Cornet player Bix Beiderbecke wasn’t your average guy from Davenport as Brendan Wolfe explains in his academic work, “Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend,” out now from University of Iowa Press. Born in 1903 and raised in Davenport, Bix went on to be a contemporary of Louie Armstrong, a friend to Babe Ruth, and, according to critics and jazz fans, one of the most innovative soloists in America jazz music.
But writing a book about Bix Beiderbecke is a tall order for even the most astute researcher, because after dying gin-soaked in a run-down Queens apartment at the age of 28, Bix was beatified by colleagues and critics, making even the most basic facts of his life “purple” thanks to countless embellished retellings.
Wolfe’s approach, then, is not to dispel the myths in search of one true story, but to lay the tales out, one on top of the other, and see what stays consistent. It’s a marvelous, almost suspenseful process when applied to specific episodes, such as what really happened that afternoon in 1921 between Bix and a 5-year-old neighbor girl. But the process becomes less engaging when applied to general topics such as “the argument over race” where Wolfe bounces from one critical perspective to another, never landing on a moment from Bix’s life to illustrate the arguments.
Even still, “Finding Bix” is a compelling read because it’s about more than Bix: it’s about the myths we construct about artists and what it means to confront them. When we start to get a glimpse of who Bix may have actually been, Wolfe pulls back the curtain and reveals his own vulnerability as he too takes a hard look at this oft-idealized musician. “Whatever unified sense of Bix I may have once held, it has since been shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, each a possibility, an intellectual temptation.”
In this confusion there is triumph, because in the end Bix is finally less myth, and more human.