One of the leading names in 1920s jazz, Beiderbecke's career was cut short by chronic poor health, exacerbated by alcoholism. Critic Scott Yanow describes Beiderbecke as the "possessor of a beautiful, distinctive tone and a strikingly original improvising style. Beiderbecke's chief competitor among cornetists in the '20s was Louis Armstrong, but (due to their different sounds and styles) one really could not compare them." Bix Beiderbecke recorded many jazz standards during his career in the 1920s and early 1930s, including "Riverboat Shuffle", "Copenhagen", "Davenport Blues", "Singin' the Blues", "In a Mist", "Mississippi Mud", "I'm Coming, Virginia", and "Georgia On My Mind".
Bix Beiderbecke was one of the great jazz musicians of the 1920s, the Jazz Age. Beiderbecke first recorded with the Wolverine Orchestra in 1924. The ensemble was casually called the Wolverines, named for "Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton, a tune that they played often. The group recorded the jazz standards "Riverboat Shuffle", written for the band by Hoagy Carmichael, and "Copenhagen", written by Charlie Davis. Jazz composer and pianist Hoagy Carmichael had booked their appearance at Indiana University in 1924.
Bix Beiderbecke became a sought-after musician in Chicago and New York City. He made innovative and influential recordings with Frankie Trumbauer ("Tram") and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. In 1927, he played cornet on the landmark Okeh recording "Singin' the Blues", with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone and Eddie Lang on guitar, one of the most important and influential jazz recordings of the 1920s. The orchestra on that session also included Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, Miff Mole on trombone, Chauncey Morehouse on drums, and Paul Madeira Mertz on piano. When the Goldkette Orchestra disbanded after their last recording ("Clementine (From New Orleans)"), released as Victor 20994, in September 1927, Bix and Trumbauer, a 'C' melody and alto saxophone player, briefly joined Adrian Rollini's band at the Club New Yorker, New York. Beiderbecke then moved on to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular and highest paid band of the day. Although some historians have derided Whiteman and lamented Beiderbecke's tenure with the large orchestra, historian Dick Sudhalter, in his book Lost Chords, asserts: "Colleagues have testified that, far from feeling bound or stifled by the Whiteman Orchestra, as [saxophonist and author Benny] Green and others have suggested, Bix often felt a sense of exhilaration. It was like attending a music school, learning and broadening; formal music, especially the synthesis of the American vernacular idiom with a more classical orientation, so much sought-after in the 1920s, were calling out to him."
Bix Beiderbecke also played piano, sometimes switching from cornet for a chorus or two during a song (e.g., "For No Reason at All in C", 1927). He wrote several compositions for the piano, and recorded one of them, "In a Mist" (after it was transcribed from his improvisations by the Goldkette/Whiteman arranger Bill Challis). His piano compositions include "In a Mist", "Flashes", "In the Dark" and "Candlelights." These were later recorded by (among others) Jess Stacy, Bunny Berigan, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Dill Jones and Ralph Sutton.
The only known film footage of Bix Beiderbecke playing the cornet in the 1920s is a Fox Movietone News newsreel, "Jazz King Tears Up Old Contract", from the week of May 18, 1928, which was on the Paul Whiteman label switch from Victor Records to Columbia. The orchestra is shown performing "My Ohio Home" with Beiderbecke standing up and playing the cornet.
Bix Beiderbecke played cornet on four number one hit records in 1928 recorded with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra: "Together", number one for two weeks, "Ramona", number one for three weeks, "My Angel", number one for six weeks, and "Ol' Man River", with Bing Crosby on vocals, was number one for one week. By contrast, Louis Armstrong did not have any number one records in the 1920s. "Ol' Man River" would be the first of 41 number one hits for Bing Crosby during his career.
On one of his last recording sessions in New York on September 15, 1930, he recorded the original version of the jazz and pop standard "Georgia on My Mind" with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra, which was released as Victor 23013. Bix Beiderbecke played the cornet on the session with Hoagy Carmichael on vocals in an orchestra that included Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Venuti on violin, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet/alto saxophone, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone, and Pee Wee Russell on alto saxophone. Frankie Trumbauer had originally suggested to Hoagy Carmichael that he compose "Georgia On My Mind". "Georgia on My Mind" would subsequently be recorded by Frankie Trumbauer, who had a Top Ten hit in 1931 with his version, Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey with the Matty Malneck Orchestra, Gene Krupa with Anita O'Day on vocals, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Frankie Laine, the Spencer Davis Group featuring Steve Winwood in 1966, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, James Brown, Michael Bolton, Ray Charles, who had a no.1 hit, won a Grammy Award, and whose recording of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993, and Willie Nelson, who also won a Grammy Award for his recording.
Bix Beiderbecke had suffered health problems from an early age and his health declined further in his adult years. He toured relentlessly, and consumed alcohol excessively, much of it low quality, and often somewhat poisonous, Prohibition Era alcohol. The end of Prohibition only occurred some 18 months after Bix's death. As a result, his stage performances began to suffer. Bandleader Paul Whiteman and his musicians were frustrated with Beiderbecke's behavior; another trumpet player famously wrote the reminder "Wake up Bix" shortly before Beiderbecke's solo on a sheet music transcript.
His spirits also suffered from declining work opportunities around the New York City area. In 1929 bandleader Paul Whiteman sent Beiderbecke back home to Davenport, Iowa, to recover from a breakdown (caused by alcoholism, related physical problems and the stress of touring). His treatment was initially successful, but failed later. Bix was cutting an increasingly sad figure, and while he played intermittently over the next two years, when he was well enough to travel, neither he nor his playing was ever the same again.
In late July or early August 1931, he took up residence at 43-30 46th Street, Sunnyside, Queens, New York City. He died in his Queens apartment alone on August 6, 1931, at 9:30 in the evening, just 28 years old. The official cause of his death was "lobar pneumonia" and "brain edema". To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Greater Astoria Historical Society and other community organizations erected a plaque in Beiderbecke's honor at the apartment building in which he died in Sunnyside, Queens.
Bix Beiderbecke was buried in his family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.