Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 111 - Bix Beiderbecke in Cleveland
Story filed December 19, 2006

Barbara Arndt of Rocky River is trying to uncover some local information about the performances of jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke in Greater Cleveland. Some of the information is still mysterious and confusing to jazz historians 75 years after Beiderbecke’s death.

Beiderbecke was the 1920s jazz cornetist and pianist whose clarion tone and revolutionary easy-swinging musical figures influenced generations of jazz musicians.

Arndt has more than a collector’s or historian’s interest in Beiderbecke. She has a family connection. Her late husband, Fred Arndt, was Bix’s first cousin. Before his death in 1993, Fred amassed a large collection of Beiderbecke recordings, many of which he found in second hand shops. Her interest in her husband’s cousin was heightened when she attended the 2006 Bix Beiderbecke Festival in the musician’s hometown, Davenport, Iowa.

Despite the long-running festival, many musicians and historians have felt the city of Davenport has not done enough to honor one of its most important natives. But now, Arndt says another Beiderbecke relative, Howard Braren, a professional fund-raiser, is spearheading an effort to establish a Bix Beiderbecke museum and archive in Davenport and has interested a number of influential jazz historians in the project. They include record producer George Avakian, author and photographer Frank Driggs, Rutgers Jazz Studies Director Dan Morganstern, Tulane Jazz Archivist Bruce Raeburn, jazz photographer Duncan Schied, and cornetist and Beiderbecke biographer Richard Sudhalter. They are all putting their considerable influence in jazz history behind the effort to establish a fitting Beiderbecke memorial in his hometown. They hope to open a Bix Beiderbecke Hall at Davenport’s Putnam Museum.

"There is going to be a huge display," says Arndt, "something like you see in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here."

As a resident of Northeast Ohio, Arndt wants to dig up and contribute information about Beiderbecke’s performances here. I have already given her copies of old Cleveland newspaper articles I found and they are being added to the archives in Davenport. But she is particularly interested in the ongoing dispute among jazz historians about how many disastrous alcoholic breakdowns Beiderbecke suffered in Cleveland.

In their 1974 book, Bix, Man and Legend, biographers Philip Evans and Sudhalter wrote that Beiderbecke suffered a major breakdown January 20, 1929 when he came to Cleveland with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. They said other members of the orchestra were shocked when Bix failed to show up at the Palace Theatre on Euclid Avenue for the opening performance. After the concert, they returned to the Hotel Cleveland (now the Renaissance) on Public Square and discovered Beiderbecke had wrecked his room. The biographers quoted trombonist Bill Rank saying, "He cracked up, just went to pieces." The next day Cleveland Press reviewer George Davis reported one of Whiteman’s "best musicians (Bix) is absent." On January 25, the Press said, "Beiderbecke is recovering from an illness at his home in Davenport, Ia." and Whiteman hopes to have his star hot cornet player back by February 5.

Then, in a 1983 book, Pops: Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz, author Thomas King wrote, "In Cleveland, Bix suffered a devastating mental and physical breakdown" in November of 1928 (two months earlier). King described a totally different breakdown, not in a room of the Hotel Cleveland, but on stage at the Cleveland Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair. King quoted fellow trumpeter Charles Margulis saying, Bix "passed out as we were playing." The diary of another band member, Frank Trumbauer, noted on December 2, 1928, "Bix still gone. Stayed in Cleveland with DTs."

Then in a 1994 book, Tram, the Frank Trumbauer Story, Evans completely ignored his earlier report of a January 1929 breakdown in Cleveland and said there was a breakdown in Cleveland on November 30, 1928. Evans wrote, "The band left him behind in a hospital."

And in his 1998 book, The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story, Evans, who has since died, wrote, "Bix had a first breakdown in his hotel room on November 30, 1928."

The most recent Beiderbecke biography, Bix: the Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, by French writer Jean Pierre Lion, offers no additional hard information but theorizes that Beiderbecke did not even come to Cleveland with the Whiteman Orchestra in January of 1929.

So, was there one Beiderbecke breakdown in Cleveland or two? It is certainly possible that Evans found some additional information after his first report of a January 1929 breakdown, but it is puzzling that the descriptions of the two breakdowns were completely different.

Many of us have attempted, with no success, to get information from the Cleveland hotel and Cleveland hospitals.

Barbara Arndt of Rocky River, whose late husband was Beiderbecke’s cousin, is hoping she can clear up the mystery. She is also searching for memorabilia from Beiderbecke performances in Northeast Ohio to include in the new Davenport archives and museum.

Copyright 2006 Joe Mosbrook

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