‘Bix’ Review: A Jazz Legend Fondly Remembered

Although this iteration of this 1981 documentary is a restoration, one ought not go to see “Bix: ‘Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet’” expecting a shiny cinematographic object. The movie looks like a 40-year-old mix of talking-head and archival footage. What makes it extraordinary is the story it tells of an uncanny musician and his beautiful playing and songs.

Born in 1903, Bix Beiderbecke didn’t live to be 30, but he made an impression on jazz that is still felt today. He was raised in Davenport, Iowa, in a strait-laced German American household. A child prodigy, Beiderbecke first fell in love with jazz via the frenetically bouncy tune “Tiger Rag.” But he was also devoted to the work of Debussy and Ravel, and he brought their dreamy impressionism to his music. That influence persisted in jazz for decades. (It’s said that before recording “Kind of Blue” in 1959, Miles Davis and the pianist and composer Bill Evans did some serious listening to a rendition of Ravel’s Piano Concerto.)

Among the luminaries contributing reminiscences are Hoagy Carmichael, Artie Shaw and Doc Cheatham. Louis Armstrong, in an audio recording, coins the phrase that gives the movie its subtitle. That the director, Brigitte Berman, doesn’t give more weight to the racial segregation that defined the jazz milieu of the 1920s speaks to a blind spot that was all too present when she made the picture. But the film does cite Beiderbecke’s devotion to Bessie Smith, as well as his playing in integrated jam sessions.

The accounts of Beiderbecke’s tremendous ear — a protean soloist on the cornet, he composed on piano — and shyness are moving. The exhaustion and tedium of life on the road got Beiderbecke tripped up by alcoholism, which led to other health problems. Conventional wisdom in some circles considers the existence of a gigging musician to be somehow leisurely; this movie painstakingly lays out the way it can be practically deadly.

Bix: ‘Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet’
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.

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