And from Baseball Back to Jazz Again

Published:May 8, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


As noted previously, Alfred Appel Jr. has died, and Appel wrote a book about jazz in which he mentioned the baseball player Van Lingo Mungo, whose name was so cool that the jazz musician Dave Frishberg wrote a song about it—a song whose lyrics consisted of only the names of baseball players. Frishberg also wrote a song about the early jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke (“Dear Bix,” 1977), and Hayden Carruth (sadly, also recently deceased) wrote a poem that also consisted only of names—in this case, the names of jazz musicians, including Bix Beiderbecke.

Names, as these artists surely understand, carry inside of them some kind of magic. In my book-in-progress about Bix, I riff on that . . .

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning, I think, that Bix’s name matters in a way that perhaps others’ don’t. The poet Hayden Carruth dubbed “Bix Beiderbecke” one of “The Fantastic Names of Jazz,” wedging it right between Stuff Smith and Bunny Berigan. And on February 18, 1995, Bix’s name was the subject of a “Family Circus” cartoon, wherein Dolly holds up a Beiderbecke vinyl and remarks to her brother Billy, “Daddy’s listening to an old trumpet player named Big Spider Back.” Not exactly sidesplitting, but it caused me to wonder a) whether any of the cartoon’s readers under sixty had any idea who this Bix fellow was; and b) whether Bix would still be Bix were he not, in fact, named “Bix” and “Beiderbecke.” Certainly these difficult and slightly ridiculous four syllables are central to the mystique. They’re “mouth music,” as Donald Hall might put it—alliterative, abrupt, declamatory. That Saxon-y cross-like x sounds so pleasingly foreign; it’s a romantic legend all by itself. And if the clipped-ness of –becke rehearses a kind of sudden death, then the sibilance of x—kssssss—and the way it seems to echo across the peaks and valleys of “Beiderbecke,” rehearses immortality. Mezz Mezzrow was really Milton; Stuff Smith was Hezekiah, Leroy, and Gordon; Bunny Berigan merely Rowland. Bix Beiderbecke, though, for what it’s worth, and with all due respect to Rich Johnson, was really Bix.

Thinking of Carruth again—and his name was nothing to sneeze at!—here is a roundup of his four decades’ worth of work in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

IMAGE: Bix Beiderbecke (that’s him with the cornet) and the Wolverines; February 18, 1924