BEIDERBECKE, Bix: Riverboat Shuffle

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\Riverboat Shuffle" Original 1924-1929 Recordings

The first real white jazz stylist, cornetist, pianist and composer Bix Beiderbecke was a great jazz original, an innovator whose individual genius and technically controlled, restrained, crystal-clear playing contrasts with -yet in its way matches- the flamboyance of Louis Armstrong. He was born Leon Bismarck Beiderbecke on March 10, 1903 in the river town of Davenport, Iowa, the youngest of the three children in a German immigrant family. His father, Herman, ran a successful coal and timber business, so his upbringing was well-to-do, middleclass. As a child he showed an unusual aptitude for music which his mother, Agatha, actively encouraged: he had a fine ear and could play virtually anything without music. At seven he had some formal training on piano and his parents envisaged a career for him as a concert pianist, but having heard records of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band he took up the cornet instead. Self-taught and technically unorthodox in his approach, he would sit cross-legged on the floor and join in with "Tiger Rag" and other records on the Victrola.

In 1919, in Davenport, he heard and met the great New Orleans cornettist Emmet Hardy who, it is said, helped him to perfect his technique. Indeed, when Hardy died in 1925, Bix reputedly wrote to Hardy’s mother to the effect that "Emmet was the greatest musician I have ever heard. If ever I can come near your son’s greatness, I’ll die happy." In September 1921, at his parents’ request, he entered the Lake Forest Academy but, for spending so much time in nearby Chicago pursuing his interest in jazz and playing with the dance band he had formed with fellow-student Walter ‘Cy’ Welge, he was expelled. Subsequently, Bix spent a few months working in his father’s East Davenport Fuel and Lumber Company until he decided, despite parental opposition, on a career in music.

Bix joined the Wolverines in Ohio late in 1923 and early the following year, in Richmond, Indiana, and with that band, still generally accredited with having been the first white outfit to play "black" jazz in true style, recorded fifteen published sides for Gennett (highly innovative, these pre-date Armstrong’s first Hot Fives by almost two years), including a new composition by his friend Hoagy Carmichael entitled Riverboat Shuffle. In these monumental classics of early jazz he is both soloist and leader, but his presence is played down, coolly integrating with the rest of the ensemble, as it does in his own composition Davenport Blues, recorded in early 1925 with his Rhythm Jugglers.

By September 1924, Bix and the Wolverines were playing at New York’s prestigious Cinderella Ballroom. There he was heard by pianist-bandleader Jean Goldkette (1899-1962) whose band, certainly the greatest white jazz outfit before Benny Goodman’s, was at that time resident at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom and whose recordings were a new and lucrative addition to the Victor catalogue. Beiderbecke briefly joined the Goldkette orchestra and even recorded with them in November. Next, he shared digs in New York with fellow-cornetist Red Nichols (1905-1965) before joining the band of Illinois-born saxophonist and vocalist Frankie Trumbauer (1901-1956) at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis. Trumbauer’s musicianship and organisational skills complemented Bix’s innovations and the pair became the mainstay of Goldkette’s organisation from early 1926, on recordings, on radio and at live venues until it disbanded in September 1927.

Subsequently, prior to blending their voices with Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), Trumbauer and Bix immortalised their names through their recordings of such classics as "I’m Coming, Virginia" (a US Pop Charts No.5 hit in September 1927) and Singin’ The Blues, Three Blind Mice and Krazy Kat. With guitarist Ed Lang (1902-33) they recorded, among other titles, For No Reason At All In C and Wringin’ And Twistin’, while Bix recorded the solo In A Mist (otherwise entitled "Bixology"). Here, his impressionistic piano-playing reflects the influence of Debussy and Ravel as well as the more localised influence of the American piano miniaturist Edward McDowell. This solo entered the US charts in February 1928, at No.20.

During their sojourn with the Whiteman Orchestra, Bix and Trumbauer were given several opportunities to record with various small groups, usually under their own names. However, Bix’s dependence on alcohol undermined his health and caused frequent indisposition which, allied to financial strictures imposed on the commercially-minded Paul Whiteman ensuing from the 1929 Wall Street Crash, forced him to side-line and eventually to dismiss his star soloist. The ravages of drink, poor eating and constant travelling finally took their toll and Bix died in New York on August 7, 1931, his tragic self-destruction and early demise fuelling a legend.

That the legend has lived on since his death, however, stems from a tradition started almost three quarters of a century ago by Dorothy Baker’s romanticised novel and by the enthusiastic but innaccurate 1950 Warner biopic which it inspired ("overwrought… occasionally risible", with Kirk Douglas cast as Bix, plus a trumpet over-dub by Harry James and a cameo appearance from Bix’s erstwhile pal Hoagy). More recently, his name has been kept alive in the 1981 film biography Bix and later still by a trilogy of more loosely biographical TV documentaries which conferred on him a late 20th century cult status as one of jazz’s seminal figures. But the intrinsic beauty of his playing also lives on, through his recordings.

Peter Dempsey, 2001


The Wolverines

(Gennett 5454; mx 11854-C) Recorded 6th May, 1924, Richmond, Indiana 2:32

2. DAVENPORT BLUES (Beiderbecke)

Bix and his Rhythm Jugglers

(Gennett 5654; mx 12141) Recorded 26th January, 1925, Richmond, Indiana 2:45

3. SINGIN’ THE BLUES (Conrad–Robinson)

Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra

(OKeh 40772; mx W 80393-B) Recorded 4th February, 1927, New York 2:58

4. FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C (Trumbauer–Beiderbecke)

Tram, Bix and Eddie

(OKeh 40871; mx W 81085-B) Recorded 13th May, 1927, New York 3:04



Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra

(OKeh 40903; mx W 81273-C) Recorded 25th August, 1927, New York 3:01

6. KRAZY KAT (TONE POEM IN SLOW RHYTHM) (Morehouse–Trumbauer)

Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra

(OKeh 40903; mx W 81489-B) Recorded 28th September, 1927, New York 3:00

7. IN A MIST (BIXOLOGY) (Beiderbecke)

Bix Beiderbecke, piano solo

(OKeh 40916; mx W 81426-B) Recorded 9th September, 1927, New York 2:46

8. ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (C. & S. Williams)

Bix Beiderbecke and his New Orleans Lucky Seven

(OKeh 8544; mx W 81519-B) Recorded 5th October, 1927, New York 3:02

9. GOOSE PIMPLES (Trent–Henderson)

Bix Beiderbecke and his New Orleans Lucky Seven

(OKeh 8544; mx W 81568-B) Recorded 25th October, 1927, New York 3:17

10. WRINGIN’ AN’ TWISTIN’ (Trumbauer–W
Disc: 1
Somebody Stole My Gal
1 Riverboat Shuffle
2 Davenport Blues
3 Singin' The Blues
4 For No Reason At All in C
5 Three Blind Mice (Rhythmic Theme In Advanced Harmo
6 Krazy Kat (Tone Poem In Slow Rhythm)
7 In A Mist (Bixology)
8 Royal Garden Blues
9 Goose Pimples
10 Wringin' An' Twistin'
11 Sorry
12 Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down
13 Thou Swell
14 Louisiana
15 The Love Nest
16 Ol' Man River
17 Futuristic Rhythm
18 Somebody Stole My Gal
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