Both became legendary jazz horn players (with vastly different musical and personal styles), fast friends and ended up settling within four miles of each other in Queens, N.Y.
Bix – a Davenport native whose name adorns a beloved QC road race and jazz festival — and Louis – a New Orleans native who achieved much greater international fame – unfortunately didn’t both live in Queens simultaneously. Bix died in his first-floor apartment in Sunnyside Aug. 6, 1931 (at 28), and Armstrong lived in his Corona home from 1943 until his death July 6, 1971.
While the Louis Armstrong House Museum has been open for public tours since 2003, and there is a big new expansion going on across the street, the Bix apartment building is not a museum, and simply boasts a plaque on its exterior – from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, dated Aug. 6, 2003.
It’s in memory of Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (born March 10, 1903 in Davenport, Iowa), noting he was a “Pioneer Jazz Cornetist, Pianist & Composer” and “The Original Young Man With a Horn.”
Bix’s own birthplace and boyhood home is a dilapidated Victorian-era house at 1934 Grand Ave., Davenport, which is not open to the public. It has long been owned by the Italian filmmakers Pupi and Antonio Avati, who bought it for the making of their 1991 biopic, “Bix,” which was filmed in Davenport.
Liz Beiderbecke-Hart (granddaughter of Bix’s brother Burnie) wants to see the house repaired and restored to its original glory.
“Unfortunately, it has not been cared for and is in very bad shape,” Beiderbecke-Hart has said. “It needs a lot of renovation and repairs. So the effort started by Josh Duffee and now many others is music to my ears, so to speak, that something will eventually happen to the home, to bring it back to its original condition and for everyone to enjoy.”
The Victorian home – built around 1895 — has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, and the utilities (water and electricity) have been shut off for over a year, Duffee said. Pupi Avati directed the 1991 film, “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend,” partially shot at the house.
“The house is in a lot of disrepair,” Duffee (a busy QC drummer and bandleader) has said. “It’d be good of them to sell the house to somebody in the Quad-Cities, to maintain it and make sure it doesn’t get in such disrepair that it literally would have to be condemned, boarded up and torn down. We don’t want that to happen to Bix’s house.”
“I want to see this house saved and not just fall apart,” he said. “We should be proud we have it in Davenport.”
“Ideally, we all want to keep the home from being torn down like many other famous homes have been in recent years,” Nate Kraft, director of the Bix Beiderbecke Museum and World Archives at Davenport’s Common Chord (formerly River Music Experience) said recently. “It is a significant part of our local culture and history.
“As for a museum, it is one of many ideas that have been floated around as possible uses for the home if it can be renovated. At the very least, we hope it can become open for tours again as it once was in the past as even in its current state, it draws thousands to see it from all over the world,” he said.
“As of now, we can’t comment on the status of the Bix home,” Kraft said by e-mail. “We have been in contact with the Avati brothers and things are happening, but with any major project it takes time. We won’t have anything to share until the time comes to share news regarding it and we encourage anyone who is interested in hearing that news to contact the Bix Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll be added to a list of people who will receive information as soon as it’s available.”
James Beiderbecke, a member of Bix’s extended family and board member of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society, agreed the Grand Avenue home should be restored and opened like Armstrong’s House Museum is.
“I definitely think it would be nice to have Bix’s home restored to a better, more structurally stable state,” he said in a recent e-mail. “It would be neat to have the museum move some pieces into the house too.”
“We have done general yard work to help with the outdoor upkeep (primarily Steve Trainor, Nate Kraft, and I),” Beiderbecke said. “However, I think we are still weighing options for putting forth a concrete plan/fundraiser to save the house.”
Personal journey back in time
My recent trip to Queens (Sept. 8, 2022, part of a vacation out East to see family) was very meaningful in many ways. I had long wanted to return to see the Flushing brick row house where my maternal grandparents lived for decades before moving to Los Angeles over 30 years ago. My grandpa died in 1991 and my grandma left us in 2012.
It was strange being back there (the scene of so many happy memories), where there’s a day care now. (Fun fact — my mom went to junior high in Queens with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” mentions Corona).
I wanted to combine the visit to see the nearby brick Armstrong House (just five miles northwest), and Bix’s apartment, where he only lived for a few months.
Being a piano player forever and an arts writer for my career, I have been a longtime jazz fan (I can hardly improvise myself), and have often written about Bix since I’ve lived in the QC since 1995.
Armstrong’s mid-century style house (it was built in 1910) is lovingly frozen in amber, and unfortunately they don’t allow photos. See some Architectural Digest photos of the interior HERE. You can learn about the house and museum HERE.
Armstrong’s wife Lucille (a Cotton Club dancer) actually bought the home, and after Louis’ death, continued to live there on 107th Street in Corona, working to ensure that it became a National and New York Historic Landmark. It also was named a national landmark in 1977.
After Lucille’s passing in 1983, she willed the home and its contents to the city of New York, which designated the City University of New York, Queens College to shepherd the museum process. It took decades, but the archives became accessible in the ‘90s, and the historic house opened for public tours in 2003.
Across the street, a new $23-million new facility (under construction for five years, to open next spring) will broaden the public’s understanding of Armstrong’s life and legacy and complement the visitor experience with a state-of-the-art exhibition gallery, 68-seat jazz club, and museum store.
The center will also house the materials in the Louis Armstrong Archives —currently housed at Queens College, which administers the museum — in a cutting-edge second-floor archival center.
A brief, blazing life
Bix moved in June 1931 from his usual address in New York City, the 44th Street Hotel, to apartment 1G of a new building at 43-30 46th Street in Sunnyside, Queens. (He first moved to NYC in September 1927.) By August, the end was in sight, according to an online bio from Bix expert Albert Haim, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Bix had had a cold throughout the summer and was extremely weak. Finally, Bix’s body could not cope with years of excessive drinking and little nourishment. He died on Aug. 6, 1931 at 9:30 p.m., and was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, on Aug. 11, 1931.
“By all accounts, Bix was a kind, gentle, and generous man,” Haim wrote. “He was an individual of few words, introspective, and unconcerned by the superficial details and demands of daily routine. Music was the all-consuming focus of his life, the essence of his being; and in music, he wrought his everlasting legacy.”
The Bix Museum has the only piano Bix ever owned, bought just a month before his death. It is on long-term loan from Albert Haim.
Glennda Currence-Prebyl had a date with destiny in July 2013 on the Adler Theatre stage, when she was the first person to play Bix’s own piano in his hometown.
“That felt cool,” the keyboardist for River City Six said then, after serenading an empty theater with Bix’s composition, “Flashes,” on his four-foot, mahogany Wurlitzer baby grand. At the Adler, it was meticulously tuned by John Duda.
“When I was asked to be the first to play it, it took my breath away,” said Currence-Prebyl, who wore a ’20s-era, flapper-style, black-spangled dress for the occasion. “I was speechless. This musician I have studied for years? Bix’s piano? I was so honored and excited.”
It was later moved to the Bix Museum (at the lower level of Common Chord, 2nd and Main streets, Davenport), which opened to the public in summer 2017.
“Sunnyside, Queens was a quiet neighborhood compared to Times Square in New York City — which is what attracted Bix in the final months of his life as his health wasn’t getting better and he needed a change of scenery,” Kraft of the Bix Museum said. “It was also close enough for him to still take a train for gigs or recording sessions if needed. I would assume Armstrong felt the same when moving out there as well later in his life.”
Dan Martin is bassist and bandleader for The Creswell Club, which specializes in Dixieland jazz, and performed at the first two Heights of the Era festivals at Lindsay Park, Davenport, during Bix 7 weekend in 2021 and 2022. (See them play at this year’s fest, on July 29, HERE.)
“Sunnyside Gardens was planned in the 1920s, brick houses meant for working-class families,” said Martin, who lives in Sunnyside. Bix chose the bucolic neighborhood in 1931 for the same reasons other people did — to get away from hectic, crowded Manhattan, Martin said. “This is like, trees, and it’s quiet.”
“For musicians, this was much more affordable,” he said. “The whole music business was different by the time Pops (Armstrong) moved in. He was a worldwide celebrity. I’m sure people knew Bix Beiderbecke in parts of Europe, but Louis Armstrong was a world super-class rock star.”
Bix was well-known for being in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, when Whiteman was one of the biggest stars on the planet, Martin said. (Whiteman conducted the premiere of George Gershwin’s groundbreaking “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924.)
Charlie Caranicas, trumpeter for Creswell Club (who loves playing Bix tunes), was very impressed with the Davenport museum.
“It’s great; it is really well done,” he said, noting he had played years ago at the Bix jazz festival in Davenport.
“I know that Queens has been a magnet for great jazz musicians, since the early days,” Caranicas said. “It costs less to live here, and people know that other musicians live here.”
There is a map, the Queens Jazz Trail, which includes the homes of Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller and Tony Bennett, among many other jazz greats.
Relationship between Bix and Louis
Bix and Armstrong crossed paths several times throughout Bix’s lifetime and they considered each other friends, Kraft said. They were both playing and recording music in some of the biggest bands in Chicago, Detroit, and New York at the same time and would hang out in their free time when their touring or recording sessions overlapped.
“While this was in the 1920s, there was still segregation of white and black musicians so Bix and Louis never formally played together in a professional setting,” he said, “but there are stories of Bix taking friends to the Southside of Chicago after they finished playing to sit through Louis’ concert and after the club closed they’d all have jam sessions together, which Louis recalls being some of the best music he’s ever experienced.”
Bix and Louis considered each other to be the top horn player of their times and were very fond of each other. “Their appreciation for the music and being pioneers of improvisational soloing made them fast friends,” Kraft said.
“Armstrong’s admiration for Bix’s musicianship and overall disposition is shown even late into Armstrong’s life as Louis dedicated a chapter of his autobiography to Bix, which he only did for a select few musicians throughout his long career. In an interview late in Armstrong’s life, he remarked that many musicians tried to play like Bix, but “ain’t none of them play like him yet.”
This past July 31, a screening of the restored documentary with that title (BIX: “ain’t none of them play like him yet”) by Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman was shown at the Figge Art Museum.
While there are no letters or interviews from Bix telling his opinions of Armstrong, it is clear that from stories we have of the two together and the type of influences Bix took from New Orleans jazz musicians in his own playing — “it was clear Bix admired the playing of musicians like Armstrong and Jelly Roll,” Kraft said.
Louis played on riverboats that did excursions up and down the Mississippi River from St. Paul all the way to New Orleans, on boats owned by John Streckfus, who docked his ships in the Quad Cities. He was recruited for one of these ships by Fate Marable and would have done some excursions in Davenport, Kraft said.
Armstrong remembers first meeting Bix on one of these excursions between 1919-1921, as Bix often went on these riverboat excursions as a guest to listen to the music (later he did also perform briefly on these boats himself), but others believe they didn’t first meet until after Bix moved to Chicago to attend Lake Forest Academy, while Armstrong had settled in Chicago with King Oliver in 1922.
“I believe they are rumored (perhaps proven) to have jammed in late night ‘after hour’-type events,” James Beiderbecke said in a recent email. “In this regard, I think Bix cared more about the music than the color of one’s skin. Historically, it was common during this era to have segregation and prejudice still in place. I think it’s neat to hear about early musicians from different races mixing together to jam because they shared a love for the music.
“I believe Louis played on riverboat bands which docked in Davenport. Bix used to go down to the levee to hear the jazz music playing,” he said. “This no doubt had an impact on Bix and drove him to practice his craft more.”
Louis letter about Bix
One of the Bix Museum’s prized possessions is a letter that Armstrong wrote to Bix biographer Phil Evans, from Sept. 24th, 1954.
“Bix was really and truly a great man. He was the type of youngster I admired all the way,” Louis wrote from Las Vegas (courtesy of the Evans/Black Collection, Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archives). “No matter how good the solo was that he played, he wasn’t very much satisfied with it. And the audiences would be just raving like mad. He and I were very fond of each other.”
One night in Chicago, Bix was playing with Paul Whiteman at the Chicago Theatre, and Louis went backstage to see him, which he rarely did for bands. Bix came later that night to see Armstrong on the south side of Chicago, after customers left.
“We locked all the doors – my band stayed and Bix and his friends remained, and you talkin’ about a jam session that was priceless,” Armstrong wrote. “I’ve never heard such good music since. Bix had a way of expressing himself.
“His music would want to make you go right up to the bandstand, shake his hand and make yourself known,” Louis wrote. “He had a lot of admirers and in fact, that’s what mostly killed him. He wasn’t the type of lad who had his own strong mind.”
Louis death and Bix fest birth
Armstrong died at his Corona, N.Y., home on July 6, 1971, and exactly one month later, jazz buffs and musicians wearing “Bix Lives” buttons toasted the jazz immortal Bix Beiderbecke, with early morning champagne and the “Davenport Blues”—the song he wrote for his hometown—over his Oakdale Memorial Gardens grave in Davenport.
More than 1,500 people gathered before the simple head stone in the Beiderbecke family plot to honor the trumpeter and composer on the 40th anniversary of his death at age 28 on Aug. 6, 1931, The New York Times reported.
The catalyst for the formation of the Bix Society came that day, when Bill Donahoe’s Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Band of New Jersey came to Davenport to visit Bix’s boyhood home, sites where he’d played, and to pay musical tribute over his grave in Oakdale Memorial Park.
They also played a jam session at the then Davenport Holiday Inn. Hundreds overflowed the jam session site. Davenport musician Don O’Dette and others were so impressed with the turnout that they soon formed the non-profit Bix Society, with O’Dette as its first president. Today, the Bix Jazz Festival is known worldwide, and has attracted many celebrity performers and jazz buffs of all ages.
The Bix Society board believes the Bix Jazz Festival is the longest-running music fest in the Quad Cities area.
Each year, the festival draws thousands of fans from throughout the U.S., and even foreign countries where Bix is known and revered as a jazz legend.
Acclaimed music critic Terry Teachout (who produced a major biography of Armstrong in 2009, “Pops”) wrote of the pair in 2005:
“Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, the two most influential figures in the early history of jazz, emerged as major soloists on the same instrument (cornet) at the same time (early 1924). They were viewed with awe by their contemporaries, and their contrasting styles evolved over time into the twin lines of descent from which most of today’s jazz can be traced. In addition, they knew, liked, and admired each other: Armstrong dedicated his first book, Swing That Music, to Beiderbecke, describing him on a later occasion as a ‘born genius,’ and Beiderbecke is widely reported to have felt more or less the same way about his older colleague.
“Yet musicologists, while recognizing and acknowledging Beiderbecke’s enduring significance, have nonetheless been strangely reluctant to treat him in the same way they treat Armstrong,” Teachout said.
“Significantly, there is almost no monographic literature on Beiderbecke—none, that is, by academic scholars—and he goes entirely unmentioned in the key article on jazz in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. To be sure, he has been written about extensively, but for the most part by amateurs, journalistic critics, and working musicians.”
There are many reasons why scholars have paid more attention to Louis than Bix, including differences in personality (Louis was a colorful extrovert and Bix a insecure introvert) and their communication styles, Teachout wrote.
“Not only was Louis Armstrong a great musician, but he was also a gifted writer of prose who had a passion for self-revelation. In two published memoirs, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and hundreds of letters and other autobiographical documents, he gave free rein to his outgoing personality.”
Bix, by contrast, “was a shy, comparatively inarticulate man whose 44 surviving letters are for the most part unrevealing, and his friends and colleagues all claimed to find him hard to know on anything beyond a purely casual basis,” Teachout said.
“Their puzzlement was understandable enough. An alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 28, Beiderbecke shunned close personal relations of any kind: in the words of the cornetist Jimmy McPartland, “Bix was a mystery to us. We all knew him, admired him, thought he was a great guy. But, in a way, we didn’t know him at all.”
“When I was growing up, I was really into Bix and Louis,” Caranicas (the Creswell Club trumpeter) said on Sept. 8. “It was really odd, at our age group, to be into this music. The consensus among jazz students was, bebop was the thing – Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, great masters and founders of the music. Anything before that wasn’t to be taken seriously.”
To hear Caranicas and two of his bandmates play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” (which Bix recorded in 1924), at Bix’s Sunnyside building, click below.
“People actually told me, what are you wasting your time with that music?” he recalled.
Caranicas said that Bix’s tone was more mellow and lyrical, and Louis was more showy and “powerhouse.” “Both, to me, were extremely melodic,” he said. One of the most famous melodies was made a classic by Armstrong — who (unlike Bix and most all jazz players) was a popular singer, with his iconic gravelly, raspy voice.
One of his biggest hits,1968’s “What a Wonderful World,” was penned by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, and achieved bigger American fame in the 1987 soundtrack to the film, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” The first verse is affixed to a plaque on the side of the Armstrong House Museum (“I see trees of green/Red roses too/I see them bloom, for me and you/And I think to myself, what a wonderful world”).
“Some of you young folks been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops, what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful? And how about hunger, and pollution, they ain’t so wonderful either’.
“But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it.
“And all I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret.
“If lots more people loved each other we’d solve lots more problems, and then this world would be… that’s what’s old Pops keeps saying.”
Bix Museum hours
The Bix Museum is open (on the lower level at 129 Main St., Davenport) weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Due to office staffing changes at Common Chord, the museum may not be staffed before 12 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. If you are considering a visit before noon on those days, call or email ahead at (563) 293-4046 or email@example.com.
Treasured recordings (which play continuously in the museum) keep alive Bix’s unique tone, melodic style, lyrical phrasing and heart-stopping improvisations. The illuminating museum – filled with photos, videos, recordings, instruments and other artifacts — is a must-see for jazz and history lovers. Visitors will learn of his brief but eventful life at the dawn of the 20th century, view rare films and listen to his incomparable music.
Admission is free to the museum and exhibits are self-guided. However, the Bix Museum does offer small group or individual guided tours upon request, especially on select Saturdays. Please contact Nate Kraft at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a tour today.
For more information on the Bix Society, click HERE.