Oct 18, 2012

Bix Beiderbecke: First Gay Jazz Musician

If you grew up in the Quad Cities, you couldn't help but hear about Davenport, Iowa native Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931).  We listened to him in music class, and researched him in Mr. Manary's American history class.  Scott, the cornetist who died, was a fan.

There was a  Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival every year.  There was a bust of him in Leclair Park in Davenport. (My Grandma Davis wasn't from Rock Island, but she had some of his records.)

 But no one told us, or know one knew, that he was gay.

Beiderbecke was one of the pioneers of jazz, playing and composing for the cornet and piano. He performed with the legendary Paul Whiteman's Band in New York. He influenced Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, and the "cool jazz" of the 1950s.  But he had a tortured personal life, became an alcoholic, and died of pneumonia brought on by exhaustion in 1931, only 28 years old.




His first biographies, and the teachers in Rock Island, never suggested for a moment that he might be gay.  

But in Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age (2000), Ralph Berton writes that his brother Eugene, a gay opera singer, took Bix  to a gay sex party in 1920s New York.  Bix kept exclaiming "Iowa has nothing like this!"

In Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend (2005), by Jean-Pierre Lion, Eugene and Bix have a brief romantic escapade.  But, Eugene complains, "It meant absolutely nothing to him. His attitude toward sex, with men or women, was 'What the hell?'"




What women?  His biographies try to pair him up with this or that woman, but with limited success and lots of conjecture.  But it's not hard to find Bix talking to men, working with men, spending his life with men.  His roommates include Eddie Lang,  a young Bing Crosby, and gay musician Jimmy McPartland (left, with his future wife Marian, who knew that he was gay and didn't care).

Of course, the "accusation" has some jazz fans up in arms.  Even more than country-western music, the world of jazz is known for its homophobia.  There have been some lesbian jazz singers, but very, very few gay men, and even fewer open gay men, especially in instrumental "pure" jazz, where macho men in smoky rooms refer to non-aggressive musical styles as "faggy."


 "I don't even know one jazz musician who is [gay]," Dizzy Gillespie said.

I know one.