Book Review: Sheet Music

Jean Pierre Lion

Sheet Music

Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend

by Jean Pierre Lion

Continuum, 348 pp., $26.95

Legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was the model in literature and film for the "Young Man With a Horn"-type, a psychologically troubled, immensely talented musician who drank himself to death. Beiderbecke has been cited as the originator of cool jazz; his playing had plenty of warmth, actually, but he was a more introverted soloist than most jazz artists of the times. He never learned to read music, which hampered his ability to compose music and play complex arrangements. Beiderbecke was always critical of himself for this reason, holding himself in far lower esteem than other musicians, who thought him a marvelous soloist. When he played with Paul Whiteman's orchestra he was upset because he primarily performed as a soloist and was not an important ensemble player. His inability to read gave him trouble learning classical music, which he loved and which influenced him, particularly the Impressionist school. French author Lion follows Beiderbecke's career chronologically, discussing the times – Prohibition, the Depression – as well as the cornetist's 28 short years. Lion brings together a great deal of biographical detail, but not much of it is new; the most interesting material is the author quoting other sources. Yet what he offers about the cornetist is accurate, which is important as so few contemporary jazz fans know much about him. He was, as Lion implies, one of the most lyrical of all jazzmen, with a tone described as being like "a girl saying yes." A useful bibliography and discography are included in this volume.

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