A Poem for Bix (and Some Notes on New Orleans)

Oct 5, 2012

More beignets, waiter --- and more gumbo, please --- at this table. On the next All This Jazz, on Saturday the 6th, our second-hour theme will be "New Orleans."

If the Fertile Crescent was the so-called "cradle of civilization," then the Crescent City, as so many of us know already, was the cradle of jazz music. In the latter half of our 10/6/12 show, which begins at 10pm on KWGS-FM 89.5-1, we'll hear from such masterful New Orleans musicians as Louis Amstrong, Allen Toussaint, Wynton Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Henry Butler, and more.

Also, on a related topic, here's a great poem that I thought about the other day (quite out of the blue --- or would that be 'blues'?) when corresponding with a friend and fellow jazz-nut. This was written by the contemporary American poet and essayist Dana Gioia, who's written some fine books over the years and was the head of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 until 2009. (His brother is the noted jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia, by the way.)

It's a poem about a guy from Iowa who, as a young man circa 1920, used to sit on the downtown docks of his hometown and listen to the music that floated, late into the evening, from the New Orleans-based riverboats that were inching along the nearby Mississippi. The guy (pictured above) just never got over that music; he would become, in his short life, one its legendary practitioners.

"Bix Biederbeck (1903-1931)"

China boy. Lazy Daddy. Cryin' All Day.
He dreamed he played the notes so slowly that
they hovered in the air above the crowd
and shimmered like a neon sign. But no,
the club stayed dark, trays clattered in the kitchen,
people drank and went on talking. He watched
the smoke drift from a woman's cigarette
and slowly circle up across the room
until the ceiling fan blades chopped it up.
A face, a young girl's face, looked up at him,
the stupid face of small-town innocence.
He smiled her way and wondered who she was.
He looked again and saw the face was his.

He woke up then. His head still hurt from drinking,
Jimmy was driving. Tram was still asleep.
Where were they anyway? Near Davenport?
There was no distance in these open fields ---
only time, time marked by a farmhouse
or a barn, a tin-topped silo or a tree,
some momentary silhouette against
the endless, empty fields of snow.
He lit a cigarette and closed his eyes.
The best years of his life! The Boring Twenties.
He watched the morning break across the snow.
Would heaven be as white as Iowa?

       --- by Dana Gioia, from "Daily Horoscope," Graywolf Press, 1986.

(Postscript: There have also been many songs written over the years in tribute to Beiderbecke. One brilliant example would be "Dear Bix," penned by the outstanding jazz pianist/singer/songwriter Dave Frishberg. More on that wonderful tune, and on many other Bix-related compositions and recordings, can be found here.)