Brendan Wolfe's "Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend" will be released May 15, 2017. (Photo courtesy Brendan Wolfe/University of Iowa Press)
It was a deep interest in music history, a hometown connection and a scathing letter that drove author Brendan Wolfe to write “Finding Bix: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend” (University of Iowa Press), due to be released May 15. Wolfe, like Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornet player and pianist at the center of his book, hails from Iowa. He currently lives in Charlottesville and is also managing editor of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ digital historical resource, Encyclopedia Virginia. Wolfe recently appeared on the University of Virginia's WTJU radio as part of the station’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of recorded jazz. May 27, Wolfe will give a reading at Chop Suey Books at 7 p.m.
Richmond magazine: How did you come across Bix Beiderbecke? When and how did you get the idea to write a book capturing his life?
Brendan Wolfe: Bix Beiderbecke was born in my hometown of Davenport, Iowa. ... His name and his image were everywhere, but to me the interesting thing was that his music was nowhere. ... It really started after I wrote a story about the reissuing of a book about Bix’s life for an alternative newspaper I was editing. A week or two later, I got a letter in the mail, and the return address was Bix Beiderbecke. It was this really angry letter saying that I had got all the facts wrong ... and the letter was written by Bix’s nephew. So that sort of set me on the trail to figure out what the right facts about Bix are, and why he is someone that people would get angry about.
RM: How would you describe the importance of Bix in the history of jazz music? What has his legacy been?
Wolfe: Bix is important in a couple of ways. In a purely musical way ... he was one of the most influential players of the [1920s], in terms of having a huge impact on people who were really important [to the art form]. He was good friends with Hoagie Carmichael, who became one of the most important songwriters of the middle of the 20th century, and I don't think there is a Hoagie Carmichael, the guy who wrote "Georgia on My Mind," without Bix Beiderbecke influencing him. ... [Beiderbecke is] also important in the sense that he was a white player, and he was one of the first really influential white players in jazz. One of the first people that black players, who were the originators of jazz, kind of looked to as an innovator and a peer.
RM: For this book, you had to do deep research on a figure who is not very well-known and doesn’t have extensive information readily available. Tell me about that experience.
Wolfe: What’s maybe a little different about my book is that I didn't see it as a straight biography. There are not a ton of books about Bix, but the ones that exist have documented his life extensively. ... For me, the interest was not so much in doing that, but in almost telling a meta story. I was interested in the way people talked and argued about Bix, and the way his story has been told over time. I took these half dozen books that were written about [him] and kind of threaded their narratives together, and combined that with my own experience and going out and talking to people.
RM: As an author, what are your hopes for the book, and what do you think is next for you?
Wolfe: My hope for the book is that it brings Bix Beiderbecke to a wider audience, but I also hope that it's interesting to people whose inclination might be to ask “Bix who?” I was interested in situating Bix in larger stories about race, addiction, commercialism in art, and sexuality. ... I think Bix becomes a model for a lot of these arguments that we continue to have in our culture. As for what’s next for me, I am working on a new book that is more Virginia history-centered. I’m definitely busy on the next thing.