Jimmy Harper, one of the main characters in my trilogy Medicine for the Blues, is a musician, and blues and jazz are a big part of his life. As I began studying the 1920s, one of the first books on music of that period that crossed my radar was Hoagy Carmichael’s The Stardust Road, a nostalgic look back at his college years, early 1920s at Indiana U, and his friendship with Bix Beiderbecke and others. Then I ran across Eddie Condon’s jive talking We Called It Music, which contains the famous description of Bix’s cornet playing: “The sound came out like a girl saying yes.” Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe took the jive talking to another level. I’ve read that this book had a big influence on Jack Kerouac and the beat writers of the 50s. Mezzrow counted Bix as a special friend, mainly because of their jazz connection. He writes, “I never heard a tone like he got before or since.” And later, “He knows where to put the ‘Amens.’”
Then to top it off is Ralph Berton’s Remembering Bix, A memoir of the Jazz Age. It is told from the perspective of a precocious 13-year-old Ralph who unabashedly tells about his oldest brother Vic, a brilliant jazz percussionist, and his other brother Gene, a classical pianist and a homosexual. The book is a tribute of high praise to Bix, who Ralph idolizes, but Ralph is also a keen observer who has a fine ear for the music that is the milieux in which Bix lives.
Bix was not only a musician of extraordinary talent, but a fascinating and somewhat mysterious character. Each of these books gives a portrait of him from a different angle. These and other books (see the Bibliography tab on my website) served as background and inspiration for my story and for the character of Jimmy Harper, the jazz piano player at the heart of the novels.
But recordings from the 1920s added enormously to my feel for and understanding of this period. I maintain that music is one of our best time machines to transport us back to another era. The music and the lyrics capture much that memoir and history cannot tell us.
I invite you to visit this YouTube video if you have never heard Bix Beiderbecke. “Jazz Me Blues” (1924) is one of my favorite Bix recordings from this era.
The Wolverine Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke – Jazz Me Blues (1924)
P.S. Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans wrote the definitive biography of Bix Beiderbecke, Bix: Man and Legend, 1974. I haven’t gotten around to reading this one yet. So many books…
Read more about Pacific Northwest history in my novel Acquaintance. Buy the book HERE.