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Columnist
Mix with Bix and all that jazz
By Mike Michaelson | Midwest Travel

During the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, Dixieland music washes over the crowd in LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport, Iowa.

 

The festival is Iowa's top tourist attraction, drawing more than 30,000 people who come to hear jazz and run in the Bix 7 road race.

 

Fans gather for a musical tribute to Bix Beiderbecke at his gravesite in Oakdale Cemetery, a tradition that dates back to the first tribute in 1971.

 

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Published: 5/17/2008 8:43 PM

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Hollywood, Calif., didn't get it right. Davenport, Iowa, did. And legions of jazz lovers and flocks of tourists are glad of it.

The 1950 movie "Young Man With a Horn" is said to be "loosely" based on the life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke. That qualifier is appropriate. The film traces the career of gifted cornet player "Rick Martin" (Kirk Douglas), his battle with alcoholism and his relationships with two disparate women, a wholesome band singer (Doris Day) and a moody intellectual (Lauren Bacall).

The movie doesn't mention Davenport, where Bix grew up, and also pastes on a sunny ending. The real-life Bix Beiderbecke died of alcoholism in 1931 at age 28.

But it's easy to understand Hollywood's attraction. It was in the Roaring '20s that this talented jazz cornet player, pianist and composer exploded upon the music scene. His career, though short, was meteoric. In fact, the legendary musician continues to astound music lovers with his clarity of tone, musical imagination and complex piano pieces. Louis Armstrong perhaps said it best: "Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain't none of them play like him yet."

The last phrase of this comment -- "Ain't none of them play like him yet" -- became the title of a well-regarded documentary about the jazzman. Although it has become increasingly difficult to unearth a copy, it is well worth the search, notes Ray Voss, president of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society. "It's accurate and well done."

Meanwhile, Bix lives on at the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, now in its 37th year. Sponsored by the nonprofit memorial society, the festival has a reputation for attracting stellar jazz bands and individual performers from around the United States and beyond.

This year, Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys arrive from the U.K. and the New Wolverine Jazz Orchestra travels from Australia. American performers include Randy Sandke's New York All-Stars (New York), Davy Jones and his Dixieland All Stars (Florida), High Sierra Jazz Band (California), Jean Kittrell & the St. Louis Rivermen (Missouri), Wally's Warehouse Waifs (Michigan) and West End Jazz Band (Chicago). Returning as performer and seminar leader is Dick Hyman, one of the world's great jazz piano players (and musical director for Woody Allen's movies).

While this year's festival is scheduled for July 24-27, it is prudent to make reservations early for an event named as Iowa's No. 1 tourism attraction that draws more than 30,000 jazz aficionados. Shuttle buses serve the various venues.

It is the venues as well as the talented performers that provide vitality and authenticity. The grand old Col Ballroom, where Beiderbecke often played, is a grandly preserved survivor of the dance palaces of the early 1900s. Many fans sport "Bix Lives" T-shirts, while a few get into the mood by donning period outfits that might include black bow ties, flapper skirts and boas.

Simply listening to the foot-tapping music is a sheer joy, with fans ready to shush anyone talking while bands play. Others are unable to resist an impromptu turn around the huge dance floor as a glass globe revolving overhead sprinkles its prismatic light.

Danceland Ballroom is another restoration where Beiderbecke's golden cornet once bounced perfect notes off massive overhead beams. It is where the large and hugely popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra -- with whom Bix had his best-paying gig -- squeezed onto the small stage.

On a pretty summer evening, a popular outdoor venue is the grassy setting of the LeClaire Park Bandshell alongside the Mississippi River. It's a magical place to listen to jazz, especially at night, when fireflies flicker and strident towboat whistles echo across the water. Spread a blanket under the stars or settle into comfortable, theater-style seating. Food and beverages are available and a big tent offers souvenirs, CDs of festival bands and a range of music collectibles.

On Saturday morning, festival attendees gather at Oakdale Cemetery for a gravesite salute to Bix. That might seem like a somber venue for jazz, but on a bright morning with sunshine streaming cheerfully through leafy trees, the prospect of summery-dressed fans listening to live music somehow creates an upbeat image.

Also on Saturday are two jazz liturgies -- moving musical services featuring a festival band and 70-voice church choir -- at the First Presbyterian Church where Bix and his family worshipped.

There is no fat lady to sing, but the festival isn't over until "Afterglow" plays out on Sunday evening. It often turns into a lively jam session, well worth spending an extra night.

Immerse yourself in the lore and legend surrounding Beiderbecke on the Bix CD Driving tour. It takes you to his boyhood home, his grandparents' house, the places he played and his burial site.

As for "Young Man With a Horn," while the Hollywood film reveals nothing about Bix, it does feature talented jazzman and composer Hoagy Carmichael -- as narrator and friend of "Rick" (for whom Harry James supplied the dubbed trumpet-playing). Hoagy, who sits at the piano with the inevitable cigarette dangling from his lips (his movie character is named "Smoke") and fedora jammed on the back of his head, counted Bix as a friend. The movie is a bit confusing, but entertaining enough (and skillfully directed by Michael Curtiz, of "Casablanca" fame). It does help viewers appreciate the passion and perfectionism that jazz musicians bring to their music.

If you go

Information: Quad Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 747-7800, www.visitquadcities.com; Illinois Tourism, (800) 226-6632, www.enjoyillinois.com.

Mileage: The Quad Cities region is about 165 miles west of Chicago.

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."