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Bix Lives through Q-C jazz festival


Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

A Jazz band member plays the trombone during the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival which takes place every July on the Davenport riverfront. The festival draws people from all over the country who want to listen to jazz and honor Bix, a Quad-Cities native.

DAVENPORT -- The Quad-Cities may be the jazziest spot on earth each year on the last weekend of July, when the Bix Festival is in full swing.

The 1998 festival will be the 27th, and the event has brought the music of Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist, to more than half a million people. Since 1972, 225 jazz bands from all over the world have played at the fest.

They include Bill Allred, a Rock Island native, and his band under various names; the Varsity Ramblers from Peoria; the Red Onion Jazz Babies; the Black Dog Band; and Cake Walkin.'

Bix was born March 10, 1903, creating his legend as the best white jazz musician who ever lived in his short life of 28 years. He died Aug. 6, 1931, although the slogan of the festival is ``Bix Lives.''

Members of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Band of New Jersey came to Davenport in 1971, visiting Bix's former home at 1934 Grand Ave., Davenport, and his grave in Oakdale Cemetery (now Oakdale Memorial Gardens), winding things up with a giant jam session at the Davenport Holiday Inn.

Bill Donahoe, leader of the visiting band, is such a Bix fan that a clock in his home is forever stopped at 9:30 p.m., the recorded time of Bix's death.

That visit led to the founding of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society in 1972. Don O'Dette, a trumpet player, was the first president. None of the founders had experience in organizing a festival, and a drenching rain washed out the Saturday night concert that first year, leaving the society with a $15,000 deficit.

A financial backer appeared, and another Bix bash was planned for 1973. The festival has continued uninterrupted, even by the great flood of 1993, which moved the outdoor concerts to Museum Hill.

Spin-offs from the jazz fest have been the Bix-7 Road Race and a huge downtown Davenport street fair with food booths and arts and crafts for sale.

Bix has inspired two major books; a film made by the Avati brothers in Davenport in 1992, ``Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend;'' and ``Rhapsody for Bix'' composed by Lalo Schifrin, the internationally acclaimed conductor and composer.

He also was the subject of a film starring Kirk Douglas, ``Young Man with a Horn,'' and a Canadian documentary made by Brigitte Berman, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Hoagy Bix Carmichael, the son of Bix's friend, Hoagy Carmichael, is preparing a Broadway show, ``Hoagy and Bix,'' and the Smithsonian Magazine wrote about Bix in July 1997.

Late in November, Bix was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame along with Nat ``King'' Cole, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey (with whom he played many a gig), Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins and Erroll Garner. Steve Allen paid him a special tribute.

Alcoa, which supported last year's fest, is a signature sponsor this year, and the official name of the event will be ``The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival Presented by Alcoa.'' Other heavy support comes from the Davenport Riverboat Authority, Deere & Co., the President Riverboat Casino, the Radisson-Quad City Plaza Hotel, McDonald's, IPSCO Steel Inc., Jewel-Osco and U.S. West Dex.

It now costs about 10 times what it did to put on the event in the beginning. The Bix Society's budget was $20,000 in 1972, and is now $200,000. Band salaries and expenses take the biggest bite. Staffing for the event is by unpaid volunteers who consider it a labor of love.

The festival will be previewed in a Bix birthday party at the Davenport Public Library March 9.

Since 1992, the fest has included a jazz liturgy in LeClaire Park on Sunday morning, and several area churches have offered jazz services for many years.

During the week of the fest, an action begins Wednesday with An Evening With Bix at the Capitol Theater, Davenport. The traditional cocktail party with music by visiting bands is Thursday at the Col Ballroom, where Bix once played. Friday and Saturday, it's concerts in the afternoon and at night in the LeClaire Park bandshell. Alternate venues are the Davenport Holiday Inn afternoons and evenings and the Col from 7 p.m. to midnight.

Bands from Australia, England, Sweden and Canada have performed at the Bix, and the fest has drawn celebrities like Artie Shaw.

This year, 95-year-old trombonist Spiegle Willcox, the last man alive who played with Bix in the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, will be on hand to perform once more.

Bix's golden horn was given to the Putnam Museum last summer by its owners, Bob and Eva Christiansen of Los Gatos, Calif., and its special sound will become a fest tradition. The museum, which also owns Bix's piano, is now designing a Bix room.

The Bix Fest is a time of celebration in the Quad-Cities. It starts with the 7-mile race that passes lawn parties all along the route.

It draws people and dollars to the area and ranks second only to Christmas as a Davenport money-making event.

-- By Julie Jensen (January 22, 1998)

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