Who’s for a Swim?

Peter Batten writes about Bix and Louis

Last month I gave a talk to a Jazz Appreciation group in Preston Park. It was the first in a series of six entitled, ‘Jazz Contrasts’. This was a follow-up to add detail to my previous series, ‘Six Studies in the Art of Jazz’. The first major contrast was between Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. I am sure you will have heard of Louis, but Bix who? In the late 1920s Bix Beiderbecke was a much admired jazz cornet player. He was almost a cult idol. Featured with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, he was adored by both fans and fellow musicians, among them Bing Crosby. He was still in his twenties, but his health was already in decline. In 1931 he died.

Louis Armstrong

Louis and Bix certainly knew of each other in the late 20s. Although he was not yet as celebrated as Bix, Louis’ huge talent was beginning to be recognised by his fellow musicians. As we now know, Louis would go on to achieve world-wide fame, especially after WW2. Above all, he was recognised as a fundamental source for the jazz idiom, a formative influence on all subsequent musicians and singers. Did Louis and Bix ever meet? Surely they must have! There is an unconfirmed story that one night in Chicago they played together at a jam session. Louis admired Bix and spoke highly of his talent. White fans, for many years, tried to promote Bix and claim for him an equal stature with Louis. That claim became increasingly ridiculous as Jazz historians began to consider the development of Jazz music and its fundamental nature. Louis’ role grew and grew in importance.

My talk concentrated on the musical differences  between them.  I said very little about their private lives. The next day I began to think about their very different stories. Louis was very angry when Bix died. He felt that his health had been wrecked by a boozy group of admirers who had introduced him to their bohemian lifestyle. A great talent had been wasted.

Bix came from a comfortable middle-class home. He was recognised for his special talent when he was barely 20. He soon had a close group of fans who idolised him. These were the ones that Louis blamed. But what was Louis’ background? He was only a little older than Bix. Born in New Orleans, he was an orphan, unsure about his age and date of birth. He grew up in a ‘Waifs Home’ and learned to play the trumpet there. For a short time he was married, but divorced when he moved to Chicago to join King Oliver’s Band in 1923. There he met and married an older woman, Lilian Hardin, who was the band’s pianist. She was a strong character, who worked hard to promote his career. Later, he married a young dancer and then, in the late 1930s, Lucille, a marriage which lasted for the rest of his life. These relationships did not end in hostility. From 1945 he was supported by a considerable entourage, including a personal valet. He enjoyed the celebrity lifestyle.

The contrast with Bix is obvious. Louis was a survivor, in both modern senses. He mixed well with people; he loved his food. Where Bix consumed cheap booze, the adult Louis liked to have just one good joint every day. So what does my title mean? As I thought about them both, great musicians who have had a strong influence on my life, two very different scenarios came into my mind. It is 1927, a hot summer in Chicago. Both are becoming very famous. After a long night of drinking Bix wakes in the afternoon with a shattering hangover. Where is Louis? He is down on the lake shore, enjoying a swim with his friends. Just my imagination, but sadly it may have been reality.

Peter Batten


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