Great Encounters #30: When Eddie Condon first heard Bix Beiderbecke

December 4th, 2013

Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
Eddie Condon
Eddie Condon

Eddie Condon — a great guitarist/banjoist/bandleader of the Jazz Age era — recalls the day in Chicago in 1922 when he first met and heard the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. 

As told in Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age by Ralph Berton

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One day Pee Wee Rank, a drummer, called me from Chicago. “How would you like to play in Syracuse?” He was on his way to the Tri-Cities – Rock Island, Moline, and Davenport – to round up talent…”Meet me at the LaSalle Street Station at eight o’clock tomorrow night.” At eight o’clock the next night I stood in the station and watched Pee Wee come at me with three other guys. One of them was a kid in a cap with the peak broken. He had on a green overcoat from the walk-up-and-save-ten district; the collar was off his neck. He had a round face and eyes that had no desire to focus on what was in front of him. Pee Wee introduced us.

  “This is Bix Beiderbecke.”

  I’ve made a mistake, I thought. I’m stuck with this clamdigger for two months.

  “Hello,” Beiderbecke said. Great talker, I thought.

  “We have a couple of hours before the train leaves for Syracuse,” Pee Wee said. “Bix wants to go to the College Inn and see Louis Panico….”

  The College Inn was in the Sherman House, a Loop hotel. Louis Panico was playing trumpet in Isham Jones’s band. He…had written Wabash Blues, and was getting $350 a week. They’ll never let us in, I thought. This corncobber probably has heard Louis on a record and hasn’t any better sense than to think he can march in wearing that cap and hear him play. I fell back and walked with Hostetter.

  “Is Beiderbecke our cornet player?” I asked.

  “By way of understatement, yes,” Hostetter said. “Wait until you hear him play. You’ll go nuts.”

  I can believe it, I thought. What kind of music have these guys heard?…How can a guy in a cap and a green overcoat play anything civilized?”

  We walked right into the College Inn without being stopped…I spotted Panico about the time he saw Beiderbecke. His face lighted up like a drunk on Christmas Eve.

  “Bix!” he yelled…The boys in the band looked around as if free drinks had been announced. Beiderbecke must be something, I thought, but what?…My eyes were just getting used to the glare when Pee Wee said, “Bix wants to go to the Friars’ Inn.”

  Well, I thought, they let us in here, why not the Friars’ Inn? The Friars’ Inn was a flashy cabaret for big spenders. For music it had the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the famous white jazz band. I had heard their records on Gennett…They had Leon Rappolo on clarinet; he was already a legend. Jack Pettis on C-melody saxophone, Elmer Schoebel on piano, Frank Snyder on drums, George Brunies trombone, banjo Lew Black. On string bass was Arnold Loyocano; Don Murray on tenor sax. Hostetter repeated their names as if he were nominating an all-American football team. “There’s nothing better,” he said. Then he added, as if it was something I ought to know and keep quiet about, “Schoebel reads music.”

  …The players fell over themselves greeting Beiderbecke….”How about sitting in, Bix?” one of them said. Beiderbecke smile like an embarrassed kid and muttered something….He sat down – at the piano. Clarinet Marmalade, someone said. Bix nodded and hit the keys.

  Then it happened. All my life I had been listening to music…But I had never heard anything remotely like what Beiderbecke played. For the first time I realized music isn’t all the same, it had become an entirely new set of sounds….

  The next day we got up as the train came into Cleveland. With nothing to do but stare at the scenery from there to Buffalo, I began to wonder again about the cornet. I got out my banjo. Eberhardt dug up his saxophone and doodled along with me. Finally Beiderbecke took out a silver cornet. He put it to his lips and blew a phrase. The sound came out like a girl saying yes.

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Book excerpt from Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age by Ralph Berton

rememberbix

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“I’m Coming Virginia,” by Bix Beiderbecke

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