Davenport Blues was the first
by Bix Beiderbecke to have been recorded. The historic event took place
in the Gennett Recording Studios of the Starr Piano Company, in
Indiana, on January 26, 1925. Bix wrote, late in December 1924,
E. C. A. Wickmeyer of the Starr Piano Co. to arrange a recording
After an exchange of letters, Bix and the contact man of the Starr
Company settled on Monday, January 26, 1925 as the date for the
The musicians in the group - Bix Beiderbecke and His Rhythm Jugglers - were: Bix (cornet), Don Murray (clarinet), Tommy Dorsey (trombone), Paul Mertz (piano), Tommy Gargano (drums), and Howdy Quicksell (banjo). Bix drove with Hoagy Carmichael from Indianapolis and the musicians were supposed to meet Bix at the Gennett studios. Howdy Quicksell did not make it until the afternoon and therefore did not participate in the first two recordings, Toddlin' Blues and Davenport Blues. All the musicians played in the last two recordings, Magic Blues and No One Knows What's It All About, but all takes of these two songs were destroyed. Murray, Dorsey, Mertz and Quicksell were members of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and we know their whereabouts following the Rhythm Jugglers session. Murray, Quicksell and Mertz continued working for the Jean Goldkette organization. Nothing is known about Tom Gargano, a freelance drummer from Detroit. Tommy Dorsey went to New York and joined the California Ramblers. Apparently, Tommy Dorsey was good friends with Doc Ryker. Rickey Bauchelle, Doc's daughter, has letters that Tommy Dorsey wrote to Doc Ryker. In a letter dated February 28, 1925, Tommy writes, among other topics, about the Gennett-Jugglers date: "I am sure surprised to hear that Bix is going with Charley Straight. I thought he was going back to school. I hope he dont forget I am living if he gets any royalty at all because that trip cost me sixty bucks, they told us in the Gennett place that the records would not be out for about two weeks yet."
Excerpt from Randy Sandke's "Bix Beiderbecke:
a Genius at Work", p. 10-12. To
read about this booklet, click here.
On January 26, 1925 Bix made his recording debut as a leader. This record would be issued under the name of Bix Beiderbecke and his Rhythm Jugglers. Bix's nonchalant attitude towards this date (and perhaps his career in general) is described by Hoagy Carmichael who was present at the session. According to him, the musicians proceeded to get drunk to the point that the last two tunes they recorded were deemed unacceptable for release. (To be fair, however, the Gennett file card mentions technical problems as well.)
Hoagy took photos of the session. These and a handful of others that show Bix in action (including the quick glimpse we get of him in Paul Mertz's home movies of the Goldkette band, and the recently discovered newsreel of Bix with Whiteman) all demonstrate an attitude towards playing that seems casual in the extreme. Most trumpet teachers advocate good posture to facilitate breath control, but Bix is always seen slouching, or sitting with legs crossed. The recommended way to finger a trumpet is with the fingertips straight over the valves, but Bix's are bent over in a lazy fashion. Dic Turner, a friend and admirer of Bix as well as an amateur trumpeter, said Bix played leaning over at the floor at about a 45 degree angle, and the photos bear this out.
This session will provide much evidence of Bix's divided attitude towards himself and his music. He is at the same time dead serious and insouciant to the point of negligence. Any good jazz player must find a balance between being focused and loose, but with Bix this conflict, combined with his drinking, would later develop into a insurmountable problem.
Nevertheless the session did provide us with the only example of a jazz tune of Bix's composition: "Davenport Blues". Although this tune has at times a "bluesy" feeling, it is again not a 12-bar blues.
The tune consists of a four bar introduction, a 16 bar verse followed by a 32 bar chorus, after which the the verse and chorus are repeated with a 2 bar extended ending. Two things are unusual about this piece. First of all, Bix uses the same melody for the verses, but both choruses have have different melodies (though nearly identical chords.) Only on the last refrain of the chorus do we hear the familiar melody which we identified as "Davenport Blues."
The second unusual feature of "Davenport Blues" is the way both choruses end in different chord progressions. In the first chorus Bix plays breaks over chords reminiscent of a similar spot in "Jazz Me Blues".
On the second chorus Don Murray plays the breaks on clarinet over a chord progression more like "Ostrich Walk." It is as if Bix couldn't decide which one he liked best. This indecision is mentioned by both Bill Challis and Esten Spurrier in regard to Bix's later piano pieces; Challis: "Each time he'd play a passage he'd think of some way to improve it," and Spurrier, "He said he'd compose three bridge passages but couldn't decide which one to use, and that I had to select the best."
Carmichael says that "Davenport Blues" was created on the spot. "Bix stated doodling on his horn. Finally he seemed to find a strain that suited him but by that time everybody had taken a hand in composing the melody... As far as I could see, they didn't have any worked out, or tune for that matter, but when the technician came in and gave the high sign, they took off." On the other hand, Paul Mertz, the pianist on the date, remembered Bix bringing a lead sheet. The arrangement does seem to be too involved for a pick up band to play from memory with little rehearsal, especially given their intoxicated state.
Although Bix is often identified with a penchant for the whole-tone scale, his break in the opening chorus is the only recorded example of him actually playing one (tough it's still one note shy of a full six-note whole tone scale.) Later on, though, his piano pieces would abound in progressions of augmented 9th and 11th chords which are derived from whole tone scales.
Since this is Bix's first date as a leader, it is interesting to consider his choice of sidemen and tunes. All the musicians in the band were drawn from Goldkette's working band (with the exception of Tom Gargano, a freelance drummer from Detroit, where the others were based). Bix's had a tendency to contract musicians he was currently working with for recording dates. Bix has been criticized for not going beyond his narrow circle to recruit musicians who were more on his level. Yet he undoubtedly felt comfortable in the presence of these comrades, and in Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray he found very able support. He developed a particularly close relationship[ to Don Murray, and Bix seems to be happiest and most relaxed in the photos of them together. Don Murray's premature death in 1929 would be a big personal blow for Bix.
Of the material that Bix chose to record in addition to "Davenport Blues," there was another tune written by La Rocca and Shields of the ODJB, called "Toddlin' Blues." The Gennett file card lists two additional tunes that were recorded but unreleased. The first was "Magic Blues." No composer is credited so it may have been another Beiderbecke original (or maybe the on-the-spot composition Hoagy Carmichael recalled) which perhaps could provided us with another rare glimpse of Bix playing a 12-bar blues. The other was a pop tune entitled "No One Knows What's It All About" written by Harry Woods. It had been recorded by the Memphis Five and the Varsity Eight in a version that features Adrian Rollini. Paul Mertz said that Bix's arrangement included "a tricky tempo change in the middle, and by now we were all pretty well lubricated and kept muffing the tempo change. We never really got it right."
What is interesting to me is that this session represents the only time Bix attempted to record a jazz tune of his own composition. There would be many opportunities to record more with Trumbauer or under his own name but he declined. This is especially puzzling given the many accounts of Bix sitting at the piano working on his own music. Laziness or lack of discipline don't explain Bix's disinterest in this area. I think it had more to do with Bix's ambivalent feelings toward jazz.
Davenport Blues is a number composed by Bix Beiderbecke
and recorded by him, with his Rhythm Jugglers, in 1926 (top photo).
With him were Don Murray on clarinet and Tommy Dorsey
on trombone. It is very badly recorded, pre-electric, muddy and
muffled. Only Bix’s cornet emerges with any clarity. Davenport Blues is
not a real blues. It is a jaunty, medium tempo number which in Bix’s
recording consist of 3 sections, each of 32 bars. The first section is
the verse; the melody here has a preliminary unfinished quality about
it as if leading to another more striking one. The second section
consists of a 16 bar variation on the verse theme, followed by a
reprise of the theme itself. The third section is the chorus, the most
distinctive, bitter sweet melody starting with two four note rising
arpeggios, then descending to “blue” Aflat and a trill, followed by a
repeat, a variation and a reprise. Bix’s cornet is tender and relaxed;
he plays very much “on the beat” giving it, to our ears, a rather
This archaic quality is even more apparent in the version recorded a year later by Red Nicholls. If Bix plays on the beat, Nicholls is nailed to it. It is however a much clearer electric recording and we get a true idea of Nicholls’s clipped cornet and Miff Mole’s effortful trombone. The tempo is similar to Bix’s recording. The order is reversed. The chorus is played first on cornet. The verse comes in with Mole’s trombone before reprise of the chorus on alto sax, piano and cornet in that order. It is well drilled and clean but to our ears, even more so than Bix’s, it is corny – on the beat, jerky and ragged.
Bunny Berigan, dubbed Bix’s successor in the 1930s by virtue of the lyrical quality of his playing, also recorded Davenport Blues with his own band in 1938. Rhythmically and musically this is more sophisticated. Sixteen bars of the verse from the band are followed by the chorus melody on Berigan’s trumpet, much better played and with more subtlety than either Bix or Nicholls. Berigan’s rather more Louis Armstrong like tone gives it more drama and depth.
Louis Armstrong, recently deceased, was the subject of a memorial concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in November 1971. On that night Davenport Blues was played as a duet by Alex Welsh (lower photo above) on cornet and Fred Hunt on piano. A CD of Alex Welsh’s contribution to the concert has been issued (but it is hard to get). This time it is slowed right down, concentrating solely on the chorus. Welsh’s entry after an opening piano flourish from Hunt is stately. The theme is played simply with some flourishes but never straying far from the melody. At this tempo the melody opens out, and seems more like a real blues than it is. Welsh’s cornet is clean; it has something of Bix’s bell like tone but with a burnished quality that gives it more warmth. Welsh plays the “blue” Csharps and Aflats with relish, leaning on and roughening them. He gives the melody weight, drama and pathos.
Hunt’s solo starts with broad sweeping arpeggios interrupted by a brief boogie passage. The florid right hand gives way to single note flurries, a section in double time with stride like piano towards the end. Then Welsh returns. He plays an inversion of the melody, with interpolations of real blues inflections before coming back to the melody and some double time interplay with Hunt’s piano. In the second sixteen bars he stays close to the melody, with grace notes over double time, then to the last four bars played simply and straight to a gentle close in slower time. At the end is Hunt's poignant reprise of the opening notes of the melody high up over Welsh’s long held final low note on cornet.
There are other versions of Davenport Blues. But there is no doubt that the version played by Alex Welsh and Fred Hunt at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 28 November 1971 in honour of Louis Armstrong is the finest ever recorded.