Sunday 26 June 2016

Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest

Bix Beiderbeck's life was a classic jazz tale: young, brilliant, talented and doomed. His story was the inspiration for the 1938 novel and 1950 movie Young Man With a Horn — a title which is likely to give rise to profane mirth in the UK (see definition 3.5 here).

Beiderbeck played the cornet, which was sort of the forerunner of the trumpet. It was much played in jazz circles, until Louis Armstrong switched to trumpet, and everybody followed suit. Bix was the only contemporary player who could begin to hold a candle to Armstrong — indeed Armstrong professed his admiration for the young white man.

Bix Beiderbeck never got the chance to be anything other than young, drinking himself to death at the age of 28. But he had a unique and lovely sound which was the forerunner of cool jazz and was an influence on the likes of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. So although Bix's life was wasted, his music very definitely lives on...

A point which seems utterly lost on the Radio 3 drama Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest. Now, Forrest is a distinguished dramatist, and he has written some terrific stuff. His adaptation of The Exorcist, for example, was a knockout. And his credentials, which include a version of The Great Gatsby, suggest that he should have a good handle on the period — 1928 here.

In the event Bix: Singing the Blues is pretty far off the mark in terms of period accuracy. It basically tells the story of an (imaginary) encounter between Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong. (The two did indeed meet, but not like this.) And Armstrong is all wrong. His dialogue is way too modern. He uses terms such as "cool" — a piece of slang which, like so many others, was coined by Lester Young, who wouldn't be on the scene until the next decade.

But the basic problem is that the play depicts Bix as a whining, damaged, pitiful little pudding of pathos. There is absolutely nothing of his genius or his music in evidence (a brief snatch of his music fades out at the end of the play). This is not only depressing and monotonous, it simply ain't true.

The only reason Forrest is writing a play about Bix Beiderbeck, and the only reason people will be drawn to listen, is because of Bix's greatness as a musician. If only some of that had been evident in this drama then it would have made it both more accurate and more enjoyable.

The play also asserts that Bix was a depraved sexual predator. Now, for all I know, this might be true. But there was no whisper of it in Richard Sudhalter's excellent biography of Bix.

The BBC production is topped and tailed with some fine documentary material about Bix and his music (presumably to explain to listeners why the hell they should be interested — since nothing in the play addresses that issue).

My advice is to listen to the documentary snippets and then go and play some of Bix's classic recordings (and indeed some of Louis Armstrong's). Hearing the drama itself is strictly optional. But if you would like to, you can find it here for the next couple of weeks.

(Image credits: The purple image, which I've doctored considerably, comes from the Radio Times. The green image, also monkeyed with by yours truly, is from the Wikipedia page on Bix. The Young Man with the Horn poster is from the Wikipedia page about the movie and the book cover is from, you guessed it. The Sudhalter et al cover is from Bid or Buy.) 

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