Bix at 1600 Broadway

By Albert Haim

      Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke is one of the legends in jazz. He was born in Davenport, Iowa in 1903, and died in Sunnyside, Queens, New York in 1931. He played cornet and piano and was a composer. Bix had engagements in the ballroom at 1600 Broadway, New York on two occasions. The ballroom had different names at different times. In the early days, it was known, successively, as Rector’s, the Boardwalk, and the Café de Paris. In 1924 it was the Cinderella Ballroom.  Between February and May 1927, it was known as the Paul Whiteman Club. In September 1927, the ballroom was named Club New Yorker.  Bix appeared there in 1924 with the Wolverine Orchestra and in 1927 with Adrian Rollini’s New Yorkers. On August 6, 1981, exactly 50 years after Bix’s death, the world premiere of  Brigitte Berman’s documentary film "Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet" was held at the Preview Theater located on the 9th floor of  1600 Broadway.<>

    The 10-story building at 1600 Broadway –in the heart of Times Square- was built in 1902. When it opened, it housed, in the first floor, a showroom for the horse-driven, luxury carriages of the Studebaker Brothers. In the 1910s, the Mutual Film Company had offices and storage space in the building. Charlie Chaplin was under contract with the Company from 1916 to 1918. In the 1920s and 1930s it housed the Max Fleischer studios: the first Betty Boop animated cartoon was created there in 1930 and the popular Popeye was added in 1933 to the cast of Fleischer’s cartoon characters. In 1939, the ground floor was remodelled to house the “Ripley Believe It or Not! Odditorium” ("Curioddities From 200 Countries").

    It was announced early in November 2004 that the building will be demolished and replaced by a 25-story, 136-unit apartment tower.

The Wolverine Orchestra at the Cinderella Ballroom.

          Bix joined the band at the Stockton Club, Hamilton, Ohio, late in October 1923. The band did not have much of a repertoire. One of the numbers they played quite often was Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues.” Thus, the band took up the name “Wolverine Orchestra.” Late in 1923, the band consisted of Bix on cornet, Jimmy Hartwell on clarinet, Bob Gillette on banjo, Dick Voynow on piano, Ole Vangsnesss on tuba/bass saxophone, George Johnson on tenor saxophone, and Bob Conzelman on drums. In January 1924, the Wolverines opened at Doyle’s Dancing Academy. Conzelman was replaced by Vic Moore, and Vangsness by Wilford “Min’ Leibrook. With the addition of Al Gandee on trombone, the Wolverine orchestra made its recording debut at the Gennett studios –the cradle of recorded jazz- in Richmond, Indiana on February 18, 1924.  One of the numbers waxed on that day was “Jazz Me Blues” which features the first extended (20 bars) solo by 20-year old Bix. It is interesting to point out that the solo was played, note for note, four months later, by Red Nichols in the George Olsen recording of “You’ll Never Get To Heaven with Those Eyes.”

          The Wolverines spent the winter, spring and summer of 1924 in various cities in the Midwest. Early in September, they left the Midwest and arrived in New York City for an engagement at the Cinderella Ballroom in the building at 1600 Broadway. The Wolverines opened on September 12, 1924. This must be viewed as a major achievement: a band of youngsters from the Midwest   appearing in one of the top dance halls on Broadway.

          Abel Green, a writer for Variety, wrote, in the September 24, 1924 issue of the weekly magazine, the following review.

This "hot" septet hails from around Chicago, last playing a Gary, Ind., pavilion. It was "discovered" by the Josephs of the Cinderella ballroom management, who tout this combination highly.  As a torrid unit it need doff the mythical chapeau to no one. Their sense of rhythm and tempo is ultra for this type of dance music, and their unquestionable favor with the dance fans speaks for itself.
Leon Beiderbecke is a "hot" trumpet; Dick Voynow plays piano; Jim Hartwell, clarinettist, highly effective; ditto the bass Wilford Leibrook; Vic Moore is at the drums and George Johnson, sax.
The band has struck favor from the start. Out West they recorded for the Gennett disks, but although less than a week on Broadway, they have "dates" with a number of minor companies, with the Brunswick also interested.

           Bix played at the Cinderella Ballroom with the Wolverines until October 11, 1924, when he left to join -briefly, the first time- the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in Detroit, Michigan.

Adrian Rollini’s Orchestra at the Club New Yorker.

          Bix was with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra (for the second time) from May 1926 to September 1927. Although the band was very well regarded, financial considerations resulted in its dissolution. The last engagement of the band was on September 18, 1927 at Roseland –the site, one year earlier, of the battle of the century between the Jean Goldkette and Fletcher Henderson orchestras. Several of the Goldkette musicians -joined the great bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, who had secured an engagement at the Club New Yorker at 1600 Broadway beginning on September 22, 1927. The musicians in the band were Sylvester Ahola on trumpet, Bix on cornet, Bill Rank on trombone, Frank Trumbauer, Don Murray and Bobby Davis on reeds, Frank Signorelli on piano, Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone, Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Venuti on violin and Chauncey Morehouse on drums. Although this was a formidable group of jazz musicians, they did not attract enough of a clientele to the Club to make the engagement economically feasible. Prices were high (a deluxe dinner was $2.50 with a la carte prices even higher) and, according to trumpeter Sylvester Ahola, the clientele was limited because liquor was not served. The Club New Yorker closed its doors on October 22, 1927, exactly one month after it had opened. This date marked the last appearance of Bix at 1600 Broadway. 

    Although the engagement at the Club New Yorker had been a failure, Bix and Tram, and the other musicians in the band, recorded a number of excellent sides for Okeh under the names of Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra and Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang. October 5, 1927 marked the debut of the Gang with such seminal recordings as “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “Jazz Me Blues (this was the second time that Bix waxed the number).” Almost three weeks later, on October 25, 1927 –perhaps Bix’s most productive recording date- Bix and His Gang recorded three additional numbers (“Goose Pimples,” “Sorry,” and “Since My Best Gal Turned me Down”) and Bix and Tram managed to wax two sides (“Crying All Day” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”).  

The Plaque at 1600 Broadway.

    The idea of a plaque in honor of Bix at 1600 Broadway came to Bixophile Paul Hutcoe (then in New York City, now deceased) when he learned that a concert in commemoration of Bix's music was to be held in Carnegie Hall in April of 1975. Several of the surviving musicians who had played with Bix were going to be present at the concert. Paul thought that Bix's fellow musicians could be invited to the unveiling of a plaque. With jazz musicians of the caliber of Paul Mertz, Chauncey Morehouse, Bill Rank, and Spiegle Willcox, and arranger Bill Challis, Paul Hutcoe was confident that the event would have even more historical significance. Paul Hutcoe paid for half the cost of the plaque and received contributions from Bill Donahoe  - a member of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band and the man responsible for the establishment of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society in Davenport- and from several other Bixophiles. The plaque was unveiled on April 2, 1975. In addition to the musicians mentioned above, Virginia Horvath Morehouse, Chauncey’s wife, was present. Joe Venuti had been invited, but did not attend.

        The plaque remained on the front of the building for many years. However, a letter from a reader, F. Tauber, to the New York Daily News issue of July 11, 1987 alerted that "A few months ago, because of painting, a plaque commemorating Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke was removed from the entrance to the Screen Building at 1600 Broadway. The paint has long since dried. Where is the plaque?" Joe Giordano, Bixophile and record collector, tried to contact the building manager, but was unsuccessful. He decided then to organize a letter-writing campaign to have the plaque remounted. In an article in Jersey Jazz, Joe asked all readers to write to the manager of the building at 1600 Broadway and "demand that the plaque be put back." The campaign was successful, witness the fact that the plaque was remounted in 1987.

        The plaque remained on the building until about 1998 or 1999. Some work was done on the facade of the building at that time and the plaque was removed. A few years ago, I made some inquiries as to the fate of the plaque. I talked to the building manager: he remembered the plaque, but could not tell me what had happened to it.   

The plaque is no longer on the building at 1600 Broadway. Trying to recover it at this point has become a moot point. The building is scheduled for demolition. A landmark for New York City and a shrine for jazzophiles will be gone soon. History will receive another blow.

Acknowledgments. I am grateful to Joe Giordano for illuminating discussions. The photographs were provided through the courtesy of Joe Giordano, Frank Driggs, and Rob Roth.  

Captions for Images.

1.      1600 Broadway in the early 1900s.

2.      1600 Broadway in the early 1930s.

3.      Ripley’s Believe It Or Not at 1600 Broadway. 1939.

4.      1600 Broadway in November 2004.

5.      The Wolverine Orchestra at the Cinderella Ballroom. September 1924. Left to right: Dick Voynow, Bob Gillette, George Johnson, Min Leibrook, Vic Moore, Jimmy Hartwell, Bix Beiderbecke.

6.      Adrian Rollini’s New Yorkers at the Club New Yorker, September 1927. Left to right, seated: Sylvester Ahola, Bill Rank, Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Don Murray, Frank Signorelli; standing: Eddie Lang, Chauncey Morehouse, Adrian Rollini, Bobby Davis, Joe Venuti.

7.      Plaque at 1600 Broadway. Photographed by Jack Bradley in 1975. Given to Joe Giordano by Paul Hutcoe.

8.      Unveiling of the plaque at 1600 Broadway. From left to right: Bill Challis, Spiegle Willcox, Paul Mertz, Chauncey Morehouse, Paul Hutcoe, Bill Rank, Jeff Atherton and Virginia Horvath Morehouse. Photographed by Jack Bradley. July 1975.