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Finding Bix: An Iowa Legend Whose Music Lives On

Craig A Rodway
A cornet in its case, complete with music, a cloth and some mutes.

This program originally aired on August 2, 2017, and makes mention to an upcoming Bix 7 race. The next annual date for this event is July 27, 2019. 

Bix Beiderbecke was a self-taught cornet player from Davenport, a white kid from the corn belt born in 1903.  He only lived to be 28 years old, but against all odds his musical influence has lasted for generations. 

During this Talk of Iowa interview, Charity Nebbe speaks to author Brendan Wolfe, who grew up in Beiderbecke's hometown.  Wolfe's new book is "Finding Bix: The Live and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend."

Wolfe told us that he first heard Bix's music when he took part in a movie about the jazz legend's life and he was hired to "pretend to play the fiddle" for the movie.  Wolfe said the process of falling in love with Beiderbecke's music was "a slow burn." 

"Jazz fans say the first time they hear their heroes play, it was mind-blowing and earth-shattering right away.  With Bix, it took me a little while. I listened, then arched my eye-brows, and then listened again.  After a while, I never stopped listening to his music," he says. 

Wolfe soon learned that there was "something about" Beiderbecke's horn, "it was magical and the style of his music was melodic." 

Wolfe decided to look into Bix's life and learn about his recording career, which lasted only about six years and ended with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.  The cornetist drank too much, Wolfe said, and died of pneumonia in 1931 at the age of 28.

Beiderbecke is one of the great legends of jazz, Wolfe says, and showed his music genius by the age of seven, when "he could play anything by ear on the piano." 

"It's almost like he was a savant," the author told Charity, "the music was inside of him, he had a perfect ear, and it took a good chunk of his life to really learn to read music. For much of his life, he didn't need to."

Wolfe still idolizes his hometown hero.

"People say that Beiderbecke was a simple person.  But he was hardly that and we wouldn't be talking about him today if he was." 

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Dennis Reese was the mid-day host for Iowa Public Radio