Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 144 - Bix Beiderbecke’s Grueling Tour
Story filed March 10, 2014
If you think touring with a nationally-famous band sounds exciting and fun, try this on for size:
Playing an almost continuous parade of 82 concerts in 66 cities in 71 days, with only one day off until the tour was almost completed. The long tour was clearly too much for one of the all-time jazz giants, Bix Beiderbecke.
It was the 1928 Fall Tour of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, then the most popular orchestra in the country. Many new details of the tour come from recently-discovered itinerary documents that were saved by band member Frank Trumbauer. The routine was grueling and repetitious: Get up in the morning, check out of a hotel, go to the local train station, catch a train to the next city, play one or two concerts, sleep in another hotel, and then do it all again.
The big Whiteman Orchestra included singer Bing Crosby and such now-legendary musicians as saxophonist Trumbauer, trombonist and arranger Bill Rank, and cornetist Beiderbecke. The tour began at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with composer Sergey Rachmaninoff in the audience. During the concert, the orchestra played "Rhapsody in Blue" and Beiderbecke played his piano solo composition "In a Mist." The next morning, the full Whiteman company boarded a train and started the exhausting tour by traveling to Norfolk, Virginia, for a concert that night at the Wells Theatre.
Here is the torturous schedule:
As the tour began, Beiderbecke, with the help of his close friend Trumbauer, was making a serious effort to end his drinking problem. But the tour was too grueling and he quickly became frustrated and bored with the monotony of the tour’s constant travel. He again began drinking heavily.
On Friday, November 30th, seven weeks and 54 cities after starting the tour, the Whiteman troupe boarded another train in Charleston, West Virginia, and came to Cleveland. After checking into the Hotel Cleveland on Public Square, they went to the then-new Music Hall, the 32-hundred seat theatre in the Public Auditorium building at East 6th and St. Clair to perform their 68th concert in 55 days!
CLEVELAND MUSIC HALL
Thomas King, in his book "Pops: Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz," quoted fellow trumpeter Charles Margulis saying, "Bix had too much to drink before the concert, and he ended up passing out as we were playing. He was seated on my right and I am normally left-handed, so I was able to play the trumpet with my left hand and hold him upright with my right." He said Bix snapped out of it for a moment but still wasn’t sure where he was. Whiteman saw what was happening and immediately had Beiderbecke sent back to the Hotel Cleveland.
When the band returned to the hotel, they found Bix in his room trembling and delirious, with his face and body streaming with sweat. Whiteman had the hotel call a doctor.
The next morning, when the band boarded an 8:30 train for Columbus, Bix stayed in Cleveland. The band played Saturday afternoon and evening concerts at Memorial Hall on East Broad Street in Columbus and took a Sunday morning train to Cincinnati. Trumbauer wrote in his diary, "Bix still gone. Stayed in Cleveland with DTs." As the band continued touring to Detroit, Toronto, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and other cities, Beiderbecke checked into a New York hospital.
While there is still some dispute among Beiderbecke historians, Bix apparently returned to the Whiteman Orchestra in time for another trip to Cleveland two months later to play four shows a day for a week at the big Palace Theatre at East 17th and Euclid beginning January 20th, 1929. The band played between showings of an early sound film called "Me, Gangster" with actress Carole Lombard. This time, biographers Phillip Evans and Richard Sudhalter quoted other band members who all recalled a distinctly different chain of events. They said Bix never showed up at the Palace Theatre. When other band members finished playing that night and returned to the Hotel Cleveland, they discovered Bix had broken up the furniture in his room. Bill Rank said, "He cracked up." Pianist Roy Bargy called it "a major breakdown."
After this apparent second breakdown in Cleveland, Whiteman immediately sent Beiderbecke home to Davenport, Iowa. The Cleveland Press reported briefly in its January 21 edition that one of Whiteman’s "best musicians is absent" but said Whiteman hoped to have him back by the first week of February.
Bix did not return to the Whiteman Orchestra until March and was clearly not playing as well as he had before the Cleveland break-downs. More than a year later, in May of 1929, there was another performance by Beiderbecke and the Whiteman Orchestra in Cleveland, at radio station WHK, but Bix was on a downward spiral that would end with his death in August of 1931 at the age of 28.
Here is the only known video of Bix Beiderbecke playing with the Whiteman Orchestra:
Key events in the Bix Beiderbecke tragedy took place in Cleveland near the end of what we now know was a grueling 66-city, 82-concert tour.
Copyright 2014 Joe Mosbrook
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