Saturday, 16 March 2013

Young Man with a Horn

Listening to Duke Ellington Sophisticated Lady, The Mooche, Jump for Joy, Perdido, Harry James Two O clock Jump, Flying Home, and Music makers, Benny Goodman My Gal Sal, Nice work if you can get it, Django Reinhardt I got Rhythm, Sweet George Brown, Honeysuckle Rose.


There have been few serious films about jazz men and women and of these Young Man with a Horn is memorable and worth seeing more than once, despite the Young Man being played by a middle aged Kirk Douglas and the sexual love of his life played by Lauren Bacall, no longer the young psychiatrist in training she attempts to play. Doris Day is Doris Day and therefore there is a credibility gap as a swing band singer although if one thinks of her name sake Anita O’Day (Jazz on a summer’s Day) and that Doris do not purport to be a deep blue singer but a straight and loyal loving friend I was impressed by her performance. The film also features Hoagy Carmichael as the piano playing friend of Douglas as Rick Martin the trumpeter.


The importance of this film is that unlike Boogie Woogie the film brilliantly demonstrates that being a jazz man can become as much an addiction as any drug to the exclusion of any other interest including money, fame, family or food. The problem for Rick is that he becomes attracted to the wrong woman brilliant played by Lauren Bacall who uses the insights from her study of psychology and her sexuality in an attempt to take from Rick what she does not, to possess his creative art and nearly destroying him in the process. When Lauren finds someone else to take over after she flunks her course, Rick goes to pieces, drinks, turning on and isolating from his friends including the black jazz trumpet who taught him how to play when as a young boy he was able to purchase his first trumpet. When the man is knocked down and killed in a car accident after trying to appeal to Douglas to stop his spiralling descent into oblivion the trumpet is smashed he becomes a drink hobo until fortunately he is discovered by Doris and Hoagy before it is too late. He returns to success and appreciates the love with Doris Day has always had for him and support of Hoagy.


The film and the original novel by Dorothy Baker is a thinly veiled description of the life of  perhaps the greatest white cornet player of all time Bix Biederbecke and a man whose creativity rivals that of Louis Armstrong, a contemporary of his Whereas Louis went on to International fame and financial success Biederbecke died  at the age of 28.


 Whereas many people of different generations, whether they are interested  or like  jazz know the name of Louis Armstrong, Biederbecke tends to be someone rarely discussed outside the narrow world of jazz musicians although there was a  couple of seasons of a brilliant humorous drama mystery with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn, The Biederbecke Tapes which featured his music throughout although played by the British trumpet man Kenny Ball who recently died  at the age of 82 years and who I saw perform with his man at the 02 a couple of years back along with the bands of Chris Barber and Acker Bilk.


Biederbecke like Douglas in the film was a self taught as a very young boy whose ability to play by ear was commented on when still at school and where he also played with professional musicians as a young school age man. Whether his local fame and that he was white was a factor most biographies cover up of an incident in which as an eighteen year old he was arrested and alleged to have sexually assaulted a five year old girl. He was no prosecuted because of the age of the girl as a potential witness but it is understood that he never denied what he did. It would be surprising if this incident helps to explain the nature of self destructive alcoholism. It is too easy for biographers and commentators to claim that the alcoholism, substance addiction including sex addiction of musicians and other artists is somehow an inherent part of their lifestyle. He is reported to have had   a breakdown at one point in his life.


His interest in jazz and being a full time jazz player was activity discouraged by his middle class parents but in 1923 he joined the seven piece Jazz Group the Wolverines and the band recorded nearly two years before Armstrong created and led the Hot Five.  The older and more established Hoagy Carmichael invited the Wolverines to Indiana in 1924 and the two became friends. Whether under the influence of Carmichael who was studying law in addition to piano playing and composing, Biederbecke enrolled in a university on a course which included religion, ethics, keeping fit and military training but after a drunken bar fight was expelled having attended few classes. In 1926 he moved to a new and larger band which was to play at the now famous Roseland opposite Fletcher Henderson who advertised their Battle of the bands.


In 1927 he joined the already famous Paul Whiteman orchestra and although as the film and others suggested Bix found his requirements of a conventional dance orchestra stifling he thrived and commenced to study formal music.  Far from drinking caused by the beak up of a relationship, as the early bar brawl revealed him and become a hard and regular drinker along with many musicians although there is no record of his using drugs. He returned home and with the help of his parents attended a residential treatment clinic for a month. Although recovered he worked only occasionally despite his chair in the band being kept open.


The most memorable aspect of the two years before his death is the performance with Carmichael of Georgia on my mind playing to together with Jack Teargarden and Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Bud Freeman.


As faithfully recorded in the film he got up to play one night with the Whiteman band on their regular Radio Hour and his mind went blank and he could not play a note. He spent the rest of the year with his parents and then returned to New York for one last time, he died in his apartment from pneumonia assisted by his continued alcoholism. The 1955 film The Blackboard Jungle included some of his music.  There is a large collection of| his music available to listen free on Deezer radio. Having not read any full biography I can find no reference to his sexual interests and relationships which are odd and probably accounts for why the film script was written to include two relationships and a happy ending and emphasised his unique talent and preoccupation with music.





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