Bix Beiderbecke grew into a jazz legend because he was born in the right place at the right time. Sure, he was also a gifted musician, but his path to the top as one of the greatest jazz cornetists was fueled by the inspiration he drew from hearing the earliest jazz musicians play on records and on riverboats.
He was a musical prodigy, which didn’t hurt. The Davenport Daily Democrat published an article in 1910 raving about 7-year-old “Little Bickie’s” ability to play a tune just by listening to it. As a teenager, Bix was captivated by the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the New Orleans-based outfit that is usually credited with making the first jazz recording (Livery Stable Blues). Bix would fire up the Victrola and listen to the songs over and over until he could play the tunes just like the band did. At first, he copied their tunes on his piano, then with a cornet that he had borrowed from a family friend.
Formal schooling was never a priority for Bix; it’s not a stretch to say that he valued experiences over lectures. When he was failing high school, his parents sent him to a boarding school near Chicago. His academics didn’t improve but his music skills did, thanks to the easy access to speakeasies and their talented musicians. He stayed out late, playing music and drinking, which inevitably led to an early exit from school.
As Bix grew into his late teens, riverboat nostalgia was on the rise. Tin Pan Alley was busy crafting songs that harkened back to those glory days of river travel (and its unquestioned racial hierarchy). John Streckfus, Sr., sensing an opportunity, shifted his Rock Island-based river business from packet boats to excursions that catered to the tastes of a growing white middle class.
By 1920, the excursion business was booming along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and the Streckfus family dominated the trade. Day trippers dressed up for a few hours of dining, dancing, and connecting with an imagined river past. Music was a major selling point, and you didn’t even have to be on board to enjoy their music. The river did a fine job of carrying the songs from the boat to the riverfront.
One of the regular stops for the Streckfus steamers was Davenport, Iowa, where young Bix heard music floating across the water and would later answer its siren song. One of those boats provided the setting for the first meeting between Bix and Louis Armstrong, probably in 1920 when Satchmo was playing with Fate Marable’s band on the St. Paul.
It’s not clear how much the two young musicians interacted that first time—Bix would have been 18 years old and Armstrong just 19—but a letter that Armstrong wrote after Bix’s death hints that Armstrong heard Bix play at that early meeting: “Bix was a cute little boy, in his early teens blowing a lot pretty cornet.” Regardless, something clicked between the two. Armstrong wrote that he and Bix “became friends the 1st we met.”
Bix had a much shorter riverboat career than Armstrong, though. He joined the Plantation Jazz Orchestra in June 1921 for a gig on the steamer Majestic. The boat got caught in severe weather and grounded on a sandbar. The captain ordered the band to keep playing, to calm the passengers, so they played Tiger Rag as folks were helped off the boat. No one was hurt, and, after all the passengers had been evacuated, Bix and the band waded to shore carrying their instruments over their heads.
Bix wasn’t allowed to return to the Majestic after union representatives from Davenport Local 67 of the American Federation of Musicians realized Bix didn’t have a union card. To get a union card, a musician had to read music, which Bix couldn’t do and had no interest in learning. Excursion boats only hired musicians approved by the union.