08/02/06

Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival 2006

A trip to Davenport, Iowa to attend the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival is as much a pilgrimage and an immersion in the Bix cult as it is a musical event. Each year the faithful gather from around the world—as they have for 35 years now—to pay homage to the legendary cornetist who was laid to rest in Davenport 75 years ago this month. They listen to songs from the 1920s, visit the places Bix knew, take part in late-night jam sessions, share information and recordings and debate biographical details that have intrigued Bix’s fans since his death.

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Alan Nahigian

Bucky Pizzarelli

This year’s festival, held July 27-30, featured 11 bands from as far away as New York, England and Australia. There was also a series of panel discussions and presentations on Bix by a group of jazz experts brought to Davenport to help the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society establish a Bix museum and archive. The group included producer/writer George Avakian, photographer Duncan Schiedt, Bix biographer Richard Sudhalter and jazz museum/archive directors Michael Cogswell, Deborah Gillespie, Dan Morgenstern and Bruce Boyd Raeburn.

Trumpeter Randy Sandke was the most visible presence at this year’s festival, leading a band, overseeing and emceeing the closing concert, moderating the panel discussions and devoting his remaining time to museum plans.

In Davenport, many of the sites associated with Beiderbecke still stand—the house he grew up in, his grandparents’ house, the church and high school he attended and a number of venues he performed in both as a teenager and when he was a well-known veteran of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

For a first-time visitor, it was a thrill to see bands playing classic jazz numbers in the same rooms Bix played, spaces redolent of early-20th century show business. These included the grand Capitol Theatre and the Danceland and Col Ballrooms. The ballrooms—large venues lit by hanging lanterns with curved plaster band shells framed by rows of bare light bulbs—so strongly recalled a bygone era that they felt like film sets.

Bands played from Thursday night through Sunday evening in five main venues and a few satellite locations. Among the many highlights were Dick Hyman’s two solo concerts, Sandke’s All Stars performing an outdoor concert alongside Bix’s grave and a set by Spats Langham and His Rhythm Boys—a charming English group devoted to obscure vintage material—in the plaza of the stunning new Figge Art Museum.

Musically, it was impossible to top the two New York groups. The Statesmen of Jazz, led by pianist Dick Hyman, included guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, clarinetist Kenny Davern, cornetists Jon-Erik Kellso and Tom Pletcher, trombonist George Masso, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Eddie Locke. Randy Sandke’s New York All Stars included Sandke on cornet, trombonist Dan Barrett, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, guitarist Marty Grosz, bassist Nicki Parrot, drummer Rob Garcia and Scott Robinson playing C-melody and bass saxophone. These musicians are stars in the classic jazz and swing world, and for many in the audience, it was a rare opportunity to see these giants perform live.

The highpoint of the weekend was the freewheeling “Afterglow” concert, the traditional wind down of the event, which occurred Sunday night in the Capitol Theatre. During the concert, the New York bands mixed and matched: Pizzarelli performed in a trio with Forbes and Locke; Peplowski and Grosz did several duets (Grosz’s guitar playing is a constant delight—he has the most vibrant acoustic sound I’ve ever heard); Kenny Davern finished a lovely version of “If I Could Be with You an Hour Tonight” with some of his startling high notes; Nicki Parrott came out from behind the bass to sing “You Took Advantage of Me;” and Sandke, Kellso, Pletcher, Barrett and Robinson—all playing cornet—traded fours on a percolating “China Boy.”

Scott Robinson just about stole the show with his breathy C-melody sax rendition of Ellington’s “All Too Soon” in a duet with pianist Mark Shane. It was the kind of moment that fans of this music live for—where comfort-food repertoire suddenly gives way to a sublime moment of melodic improvisation both fresh and timeless. The evening ended with 13 musicians on stage for a high-spirited “Royal Garden Blues.”

Throughout the weekend there was much discussion about the future of classic jazz. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that at this kind of event, fans are overwhelmingly in their 70s or 80s. In an era when there is little support for live music and jazz education begins with Charlie Parker, there is a very real fear that the older forms of jazz—and the contributions of those who helped shape the music, like Bix—will soon be forgotten by all but a handful of die-hards.

The Bix Society recognizes that education is key to the music’s survival. They have been introducing new generations to Bix through the festival, scholarships for young musicians and a youth orchestra that performs every year. There is already some obvious payoff from these efforts. One alumnus of the Bix Beiderbecke Youth Jazz Band, 27-year-old drummer Josh Duffee, led an impressive 15-piece group—plus singing trio—filled with young local players and modeled after the 1920s Jean Goldkette Orchestra.

The opening of a Bix museum would be a major achievement for Davenport and an important step in preserving this period of jazz for coming generations. Yet it seems certain that as the existing audience continues to dwindle, classic jazz is heading for a crisis in the next few years. The hope is that a new generation will discover the delirious drive and resonant beauty of early jazz recordings and learn to make the music a vehicle for their own self-expression. In the meantime, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society, with the help of Sandke and many others, is keeping the legacy of Bix alive and taking some of the first steps to build a future for the music.

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