ground. I also honor Bix’s parents, Bismark and Agatha, with a special bouquet. Without them, we wouldn’t have Bix.
“And, of course, I spend extra time and place extra flowers on my Dad’s grave,” Liz said. “I tell him they’re from ‘Lizzie Boomps,’ which was his nickname for me. I feel emotional, blessed, spiritual, proud and connected. It’s very therapeutic for me. I’m a lucky girl.”
Together with her brother Chris (who lives in Moline), her family has donated many letters, photos and other artifacts from Bix’s brief, blazing life to the four-year-old Bix Beiderbecke Museum and World Archives, on the lower level of River Music Experience, 2nd and Main streets, Davenport.
A past board member of the Bix Society and current board member of the museum, Liz treasures the groups because “they preserve, promote, celebrate and encapsulate the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Thanks to the Bix Festival and the Bix Museum, Bix’s memory,
legacy, recordings and compositions will live on,” she said. “Bix, I think, in a million years would have never guessed
there’d be a Jazz Fest and a Museum devoted to him. I think Bix would be very proud, but yet very humbled, maybe even a little embarrassed, to have such recognition. He was a very modest person.
“That being said, I feel these two testaments to Bix and his legacy have accomplished their mission and have done, and continue to do, a remarkable job,” Liz said. “The fact that the Bix Festival and the Bix Museum are both in Bix’s hometown, Davenport, Iowa, is especially meaningful and significant.”
“Having the festival survive for 50 years is a huge testament, not only to the society who puts it on. But also, he was only 28 years old when he died, which was 90 years ago next week,” she said. “That is evidence of the significant place in history he holds as a musical genius.”
How did the festival start?
The New York Times on Aug. 7, 1971 published an account of an anniversary tribute at Oakdale the day before – “Jazz buffs and musicians wearing ‘Bix lives’ buttons toasted the jazz immortal, Bix Beiderbecke, with early morning champagne and the “Davenport Blues”—the song
he wrote for his hometown—over his grave here today.”
More than 1,500 people gathered at the simple headstone in the Beiderbecke family plot to honor the jazz great on the 40th anniversary of his death. Leading the tribute were eight members of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band, who flew in from New Jersey to recognize the man they called one of “the greatest jazz musicians of all times.”
The journey was six years in the making. Beginning in 1965, every year, Bill Donahoe, businessman, Bix fan extraordinaire, and washboard player, invited friends and jazz musicians from around the Northeast to his home in Long Valley, N.J., to play in celebration of Bix’s musical legacy, according to a history at bixbeiderbecke.com. Bix’s nephew, Richard Bix Beiderbecke, who lived in Davenport at the time, attended the annual gatherings. There was often talk about going to Davenport and play at Bix’s graveside.
In 1941, on the 10th anniversary of Bix’s death, the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra (with whom Bix played) went to Davenport and played in Oakdale. Bill Donahoe had the idea of doing the same in 1971, for the 40th anniversary. Thus, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band of New Jersey was formed, originally on “a one-time-only” basis, to play at the cemetery – which went on to become a Saturday morning feature of every festival.
Donahoe got in touch with Richard Bix and with Rock Island native Bill Allred (a local jazz musician and leader of the Davenport Jazz Band) and asked their help with the project. Other local musicians/jazz aficionados who helped were Esten Spurrier (cornet player and close friend of Bix’s) and Don O’Dette (cornet player, first president of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society, and son of Jim O’Dette who played with Bix before he left Davenport).
In the afternoon, the band visited the Davenport Public Library where there was a Bix display and a special event, and the band played aboard a Mississippi River excursion boat. In the evening, the band was scheduled to jam in the basement of the Davenport Holiday Inn together with a local jazz group, the Davenport Jazz Band (including Allred). The response to the jam session was unprecedented. Hundreds of people showed up, the parking lot of the Inn filled up in no time, and people were forced to park on the highway and walk to the Inn as the local police directed traffic. The bands jammed until the early hours of the morning.
This extraordinary event was covered extensively in major U.S. and European newspapers, magazines and on television.
“After the tribute to Bix packed that place to the rafters, the jazz folks in the area decided it was time to support Bix with a festival,” Allred – who is returning to sit in with some of the bands next week – said recently by e-mail from his home in Orlando, Fla.
His first cornet player was Don O’Dette, son of local orchestra leader Jimmie O’Dette. “Don loved Bix and played very much like him without really trying,” Allred recalled. “He helped organize the first festival and many more before he died at 59. A sad loss to the Bix and the musical
world in general. many members of the O’Dette family assisted in the success of the early festival.”
After joining Disney World to perform, Allred brought many bands to the Bix Festival and also came many times with his traveling and recording band, Bill Allred’s Classic Jazz Band.
The lineup of bands for this year’s fest – which runs Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. – is:
- Chicago Cellar Boys (led by Andy Schumm)
- Cakewalkin’ Jass Band — Toledo (led by Ray Heitger)
- Miss Jubilee and the Yas Yas Boys (St. Louis)
- Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles (Denver)
- NOLA Jazz Band (Des Moines)
- Southside Aces (South Minneapolis)
- Mortonia Sextet (All-Stars led by Hal Smith & Dave Kosmyna with Dave Bennett)
- Graystone Monarchs (All-Stars led by Josh Duffee)
- Bix Beiderbecke Youth Band (Steve Little, Director)
- Special guest appearances by trombonist Bill Allred, Bix fest pioneer
You can see the 2020 virtual fest (two three-hour videos) on the Bix festival YouTube channel.
“We’ll again be live and in-person but safe,” Bix Society president Steve Trainor said, noting the fest has been at Rhythm City since 2017 (and mainly indoors since 2014). “You can wear a mask if you like, we’ll have masks available, hand sanitation stations, and seating for 2 or 4 or regular.
“We’ll really be dressing the place up, too. This is not in the casino, but the Events Center at the Rhythm City Casino. It’s an air-conditioned, acoustical room — no heat, humidity, bugs, rain, trains, or flooding.”
“I love Dave Brubeck as well as smooth jazz, but this is traditional jazz, music from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and into the swing of the ‘40s,” he noted. “These musicians are pros and you’ll be out-of-your-seat cheering at their musicianship.”
More than two dozen jazz festivals in the U.S. have died in the last 15 years, and the Bix fest attendance has dropped off since its peak in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Trainor said. But they’re the only trad jazz fest in the Midwest still going, 10 years after splitting from the same weekend as the Bix 7 race (which this year was July 24).
“You know, cable television and the internet have exploded,” he said. “And there is so much else for people to do, one. Two, there’s practically a festival in the Quad-Cities every weekend in the summer.”
Trainor fears that many local people have taken the jazz festival for granted, 50 years later, and it’s the Bix Society mission to keep the traditional jazz of that era alive into the new Roaring ‘20s. Fans who come from out of state (and even other countries) keep the fest alive, he said, noting non-local patrons make up to a majority of the attendance.
“They travel; it’s a big deal to them. As I’ve said, it’s a three-day party,” he said. “We’ve got some great supporters who in this last year and half have made sure that we have their donations. And it’s because of them that we’re still here, we’re able to put it on. I think attendance with everything has declined.” “We wish that the people who are in their 30s and 40s would give us a try. I think they’d be pleasantly surprised. We get some people in their 20s, that love to dress up and dance, and they know how to dance, and they’re entertaining. You can hear the bands and watch these dancers in ‘20s garb, and it’s fun.”
Cakewalkin’ into history
The Cakewalkin’ Jass Band, from Toledo, Ohio, has been together for over 50 years and will make their 17th appearance at the Bix festival since 1978. Trainor said they’re one of the most popular bands for the fest, distinguishing themselves in entertainment, compared to other
pure trad jazz bands.
“Some bands, they can play notes verbatim like they were played in 1928, let’s say, but that doesn’t make them entertaining,” he said. Of 77-year-old bandleader Ray Heitger (clarinet, soprano sax, vocals): “And Cakewalkin’ and Ray, those people are entertainers and that’s a big criteria for us.”
“They parade around; they joke, you know, and that’s fun. This is a three-day party.” Trainor said. “It’s in the music, and the bands are fun. Some of the lyrics are funny — where several, many songs are just this side of ribald. You know, ‘Oh Baby Don’t Say No, Say Maybe’.”
Heitger is a self-taught musician, and formed Cakewalkin’ Jass Band in December 1967, known for an authentic New Orleans-style repertoire now at over 490 tunes. They stay true to their craft using the original spelling of “jazz.”
“Coming to the festival over the years, that was the greatest festival in in the country,” Heitger said recently of the Bix. “It was held at
LeClaire Park on the Mississippi, in the town Bix was born in. And when the area was packed on Friday and Saturday night, that would be six to ten thousand people. It was just incredible, an unbelievable festival. And it was fun.”
This is the first year the band will play at the Saturday 10 a.m. gravesite service. Heitger said it’s extra special because of the 50th and 90th anniversaries.
“That’s the reason I really pushed to get us out there this year, because of the 50th, and so I’m really, really looking forward to it. There’ll be people there that remember when we were there,” he said. “We always have fun and there were some great jam sessions at the Fort Armstrong back in the day.”
Bix and Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) were two horn players that dominated jazz, with very different, distinctive playing styles.
“Bix had a real clear, beautiful melodic tone and attack that just was real crisp and juicy, like almost perfect,” Heitger said. “Louis was a more driving New Orleans style, to push the horn and found a little more entertainment value, perhaps in playing, but he was a tremendous influence.”
He and his daughter Nicole sing “Cake Walking Babies From Home,” the title Heitger was inspired to name his band after, using the original spelling of jazz, as “jass.” One of the best compliments he ever got was at a park concert in the early ‘70s, when an old man came up and said they reminded him of a band he heard in New Orleans in 1917. “I thought well, perfect. He was old enough, you know? He could have been a late teenager in the early ‘20s,” Heitger said. “That was great. And I thought, okay that’s what I’m shooting for.”
Presently, the “Cakewalkin’” instrumentation is banjo, string bass, piano, cornet, clarinet, drums, trombone, and vocalist. Over the years, there have been 29 full-time musicians and about 51 often used substitutes in the CJB.
Music for young and old
Trainor says the Bix-era music appeals to people ages 5 to 85, and one of the featured bands has a good number of young players.
Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles Jazz Band is a Denver-based ensemble dedicated to revitalizing swing music and dance, led by trumpeter
and vocalist Smith, a 35-year-old native of Winterset, Iowa who started the group in January 2013.
“This small group style swing band packs a punch of power, personality, and wit into each show, intriguing generations new and old with the beloved charm of big band swing,” its bio says. “The Pickles bring it all – high energy, quality musicianship, and a true big band sound and look that celebrates the unique American spirit of swing. The band fuses musical influences from the sounds of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw with the showmanship of Louis Armstrong.
The Pickles (ranging in age from 25-35) “have held a special place in their heart for the swing dance community. The band travels from coast to coast to play their spicy tunes at events and venues of all sizes, and inspire people to fall in love with jazz over and over again,” the bio says. “The group is notorious for their spot on arrangements and electrifying energy. The band is
known to regularly keep dancers on their feet truckin’ until 4 in the morning.”
“I love this style of music because it is America’s original party music, and it is still as relevant today as it was when it was being created in the early 20th century,” Smith said recently by e-mail. “The Bix fest is pretty special for me since I’m originally from Iowa. I first attended the Bix fest as an audience member in 2011, while I was still studying music at the University of Iowa, and this really helped cement my love of this music. It quickly became a big goal of mine to have my band play for the festival. It was a huge honor for us to play at Bix’s grave in 2019.
“We’re so excited to be included in the 50th-anniversary lineup,” he said. “It’s really fantastic to see such a range in bands being presented at the festival this year, with many musicians who have been playing this festival for years, to those of us who are on our second appearance at the festival. The festival really hit it out of the park in bringing a varied lineup of bands with members across many age ranges, it really goes to show that they’re looking to continue supporting this style of jazz, and give us younger musicians an opportunity to continue carrying that torch forward.”
Bix is so influential because he “had the ability to convey so much with his playing, both in a harmonic and visceral sense,” the trumpeter said. “His soloing was so intentional and used harmony that was unusual for the time, and just contained so much emotion. Not to mention that his self-taught abilities on cornet allowed him to find and use unorthodox fingerings creating tones that are difficult to figure out and recreate.”
Bringing together jazz all stars
Two of the 50th fest groups are considered “all-star” bands, with performers coming from all over the country, including Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs. They’re not bands that play regularly as a unit. The other is a new lineup called Mortonia Sextet, highlighting music of pianist Jelly Roll Morton, co-led by drummer Hal Smith (from Searcy, Ark.), leader of the Jazzologists and contributing writer for The
Syncopated Times, and Dave Kosmyna (Toledo, Ohio), cornet player with the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band and a regular with the Toronto-based Climax Jazz Band.
Mortonia Sextet was specially assembled to perform the music of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) at the 2021 Bix Jazz Festival (Four of the band members appeared at the 2019 Bix Festival with Jeff Barnhart’s Hot Jazz Collective). These musicians have extensive experience playing with a wide variety of groups and are currently active as bandleaders and sidemen at festivals, concerts, clubs and swing dance events.
Hal Smith has played the Bix fest nine times, with a variety of bands – the first in 1986 and the last was in 2019 with the Jeff Barnhart Jazz Collective (also a six-piece band). He likes having an indoor, air-conditioned venue. “I really like the Rhythm City Casino; I think it’s a great place to play,” Smith said. “It’s also one stage, so you don’t have to drive around town looking for a parking place, or walk out in the heat. I really like that.”
His band, Jazzologists, also is made up of players from around the country, next playing in Eureka, Calif. Smith started leading bands in 1971, and he’s now 68. It’s not unusual to bring musicians from various states to play at jazz festivals like the Bix, he said.
“We all know the songs; we just have to figure out the best way to play it,” Smith said, noting they don’t rehearse together before they perform but have communicated by e-mail. “We just try to pick songs we all know really well and my co-leader Dave Kosmyna writes the chord sheets, so everybody’s playing the same chords.”
Smith wanted to play Jelly Roll Morton music, since he’s a hero to him after hearing his music in the late ‘60s. He complimented his hand-picked piano player, Paul Asaro (from Champaign, Ill.), who Smith said is “no doubt one of the best interpreters of Jelly Roll Morton’s music.” He usually leads Paul Asaro and his Rhythm and will play with the Chicago Cellar Boys at the Bix Fest. Smith has played often with Asaro.
“He doesn’t imitate Morton, but takes his style and plays what Morton might have played,” he said. “We’re going to play ‘Clarinet Marmalade,’ one that Morton recorded with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. He didn’t take a solo on that record, but if I give a solo to Paul, he’s going to play it Jelly Roll Morton style.” Bix also recorded “Clarinet Marmalade” with Frank Trumbauer.
“You have to absorb how a person plays, and in Paul’s case, he’s also absorbed Fats Waller,” Smith said. “Most of the musicians I know who play in the classic jazz style, understand how to play in the style without imitating every note that was on the record.”
Bix met Morton in 1923 and enjoyed playing his compositions on piano, but they didn’t record together. One of Bix’s favorite songs to play was Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and that’s how Bix got the name The Wolverines for his band.
Smith said Bix’s piano playing was equally as good as him on cornet. “If you just mentioned the name to someone who might be familiar with who Bix was, I doubt they would know he was also an accomplished jazz piano player.”
“Dave is very good; he’s a bandleader,” Smith said of Kosmyna on cornet. “He’s used to helping direct traffic for his band. All anybody has to
do is look up to him and he’ll be giving some kind of cue when they come in.”
The only other time Smith played with an “all-star” theme band at the Bix fest was in 2018 with Barnhart, called the Fats Waller Legacy, playing Waller compositions. “It was exactly the same; the first time we played together was when we met on stage,” he said. “It was great, a lot of fun.”
“You don’t know what’s coming next,” Smith said. “I know what key we’re going to play in. I have an idea of the tempo, but I don’t know who’s going to take solos or if we’re going to go straight out at the end or add an extra two bars, or any of the details like that. So that’s one of the things that keeps it exciting.”
“I’m not worried; we have a basic framework for every song we’re going to play,” he said of this year’s sextet. “It will be easy for the individual musicians to play everything.”
Cakewalkin’ is a very crowd-friendly band, Smith said. “They look like they’re having fun and that’s contagious,” he said.
“I enjoy playing classic jazz for people who appreciate it. There’s a pretty discerning crowd at the Bix festival,” he said. “They understand Bix and his music; King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller. People know what they’re listening to, and it’s really a great feeling to improvise in one of those styles and know that people understand and appreciate what you’re doing.”
Smith also looking forward to reuniting with trombonist Allred on songs at the end of their Saturday night set. Their trombonist, T.J. Muller, will switch to banjo for those – “Mister Jelly Lord,” “Ballin’ the Jack,” and “Panama.” Other Mortonia Sextet members are clarinetist Dave Bennett of Waterford, Mich., who leads an in-demand jazz quartet, has performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras and leads the Memphis Speed Kings Rockabilly group – and Steve Pikal (Eden Prairie, Minn.), a bassist with several jazz groups nationwide.
Saluting kings of jazz
Josh Duffee of Davenport – a 41-year-old drum virtuoso, teacher, former Bix festival music director, board member and bandleader – will bring back his 10-piece Graystone Monarchs, which is comprised of members of festival bands who don’t play together until meeting during the fest.
“It changes each year depending on which bands come to the festival and then I look and see who’s coming. And then I call musicians that I know are really in tune with the music of the 1920s and early ‘30s,” he said. “Like they’ve studied the records, they know the bands. So then if I put the arrangement in front of them, they may be like, oh yeah, I know that’s one by Bix. Yep, no problem. That helps a lot when the guys know the recordings.”
“A lot of these guys are my friends and a lot of them I’ve performed with over all the years,” Duffee said. “So when I find out they’re coming into town, I’m able to assemble the group that way.”
The other nine musicians in the band don’t get the music ahead of time, he noted.
“The great thing about the group is we do play the authentic transcriptions from the ‘20s and ‘30s, so when guys have been listening to the 78 RPM records for years, they’d come into the band, there’s the arrangement in front of them transcribe,” Duffee said. “They get excited that they’re all like kids in a candy store — we’re playing the real music, this is great. And so normally I do not send out music ahead of time because one, it could get lost in the mail or they could leave home without it.”
This year, he’s scheduled 15-song sets for each day, 45 songs altogether.
“They’re difficult to play and it really shows the caliber and the technical skills and the professionalism of these musicians on stage, to sit up there with this music, pretty much sight-read it and play it and sound like we’ve been playing together for years,” Duffee said.
“There’s so much great music from the ‘20s and ‘30s that I’ve got a huge library with the Monarchs,” he said. “It’s like, I want to play all this music. And to be honest, I wish we had like eight sets where I could play even close to a 100 songs, ‘cause they’re so much fun to play and I love having something that’s different because when the audience comes to see my group, as well as quite a few of the other groups that played the festival, to they know that the sets are going to change. It’ll be new music every set.”
The Monarchs (who formed in 2014) will be playing Friday night, at the time of Bix’s actual death 90 years prior – 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 6, 1931, in his apartment. So at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, Duffee will ask for a moment of silence, and their next song will be “Singin’ the Blues,” and their entire set is a tribute to Bix.
The Friday night set will include music he either wrote or played, including with The Wolverines, Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer or Paul Whiteman, Duffee said. “So it’s a true tribute to Bix that night on the evening that he passed away,” he said.
According to the Jazz Trumpet Project, Aug. 6, 1931 was a hot, muggy day in Sunnyside, Queens. That night, Bix burst into his apartment hallway screaming and demanding to see his rental agent, George Kraslow. When Kraslow reached apartment 1G, he found Bix trembling and ranting that two Mexican men were hiding under his bed with long daggers. Bix then apparently collapsed into his arms, dead.
“While the official cause of Beiderbecke’s death was lobar pneumonia, most historians agree that acute alcoholism was responsible for the decline in his physical and mental health in the last year or so of his life,” the jazz website says. “According to some accounts, Beiderbecke died only a month or two after moving into the apartment and never left the building except to buy bootleg gin.”
Duffee travels often to perform, including in Europe, and many people admire that he lives in Bix’s hometown. “It’s something that I never take for granted. It’s like, I live in Bix’s town and there’s so many people that love Bix’s music and his history and I never take it for granted that I live here,” he said. “It’s like people that live out in New York that are close to the Louis Armstrong house out there or if they’re in Clarinda, Iowa, and they’re at The Glenn Miller Museum. For us it’s such a neat thing to say, we have Bix Beiderbecke right here in Davenport, or we have, Louie Bellson from Moline. It’s such a neat thing to have these two jazz legends from the Quad-Cities.”
The Monarchs lineup includes the incomparable cornetist Andy Schumm (of Chicago Cellar Boys) and pianist David Boeddinghaus, who’s just coming to play with the Monarchs, Duffee said. “He gets to spend some time in Chicago before and after the festival,” he said. “It’s a chance for him to really dig into the ‘20s and ‘30s music and he loves doing it. Just hearing the excitement in his voice about it, I don’t think he has a chance to play like the original transcription that many times. So this is a treat for everybody to be able to play this music ‘cause we’re all doing kind of our own things in other groups. “So the Monarchs is kind of where it is a dream band ‘cause I have all these incredible musicians, but they’re also incredible people that are in the
group,” Duffee said. “It’s such a dream for me to be on stage with them, but then hearing the music come out of their instruments and just bringing that music to life off the page is just an incredible feeling.”
The biggest challenge is putting everyone’s music in the right order, and making sure they’re scheduled and prepared, he said.
“And then once we start rolling and it’s smooth sailing from there,” Duffee said. “The greatest thing about it is, I’m doing something that I wanted to do for many years, and that was have that’s like a pure 1920s group. And that’s why I formed the Graystone Monarchs was to specifically focus on ‘20s and early ‘30s music.”
After playing in the Bix Youth Jazz Band in the late ‘90s, Duffee or his various ensembles have played for the Bix fest every year since 2002 and this year is extra special.
“Knowing that it’s the 50th anniversary and all the bands that have come to Davenport for those 50 years,” he said. “There’s so much history, like with family members that have come and possibly passed over the years. But then pass down to their children, who are now coming to a festival. That’s something that’s really rare these days and I think that’s what makes the festival so needed. Just the connections that people have made, the friendships that musicians made and even with other people in the audience over the years. There’s so many positives that have come out of this incredible 50-year run.”
Duffee (who won a “Bix Lives” award last year from the Bix Society) named his band Graystone Monarchs in honor of the 1922 Graystone Ballroom in Detroit, which was once owned by Jean Goldkette and was torn down in 1980.
“So many bands from the 1920s passed through the Graystone Ballroom and performed there; it was one of the most prestigious ballrooms in the country,” he said, noting Goldkette, Duke Ellington, King Oliver and Cab Calloway all played there.
“A lot of the music we play was heard inside of the Graystone Ballroom in the 1920s and early ‘30s,” Duffee said, noting he picked Monarchs as a name because these bands to him were like the kings of jazz. “So it’s a way to honor the ballroom and all those bands and musicians that were passing through,” he said.
He’s also hosting and organizing the traditional post-festival party at Milan’s Knoxville Tap, which is Sunday, Aug. 8, when the Chicago Cellar Boys will play from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Duffee will be taking reservations for advanced seating from now until the day of the event, and can be reached at [email protected] for reservations. The cost will be $20 for advanced reserved seating and dinner, or $15 at the door, including meal.
Reserved seating is first-come, first serve, and once the seats are gone – they’re gone. Advanced reserved seating will be available until the allocated seats are sold-out, at which time the venue would be standing room only, Duffee said.
“It’s always fantastic. We love it and the musicians always look forward to being there,” he said.
Enhancing a jewel of a museum
You can really get to know Bix personally and musically in the free Bix Museum at RME, which opened in August 2017. Treasured recordings (which play continuously in the museum) keep alive his unique tone, melodic style, lyrical phrasing and heart-stopping improvisations. The illuminating museum – filled with photos, videos, recordings, instruments and other artifacts — is a must-stop for jazz and history lovers. Visitors will learn of his brief but eventful life at the dawn of the 20th century, view rare films and listen to his incomparable music.
Nate Kraft, director of the Bix Museum, moved to the Q-C in 2017, when he went to school at Western Illinois for a master’s in museum studies, finished in May 2019, and became museum director in January 2020. All he knew about Bix before was the Bix 7 race. Bix had nothing to do with running, however.
During an internship with the Davenport Schools Museum, Kraft got his first education on Bix. He relates to the German-American Beiderbecke family, since Kraft’s father’s side of the family were German immigrants, and is fascinated by Bix.
“He’s a figure, when you look at it, there’s not much to go off of,” Kraft said, noting Bix loved playing music, his family and drinking. “When you asked people what he was like, they said, ‘He’s a nice guy.’ Someone put it, Bix is like one of those blank slate legends, you can insert your own self into and can connect with them, because he is whatever you want him to be at this point.”
“Even photos of him, he doesn’t look like the same person from year to year,” he said, pointing to museum images. Between the ages of 12 to 28, anyone’s appearance changes significantly, Kraft noted.
Most people don’t know about Bix’s history, he said. Some schools don’t bring him up because he drank a lot and never finished high school, Kraft said.
“Bix’s face and name is known in the Quad-Cities, but it’s known for what it’s put on,” he said, noting the 46-year-old race and Bix Bistro at Hotel Blackhawk. “We’re hoping we can get the next generation to learn more and reinvigorate that history or legacy. The big thing, at least for me, Bix was from Davenport, Iowa, and because of him, people considered Iowa a big place for music.
“That’s something anyone can achieve if they wanted to. He just did what he loved,” Kraft said. “We hope people get that story – if they love something, that they’ll try it and their family supports them. That was another big thing for Bix – his family supported him.”
“He became, for many, one of the biggest figures in jazz,” he said. “It’s kind of funny since it came from Iowa and not New Orleans, Chicago or New York.”
The museum recently raised $13,000 to restore and install new artifacts in the collection (a Bix tuxedo, trunk from Paul Whiteman days, and a 1923 Don Murray saxophone), led by a $3,500 gift given by a board member. The saxophone will take longer to restore, to find authentic parts, Kraft said. The trunk has been added to the museum, but the tuxedo will be installed next Wednesday – both formerly owned by Chris Beiderbecke of Moline. “He was so generous to loan it to us,” he said, noting Beiderbecke’s son James is on the Bix Society board.
“It’s been great to finally get this done,” Kraft said. The Bix trunk is next to one from Trumbauer (1901-1956), a saxophonist who played with Bix.
Don Murray was born in Joliet, Ill., attended high school in Chicago, and was a member with Bix in the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Murray died, five days before his 25th birthday, on June 2, 1929, at a Los Angeles hospital after injuries sustained in a freak automobile accident.
Before the pandemic, the museum averaged about 600 guests a year, cut in half during 2020, but since January it’s picked up. In the past couple months, they’ve seen just a couple patrons a day, Kraft said. The RME’s open house they held June 4 was a big help, which attracted 250 people to the [email protected] outside.
On Bix 7 day, the museum also was open (which it usually isn’t Saturdays) and had a good number, and are expecting more during the jazz festival, Kraft said.
A prize possession of the museum is a piano from Bix’s New York apartment, which he got just about a month before his death. On the wall next to the piano is a photo of Alice O’Connell, the then-20-year-old woman who was Bix’s girlfriend at the time of his death. He sent his parents a letter about her with a photo, which is referenced in the museum, noting he planned to marry her.
“She got married later in life, changed her name and kind of disappeared,” Kraft said, noting her married name was Alice Weiss. “The way we found her and the piano that was in Bix’s apartment – she helped pay for the piano, because was out of money pretty much at that time. The piano disappeared, but also this registry had her name in it, because she sent flowers for his funeral. So, they used that name and there was a serial number for the piano tracked down by Albert Haim, and he was able to find the piano at someone’s house, who didn’t know who Bix was.”
In one of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s autobiographies, he wrote of Alice that she was “Bix’s kind of girl. A bit mothery [sic], maybe lost herself, but neat, willing to put up with Bix’s habits. I liked her. We didn’t have a drink. We didn’t talk much music, and it became apparent that this girl had no idea who Bix was and why he was the way he was. It was just two strangers meeting. Perhaps she knew he was a musician, but that was all. The thought struck me—later—I didn’t know Bix either. He was my friend, yet intimately, deeply, warmly, I didn’t
know him. He was unfathomable, the bit on the surface hiding the deep-lying man.”
Carmichael (1899-1981) is the famed composer of “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark” and many other classics, and was so close to Bix, he named his son (born 1939) Hoagy Bix.
The Aug. 5-7 fest kicks off with the traditional playing of Bix’s cornet at the Putnam Museum Giant Screen Theater (1717 W. 12th St., Davenport) on Thursday afternoon at 3-4 p.m., and this time the NOLA Jazz Band from Des Moines will be featured. That band – with the Bix Youth Band – will give a free concert today (July 31) at the RME Courtyard. The student band will play 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the NOLA Jazz Band from 6 to 8 p.m.
There will be one free shuttle from Rhythm City to the Bix Museum at RME at 9 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6. People are encouraged to visit other times before, during and after the fest (it’s open 10 to 5 weekdays and Saturday by appointment).
Kraft plans to have the museum co-sponsor a jazz concert in the Redstone Room this fall. “We want to have more jazz during the year, rather than one during the festival and then you don’t hear from us the rest of the year,” he said. “That’s a partnership we’re hoping to develop. The museum hopes to work with the RME to kind of get ourselves out there, but also help what they do. They try to teach all kinds of music.”
** To see some photos from the museum (and a short video with music), visit https://photos.app.goo.gl/EVrwVFL3KSu4yMSP9.
All in the Beiderbecke family
Chris Beiderbecke of Moline, and his son James, are honoring their family name by supporting the fest and museum.
Chris, 63, attended his first fest (Bix was his great uncle) at 13, amazed at the big party with folks from around the country. “It seemed
surreal. And what was especially cool was that they played all night, and it only got better as the hours went by,” he recalled Friday. “Hard to imagine that was a full half century ago, and I could not have imagined then that it would quickly grow to the largest tourist draw in the state of Iowa and that I’d witness it evolve over the next 50 years.
“For decades, the Fest was a massive event, a marathon, spanning 4 days and nights and several different venues — the Col Ballroom, Danceland, Starlight Ballroom, hotel ballrooms, and of course, the wonderful setting of LeClaire Park Bandshell where crowds and their lawn chairs and blankets would stretch from the stage back to Main Street, people from 18 to 80, dancing, loving the music and being with their friends,” Chris said. “As a boy prior to the fest, I was of course aware of who Bix was and why he was well known. I’d found his entry in the encyclopedia at my grade school library when I was in about 4th grade, and that was all the proof I needed. I knew he was famous, but didn’t know he was THAT famous.
“The fest is the longest continually held jazz festival in the U.S, second only to the largest, the Newport Jazz Festival which has long enjoyed national corporate sponsorship,” he said. “To have reached the half-century mark is truly a remarkable achievement.
“I am eternally grateful to all the many, many volunteers who have shown such dedication and devotion to ensuring that Bix Lives is not just a slogan,” Chris said. “The fest has faced many challenges and struggles, but has always found a way, and still attracts those who love and appreciate Bix and his music that blazed a unique trail in the history of jazz.”
“The fest has attracted a long list of the top players in the world. It’s been a pleasure to meet these musicians and fans and be able to talk with them about what drew them to Bix and what makes him special to them, and I’ve gotten a greater understanding and appreciation for Bix’s groundbreaking contribution to jazz and American music,” he said.
Chris enjoyed the recent efforts of Michelle Solis Russell and her “The Heights of the Era” music festival July 24, at Lindsay Park, which featured the Chicago Cellar Boys, and a band from Sunnyside, Queens. “I think bringing Bix back to the Bix, so to speak, is overdue. By all accounts, it was a successful event,” he said.
“There are people still in the Quad-Cities who have lived here for decades that believe we’re one and the same,” Trainor said of the Bix 7 race and Bix Society, which are entirely separate. “We had some people, we heard that some people thought the Heights of the Era event was the Bix Fest, and obviously, it’s not.”
There are many people responsible for the arduous and difficult task of creating the Bix Museum, Chris said.
“The idea had been around for decades, but only recently was the effort brought to reality. It’s truly an excellent place to see and hear and
learn about Bix’s life and times, and his brief but stellar career,” he said. “And I was happy to have recently lend a couple major items owned by Bix. Again, I am very grateful for the efforts of many who worked long and hard to establish such a great resource here in Bix’s hometown, mostly with no outside funding or help.
“Considering the number of people from around the country and around the world that for 50 years have made the trip to Davenport to see sites related to Bix and attend the Fest, this is a great resource for them to see a lot in one place in addition to various other locations,” Chris said. “Go visit. You’ll be impressed and can come away with a greater understanding of just who Bix was.”
Like father, like son
James Beiderbecke, 26, of Moline, is on the Bix Society board and manages its social media.
“I wanted to apply my skills to perpetuate Bix’s legacy locally, nationally, and even internationally,” he said recently, noting he started an Instagram and Twitter account for the Bix Society, both of which have gained hundreds of followers, and leads the Facebook page, which has
over 2,000 followers.
“It’s really neat to share facts about Bix’s life or music and see people ‘like’ the content from all over the world,” James said. “I’ve noticed an increase of younger jazz fans, mostly from the Chicago area, and seeing their support for Bix is really appreciated! Over the years, I’ve befriended Bix fans and always enjoy catching up with them. I’ve come to know Bix fans from diverse backgrounds, nationality, and age groups. The love of Bix and the music of the era is something we all have in common. It’s kind of like a family, and we welcome anyone who will give the music a chance.”
He gets a sense of pride knowing his efforts help keep Bix’s legacy alive.
“Not only do I have a deep appreciation for my family history, but I truly love the Quad-Cities as well,” James said. “It’s nice to coordinate with the local community, meet new people, and develop professional skills while serving on the board of directors.”
“I attended Bix Jazz Festivals as a kid, but I didn’t really grasp the complexity or scope of the operation,” he said. “Now that I’m on the board, I see how much effort it takes to put on each year. I’d like to thank my fellow board members and volunteers for their help running the
festival. Without their efforts, it would not be possible to share this great music with Bix, music, and jazz fans alike.”
“The music evokes feelings of freedom and happiness for me,” James said of top-notch bands from all over. “Seeing the Bix Youth Band perform is also great, and we are happy to grant seniors with scholarships for their hard work. Also, it’s nice to socialize and learn about people’s interests and passion for jazz. This year we have fantastic bands, silent auction items, a Gatsby-esque backdrop for photos, dancers ready to show their skills, gravesite performance, church service, and much more.
“Another special treat for those daring enough to stay up late are the after-hours jam sessions at the Quality Inn,” he said of the hotel at 6605 N. Brady St. “This is where musicians gather together and really cut loose. To me, it’s jazz in its most spontaneous and pure form. The Bix Festival is important to the QC community. Many people have fond memories of the Bix Festivals from years past. My goal is to adapt and improve the Bix Festival going forward to ensure future generations can enjoy this great music.”
The museum at RME is “a hidden gem here in the Quad-Cities,” James added. “I’m really impressed with all the neat artifacts and period pieces from the collection. The museum is laid out in a way that takes you through Bix’s life and career with information and visual intrigues to guide you along. I’m happy to have met the acquaintance of museum director Nate Kraft a few years ago. We’ve coordinated together the last few years serving as liaisons for our respective organizations. We‘re looking into potential events and fundraising activities within the QC community to benefit both our organizations going forward.”
Acquiring, restoring the family home
One major bit of unfinished Bix-related business is what to do with the deteriorating Beiderbecke family home at 1934 Grand Ave., Davenport.
Liz Beiderbecke-Hart wants to see the house (still owned by the Italian Avati brothers, who shot the 1991 “Bix” film in Davenport) repaired and restored to its original glory.
“Unfortunately, it has not been cared for and is in very bad shape,” Liz said. “It needs a lot of renovation and repairs. So the effort started by Josh Duffee and now many others is music to my ears, so to speak, that something will eventually happen to the home, to bring it back to its original condition and for everyone to enjoy.”
The Victorian-era home has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, and the utilities (water and electricity) have been shut off for over a year, Duffee said. Pupi Avati directed the 1991 film, “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend,” partially shot at the house. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival.
“The house is in a lot of disrepair,” Duffee said last year. “It’d be good of them to sell the house to somebody in the Quad-Cities, to maintain it and make sure it doesn’t get in such disrepair that it literally would have to be condemned, boarded up and torn down. We don’t want that to happen to Bix’s house.”
“I want to see this house saved and not just fall apart,” he said. “We should be proud we have it in Davenport.”
On Aug. 6, 2020, after the jazz fest was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Duffee held another tribute to Bix at his boyhood home on Grand Avenue. On the circa-1895 porch, he broadcast 78-rpm records from his collection, of the bands that Bix recorded with, as well as records of songs and bands that Bix listened to growing up, and streamed it on Facebook Live.
Around Bix’s birthday (March 10) this year, Duffee spoke with Mayor Matson about the urgent need to repair the house, and posted on Facebook that people should contact the mayor about it. Matson apparently wasn’t too happy about all the calls and e-mails he received.
Duffee tried to explain to the mayor that they tore down legendary jazz singer Cab Calloway’s house last year in Baltimore.
“I don’t want to see that happen to this house where it’s so bad that it’s condemned,” he said recently. “That’s part of the reason why I wanted to post that picture as I saw how bad it was. Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds and tradition, but the history is important to me. That’s why I wanted people to see how the house was. So I said if that helped get that ball rolling in a positive direction to see something happen in the future, that I’m really happy I posted it.”
The society and museum have discussed the house situation, and hope to announce something in the next few weeks, Kraft said. Duffee has been told by the mayor’s office that they keep getting calls from people asking the city to do something. Kraft said people should stop calling
the mayor, since they’re not happy about it.
“We’re looking at making an announcement during the festival. We’re looking into it, and there may be something coming up soon,” he said. If people want more information, they should write Kraft at [email protected]
This is also the first time the Bix festival will be livestreamed for people who can’t attend in person, Trainor said. There will be five 5-hour concerts over those three days, and you can pay for one ($20 each) or all five through Eventbrite. This link (also on the Society’s website), www.eventbrite.com/e/bix-beiderbecke-50th-jazz-festival-tickets-164015884927, will easily walk you through the process. And for the first time, a professional video (75 to 90 minutes) will be made of highlights from the three days, available by mid-September (on DVD or thumb drive) for $25. Tickets for the fest are $30 for a single session, $55 for an all-day pass, $105 for Friday and Saturday pass, and $125 for all three days. For tickets and more information, visit www.bixsociety.org.