(Author’s note: After this article was published, the opening date of the museum was changed to Thursday, August 3.)
When the Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive opens to the public on July 24 in the River Music Experience basement, a major draw will be seeing and being in the presence of artifacts from the legendary jazz cornetist’s life – clothes he wore, instruments he played, reproductions of letters he wrote.
As museum developer Joe Hines said: “An exhibit like this doesn’t offer explanations; it [gives] impressions.”
While that might be typical of a biographical museum, the process of collecting those impressions and putting them under one roof has required extraordinary effort over decades.
The museum pulls heavily from a pair of collections it purchased, but its objects come from far and wide. As project manager Carol Schaefer said: “We need to bring his story together in one place, along with memorabilia that’s scattered basically all over the world so that Bix followers can really have a home to go to.”
“There’s anything and everything” in the 1,500-square-foot museum, said Bix historian Geri Bowers. “He died in 1931; we still have his vest that he wore in junior high school. His family was so dedicated to him. And we want to prove that to the people. He was well-loved by his family. ... That vest just drives me nuts. I think: What do I have of my children when they were young that I treasured? ... They kept all this stuff. Why? How? It’s amazing.”
There’s also a cornet owned by Bix that was given to Gene Gast by the jazz musician’s brother Burnie. Howard Braren, the museum’s board president, explained that Burnie – then the sexton at Oakdale cemetery, where Bix is buried – gave the nine- or 10-year-old Gast the instrument when the boy helped pull weeds.
And there’s the Wurlitzer baby grand, the only piano Bix ever owned, which was purchased by Bix scholar Albert Haim. He knew the make of the piano and got its serial number from the manufacturer, and then spent a year finding it. Braren said that “nobody knew where the heck that piano went,” but Haim tracked it through five different owners. “It wound up in Suffolk County, Long Island ... in the home of a couple with two girls who were learning to play the piano,” Braren said. “They had no idea who Bix was, or any of the history of this piano.” Haim has loaned it to the Bix museum.
Near the piano will be the register from Bix’s funeral, which serves as a testament to both his tragically short life and the impact that life had on his contemporaries. “This has just kind of appeared” in the past three months, Hines said. “It was found in the collections of Liz Beiderbecke-Hart ... .” He said he’s seen pictures of pages from the register, “but it’s always been images that are kind of scratchy, like photocopy, photocopy, photocopy – copy after copy. ... Clearly, nobody was getting access to the original thing.”
Now, of course, museum visitors will be able to stand next to the real deal. “We had to figure out how to display it,” Hines said, “because there are certain pages where there are certain names that are interesting. We chose to show it closed, ... but next to it will be a graphic panel that will have a couple of these open page spreads to show the written names. ...
“Without getting real sentimental ... , you’re trying to offer a little bit of a tug here, of things coming to a close, and already he’s being honored ... by the people who knew him well or played with him. ...
“It’s going to be interesting to see how some people respond to ... being in the presence of a few of these objects ... ,” Hines added. “You’re giving not only impressions but hopefully inspirations for people to explore further. This might be an intro to some folks and offer a ... spark for them to explore things in other media or in other sources.”
Inventing His Own Way
Davenport has long been a destination for fans of early jazz because of Beiderbecke, but a proper museum has been a glaring void. A Bix cornet is part of the Putnam Museum collection, and visitors can go to various historical sites – including the musician’s grave and childhood home – in Davenport.
So for Bix aficionados and the organizers of the 45-year-old annual jazz festival bearing his name, the museum has been a decades-long dream.
It’s particularly important given that the self-taught Beiderbecke has never enjoyed the sort of academic study given to one of his more-celebrated contemporaries. As Commentary magazine noted in 2005: “Born two years and half a continent apart, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz, emerged as major soloists on the same instrument (cornet) at the same time (early 1924). They were viewed with awe by their contemporaries, and their contrasting styles evolved over time into the twin lines of descent from which most of today’s jazz can be traced. ... Yet musicologists, while recognizing and acknowledging Beiderbecke’s enduring significance, have nonetheless been strangely reluctant to treat him in the same way they treat Armstrong.”
That lack of attention is mirrored in the Quad Cities, where the Bix 7 road race is much better-known than the impact Beiderbecke had on jazz. “The people of Davenport need to understand his life and importance ... ,” Schaefer said. “A lot of people don’t have the knowledge or the enthusiasm that we have about Bix. So you have to kind of reach out at the instructional level to get them to understand the Bix story. That’s the challenge; we certainly have the artifacts.”
Local jazz musician Josh Duffee said he’s excited that schoolchildren will be able to visit the museum and get a “CliffsNotes version” of Bix’s life, adding: “That’s going to bring more awareness of Bix to the Quad Cities.” (While not actively involved in the development of the museum, Duffee said some material from his archive related to bandleader Jean Goldkette was scanned for its use.)
Bix certainly merits the same level of esteem as Armstrong. As the Commentary article explained, the Davenport native was even more of a trailblazer: “Beiderbecke’s style, which was all but fully formed when he made his first recordings, was completely different from that of the New Orleans-born cornet and trumpet players who preceded him, Armstrong included. Unlike them, he played with precise, at times almost fussy articulation and a rounded, chime-like tone whose sound Eddie Condon famously likened to ‘a girl saying yes,’ sticking mostly to the middle register and avoiding the interpolated high notes that became an Armstrong trademark. His improvised solos had an architectural balance similar to Armstrong’s, but they were more subdued in their emotional impact. ... Beiderbecke’s ‘cool’ lyricism was seen by his contemporaries as an alternative to Armstrong’s ‘hot,’ extroverted virtuosity.”
That’s echoed by The Oxford Companion to Jazz: “Where Armstrong’s playing was bravura, regularly optimistic, and openly emotional, Beiderbecke’s conveyed a range of intellectual alternatives. Where Armstrong, at the head of an ensemble, played it hard, straight, and true, Beiderbecke, like a shadowboxer, invented his own way of phrasing ‘around the lead.’ Where Armstrong’s superior strength delighted in the sheer power of what a cornet could produce, Beiderbecke’s cool approach invited rather than commanded you to listen.”
That contrast is part of what appealed to local artist (and Reader contributor) Bruce Walters, who painted a mural backdrop for the museum’s bandstand. “I was drawn to Bix because of his many contradictions,” he wrote. “He was, for example, famous in the hot-jazz era but wrote beautiful Ravel-like piano compositions and can be regarded as the father of cool jazz. Like Jimi Hendrix, one is left wondering what he would have accomplished or how his work would have evolved if he had lived a full life; Bix would still have been alive in the 1980s if he had lived into his late 70s.”
An Ideal Match
Plans for a museum dedicated to Leon Bismark Beiderbecke have been kicked around for roughly 20 years, Braren said, and a 1,300-square-foot permanent Bix exhibit in the Putnam Museum was announced in 2007, with a scheduled opening in 2009. That project, he said, fell apart when it couldn’t secure grants.
After that, Braren said, organizers looked for other potential sites – including the German American Heritage Center – before agreeing three years ago to build the museum in the River Music Experience. “We felt that this was a better home, and so did the board of the River Music Experience – that this was an ideal match,” he said.
Once the location was chosen, work on the museum began in earnest. Schaefer said the early steps were to “establish what artifacts around the world were available,” to draft a budget, and to raise money.
Although many of the people behind the museum are also heavily involved in the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Society and its annual festival, the museum was built and will be operated by a separate not-for-profit organization.
Fundraising started with $100,000 grant from the Bechtel Trust, and Braren added that “our nine-member board collectively has contributed well over $100,000 for this project.”
A large portion of objects in the Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive came from the purchase of two collections: one held by Elizabeth Beiderbecke-Hart, and 46 boxes of material accumulated by Phil and Linda Evans. “The Evanses spent their whole adult life researching Bix,” Braren said. “They physically went around the country and taped interviews with people that played with Bix and knew Bix intimately. It’s all part of what we acquired.”
Those collections cost the museum $250,000, and construction of the museum space and its displays cost another $425,000. All that money has been raised, Braren said, and the museum also received a gift to cover half the operating expenses for its first three years. He added that the museum hopes to build an endowment of at least $250,000.
Museum organizers are optimistic they will eventually get annual attendance of between 5,000 and 15,000 visitors, Braren said. The Bix festival will obviously be a popular time, and he said the River Music Experience has agreed to work with the museum on musical events and integrating Bix into its youth programs.
“This museum being embedded within the RME is such a big deal,” Hines said. “It’s wonderful how this museum will interact with, is embedded with, and is embraced by the RME.”
The “archive” of the organization’s title will be housed in the Putnam and – in the near future – will be available for research by appointment.
I asked whether there were any plans to digitize the archive’s photographs, letters, and recorded interviews so they could be available to a worldwide audience on a Web site, and Braren was receptive to the idea but said it had not been discussed in any depth. “It’s got to be done,” he said, but “we’ve had to focus on getting this off the ground.”
Creating a Voice
The museum started to take shape with the hiring of Hines, who began work in February 2016 and by July had finalized his exhibit plans. He said he was charged with “telling the story of Bix Beiderbecke and his life in Iowa and where things went from Iowa.”
Board members, he said, contributed many ideas, including re-creating the Hudson Lake stage in northwest Indiana that Bix played on in 1926: “It was a matter of my finding ways to synthesize it all, arrange things in the form of a storyline of Bix’s life, and create an interesting architectural setting for things, as well as what I call creating a voice for the story.” He said that “voice” comes from a variety of communication modes – from architecture to graphics to music to lighting to video – that supplement, complement, and highlight the myriad artifacts.
When I visited the museum space on July 12 – nine days before the invitation-only opening – there was little sense of what the experience would be. The architectural shell and lighting were there, as was the Bix-owned piano. The 1926 stage had instruments and its mural backdrop in what appeared to be a final tableau, but it lacked its centerpiece: a figure of Bix with a cornet that was still in a storage room. (Bowers, Braren, and Schaefer marveled at the detail in his hands.) The work of bringing all the components together still remained.
When finished, the Bix museum will guide visitors in a circular path through 10 stations, with a “Bix Lives” section serving as the entry and exit point, helping to sketch the musician’s broad and persistent influence.
“The whole idea of that is to just present the splash of the whole range of different ways he impacted jazz,” Hines said – everything from albums re-recording Bix’s work, honoring him, or influenced by him to movie and festival posters showing his reach far beyond the 28 years of his life. “The story of Bix Beiderbecke, sometimes quietly, is still very special to a lot of people around the world,” he said.
From there, the exhibit travels chronologically through Bix’s life, starting with his Davenport home and family and moving through the various stages of his professional career to his death from pneumonia in Queens, New York. It includes separate sections for his time with the Wolverine Orchestra, at Hudson Lake, with Jean Goldkette’s ensemble, and with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
The museum will include ambient Bix music – a loop running 45 minutes to an hour, Hines said – and tunes will also accompany a half-dozen films by Lisa Ryan in a touch-screen display with headphones.
Two other pieces of video – each running about two minutes – will be available in motion-activated displays. One is a home movie showing Bix on the road with the Goldkette orchestra, which Hines said includes “images of 1920s America.” The other is film of a Paul Whiteman Orchestra rehearsal, which he said “is the only known ... film clip that shows Bix actually playing a cornet.”
Never the Whole Story
Bringing to mind the maxim that history is written by the victors, it’s clear that the organizers of the Bix museum have a version of his story they want to tell. “We’re trying to get truth, not fiction,” Bowers said.
“Bix’s life story sometimes we felt was not accurately portrayed,” Schaefer added, noting in particular his relationship with his family. While it’s true that Bix’s family initially disapproved of his choice of a jazz-music career, it was ultimately supportive and proud of him – something the museum will show in part through the volume of material that family members kept.
Not having seen the finished exhibit, it’s impossible for me to say the degree to which the Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive will present its subject as a complex human being. But the organizers – as fans and advocates of Bix – are naturally likely to cast him in the best possible light.
Bowers, for example, downplayed the role that alcohol might have played in Bix’s death, saying that he might have been an undiagnosed diabetic. “I think Bix had other things wrong with him that helped contribute to his death,” she said. “He drank, he didn’t eat properly. All the musicians said that. ... He didn’t take good care of his health. ... If you’re not in good health to begin with, and run down, and not eating, [and] drinking ... .”
Bix’s alcoholism is well-documented and unavoidable, but his acolytes have tended to dismiss other potentially problematic aspects of his life.
There are stories of regular marijuana use that, depending on the source, are either established fact or total bunk. (The Quad-City Times in 2003: “Bix historian Rich Johnson, trying to track down those rumors of Bix’s drug usage, has done extensive research on the subject. ‘Nowhere, not from anyone who knew him, not from any reports, was Bix known to smoke marijuana or take any kind of narcotics.’”)
And his 1921 arrest that was either a source of shame for Beiderbecke that might have contributed to his alcohol abuse (according to the previously mentioned Commentary article) or completely without merit (according to Haim’s BixBeiderbecke.com Web site, which proclaims: “The charges were dismissed: Bix is innocent.”)
Delving that deeply into Bix’s life is probably too much to ask for the museum, which is obviously meant as a celebration of a hugely important figure in American music. There are three obvious aims to the Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive: to explain and underline his importance to a Quad Cities audience; to become a mecca for his fans from around the world, many of whom come to the festival; and to change the narrative about his family.
“I was relying on them [museum organizers] to offer cues about the elements of the story ... ,” Hines explained. “An exhibit like this is never the whole story. ... You have to choose the degree of detail. You have to put a little fence around this.”
And the museum tells a story that many people will relate to, he added: “There’s a timelessness to it, of youth, of creativity, of the razzle-dazzle of New York City ... . The tragic sides are there, but the real joy is, also. And a lot of that joy was, clearly, in his family and his home there in Davenport.”
The Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive will open to the public on Monday, July 24, in the basement of the River Music Experience (129 Main Street, Davenport). The museum will be open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and adult admission is $5.
For more information on the museum, visit BixMuseum.org.