Conjectural Hypothetical Speculation About the Possibility of
“Bix” Beiderbecke Having Lived With

Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism
by Howard Falk. Completed May 2, 2015. ©Howard Falk

 

Bibliography

 

  1. “He was sufficiently incomprehensible to the majority of his fellow jazz men …” (Richard M. Sudhalter from BIX: Man and Legend by Sudhalter, Evans, and Dean-Myatt; © 1974 by Sudhalter and Evans)
  2. “There was something about Bix that was enigmatic, edged, baffling–that made you want to do something about him, you couldn’t say exactly what.” (Ralph Berton: REMEMBERING BIX: A Memoir of the Jazz Age by Ralph Berton; © 1974)
  3. “Bix was a sort of funny guy; I don’t really know him that well…” (Vic Berton:  REMEMBERING BIX: A Memoir of the Jazz Age by Ralph Berton; © 1974)
  4. “Bix was a mystery to us…in a way we didn’t know him at all. He really wasn’t like us.” (Jimmy McPartland: LOST CHORDS: White Musicians’ Contributions to Jazz by Richard M. Sudhalter, © 1999)
  5. “…among jazz musicians, … Bix was regarded as a rather odd duck.” (Richard Hadlock: JAZZ MASTERS OF THE TWENTIES; © 1999)
  6. “…every human being is guarded by his own personal mystery…but Bix really goes a bit too far!” (Jean Pierre Lion: BIX: Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend; © 2005)

 

The six above paraphrased quotes about the now-legendary Hot ‘20s jazz musician “Bix” Beiderbecke certainly raise unanswered questions about the underling root causes of his personal behavior offstage between his performances and recording sessions, along with his personality type. This article offers only personal conjectural hypothetical speculation about a possible undiagnosed condition based just on reading his contemporaries’ few surviving sporadic recollections and reminiscences of Bix’s observed personal behavior, separate from his onstage performances and recording sessions, as well as also suggesting potential for refutation of the speculations, based on the few biographical data sources available to this article’s author at the time of this writing.

 

Contrary to Gunther Schuller’s assertion that “Bix, indeed, symbolized the Jazz Age,” this article proposes to exhibit a notion that Bix was an exception within the Jazz Age instead of representing it by citing biographical data about memories of observed personal behaviors that point to the possibility that Bix might have lived with an undiagnosed condition of either Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism.

 

One of a number of latent indicator clues which might have hinted at a characteristic attribute of either Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism was his introverted personality, which he may have protected with the seeming surface attribute of apathy and indifference: any number of his jazz musician colleagues recalled that he didn’t speak very often, which appears to support the introverted personality, while his own use of the phrase “what the hell” seems to support the observation that he developed a surface appearance of apathy and indifference for introverted personality protection during the few occasions that he did speak with other jazz musician colleagues.

 

Another potential indicator clue might also have presented itself by his well-observed absentmindedness. His jazz musician colleagues reported that he became easily lost while on his way going to some pre-planned destination, either because he didn’t remember travel directions, had boarded the wrong train, or have boarded the correct train but on the wrong day. On more than one occasion, he lost personal items, including his own cornet, to which a few of his jazz musician colleagues attested.

 

Still another possible indicator lead might have demonstrated itself as well: his seeming lack of any practical business and/or financial sense, an apparent lack of any long-term financial and/or business strategy tactics, one example being that his jazz musician colleague, Frank Trumbauer, a saxophonist, almost always took charge of Bix’s professional employment trajectory, getting him hired in Jean Goldkette’s Dance Orchestra and later in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. Bix also appears not to have opened any intended permanent savings account at any branches of any banks or savings and loans: at least no data accessible and/or available to this article’s author supports his ever having accumulated any “rainy day” reserve funds, which neatly pairs up with his frequently giving and/or lending money to any jazz musician colleagues who were hard-up, strapped for cash “…He was always broke. Well, you know, whenever he had it he gave it away.” (Vic Berton, August 12, 1931)

 

Yet another perhaps revealing indicator might also have shown itself by what perhaps today could get itself classified as “obsessive-compulsiveness”, as noticed by his relations, friends and jazz musician colleagues, about his focus almost exclusively on music, as attested to by his frequent improvising on the cornet and piano between performing in nightly sets, along with his own unhappiness that his own musical career progress was not leading him to successfully reach and achieve his own personal music career ambitions and goals, resulting in what today might get categorized as “clinical depression”, which might have first developed in him at a younger age than previously suspected, which he seemingly attempted to self-medicate by perpetuating a bootleg liquor habit, consequently resulting in his chronic alcoholism, in addition to his acquiring a chronic chain-smoking habit, another way he self-medicated.

 

The refutation to these cited above in this article as a chance that Bix might have lived with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism is that many people display such indicator clues and/or leads without actually living with these conditions at all: some people display any combination and/or blend of such symptoms in their lives without any of those definitively confirming them as living with Asperger’s or Autism at all.

 

Nevertheless, even other behavioral symptoms either allude to, imply, infer and/or insinuate an assertion of this article’s author that either undiagnosed Asperger’s or autism might have existed as a root condition of Bix’s life. One of these might get categorized today as a “hygiene neurosis”. One story is that after Bix temporarily moved in with the Berton family household after it had moved from the Chicago suburbs to New York City, that family household’s mother told Bix to go to their restroom, remove his clothing, and bathe in their restroom’s bathtub for cleaning himself up reasonably, and Bix, slightly resentfully, yet dutifully, obeyed her. Another story is from Bix’s employment with a small jazz band combo to form the Jean Goldkette Dance Orchestra in Michigan. One day a few of his jazz musician colleagues threw an apparently dirty and messy Bix into a nearby pond, with Bix still wearing clothing, as an instant washing up solution. A third story is from Bix’s employment with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, during which he looked disheveled and messy. His mother was coming to hear and see him perform that night, so a few of his jazz musician colleagues hastily cleaned him up for to make him presentable to his mother.

 

Another of these might get labeled as a tendency to dealing with external stimulation “overloading”. During Bix’s employment with the small Wolverines jazz band combo, the band manager’s younger brother, Ralph Berton, noticed Bix’s frequent habit of rapidly dozing off to nap, at least one of those instances occurring soon after reading only a small quantity of the content of a book. Yet another incident occurred during Bix’s employment with the Whiteman Orchestra in Ponca City, Oklahoma, in 1928. Preceding an evening’s performance, Bix napped in a backstage area of the performance venue for so long that he missed participating in part of Whiteman’s Orchestra’s performance that evening. Yet another testimony to this is that during part of a Whiteman Orchestra May 25th through May 29th, 1929, performance tour, one of the arranged songs, “Sunrise to Sunset”, included a first trumpet part with an instruction for the first trumpet performer, Harry Goldfield, to “wake up Bix,” presumably just prior to an upcoming cornet solo which Bix was directed to improvise.

 

Yet another example is some occurrences of impulsive behaviors by Bix: while hearing an informal performance of a French art song, after the song concluded quietly, almost silently, all of the listeners were still glued in their seats, but Bix instantly sprang up from out of his seat, rushed over to the piano while reacting “Hey–wow, those last chords, what were they?!” He plopped himself on the piano near the self-accompanying vocalist and attempted to imitate the three harmonies she’s just performed, not recognizing how out of context his reaction seemed to the rest of the still silent audience. Once, after Paul Whiteman’s business manager and Frank Trumbauer agreed on $50 per recording session for Bix and Trumbauer, Bix, almost tactlessly, rejected it and insisted on a $67.50 fee, almost tempting Trumbauer to lash out in a fury against Bix right then and there for almost blowing that agreement to pieces. Even another occurrence got recounted by Bix himself to a young Ralph Berton in the late autumn of 1927. Bix and the rest of a small jazz band combo were improvising decently enough in the midst of the recording session in progress at that time, and right at the moment that Bix felt they were all just settling into a good improvising jazz riff, their recording engineer visually signaled the jazz combo to conclude it swiftly, since recording master matrix space, and therefore time, was almost over. Bix felt so enraged that he impulsively improvised abnormally high notes on his cornet.

 

Yet another symptom might include his seeming inability to adapt to altered circumstances, one long-term example revealing itself in his continuing to perform on the cornet, during a decade in which a significant number of other ‘20s jazz musicians were switching over from the cornet to the trumpet: Bix was totally self-taught on the cornet (and also on the piano) and if he were to switch to the trumpet, he would have needed to start from the beginning all over again to teach himself to play the trumpet. Another symptom that could perhaps confirm this was his inability to sight-read printed music notation on the piano in any key signatures other than the tonalities of C and F: his improvised piano performance on the Wolverines jazz band disc side “Big Boy” (1924) appears to attest to this, since the band modulates from the tonality of E-flat to the tonality of F prior to Bix improvising his jazz solo on the piano in the tonality of F, in addition to the two only other disc sides of him improvising jazz on the piano accompanying Trumbauer and the ‘20s jazz guitarist Eddie Lang in the tonality of C. (Apparently Bix could improvise and perform in more tonalities on the cornet than on the piano since, unlike the piano, the cornet is a monodic musical instrument.) The perception of Bix’s apparent symptom of being unable to adapt to circumstance, along with also supporting the chance of external stimulation “overloading”, has previously received exposure in a small piece of personal editorial commentary authored by Ralph Berton, who remarked in his memoir, Remembering Bix that “…Bix’s abnormal sensitivity, able to do such extraordinary things his way, unable to do the most ordinary things anyone else’s way, just couldn’t be forced into the mass mold of the public school system without serious psychic injury.” Berton utilized this as his support for his own personal hypothetical conjectural speculation “…that all such things as [sight] reading, fingering, and ‘correct’ practicing were so firmly associated in his unconscious with the world of formal instruction he had fled, that he could never ‘go back’ to one without experiencing an overwhelming horror of the other.” Only the substitution of terms such as “music notation”, “accidentals” (sharps, flats, naturals, etc.), “time signatures”, “clefs” (register indications of musical instruments and voices), and “key tonality signatures” in place of the terms “sight-reading”, “fingering”, and “correct practicing” might perhaps explain why Bix didn’t succeed in accomplishing his own subconscious ultimate long-term musical career goal of an occupation as a composer. Jean Pierre Lion’s own personal editorial commentary in his biography of Bix Beiderbecke seems to corroborate Berton’s own preceding personal editorial commentary. Also, Bix’s failure to qualify at the start of his musical career for membership in a local branch of a musicians’ labor union as a consequence of his lack of ability to sight-read printed music notation acceptably might just as much indicate an inability to adapt to altered circumstances as well. (He resorted to deception to be able to qualify for membership in the union.)

 

Even another intriguing indicator symptom might present itself as socialization cues unrecognized by observation. Bix’s kindergarten teacher, Alice Robinson, recounted, “…He was … happy finding his own niche rather than joining the larger group.” This perhaps further supports the categorization of Bix as possessing an introverted personality, yet also could show that he didn’t deduce that he was expected to interact with the other kindergarten children upon observation and awareness of their presence in the school classroom, as a consequence of not learning recognition of socialization cues by observation. Another later incident occurred during which Bix went out on a date with a local lady named Vera Cox, who testified “If we were on a date and there was an orchestra playing, chances are I’d be left high and dry while Bix ran off to hear the band.” Jean Pierre Lyon writes that “Davenport’s students got together for many parties, but Bix did not respond to the girls with the same attention he was often given.” (Jean Pierre Lion, BIX: Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, 2005) A Davenport acquaintance, Leon ‘Skis’ Wreintin, supported this by observing that “A lot of times Bix would take a date, and just forget about her if someone let him play the cornet or piano. It really didn’t bother him to leave the girl alone all night.” These above-cited instances seem to furnish more support of the notion that Bix didn’t learn recognition of socialization cues by observation, in the above-mentioned examples of not deducing that the lady and the girls wanted him to spend at least some time with them. An unfortunately extreme incident also backs and holds the notion up: In Davenport, on April 22nd, 1921, Bix allegedly took a five-year-old girl to the garage and asked her to “show herself”. This, in addition to exhibiting his lack of recognition of social context and not learning recognition of socialization cues by observation, also bolsters the indicator symptom of impulsive behavior attributed to the conditions of both Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism.

 

Another refutation of the notion that Bix might have lived with either undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or autism is that there don’t seem to exist any documented reports by his contemporaries, acquaintances, relatives, and/or jazz musician colleagues about him showing any indication of Asperger’s or autism such as self-stimulation, hyper-auditory hearing, lack of eye-to-eye contact, or other behaviors or symptoms; on the other hand, it’s not necessarily required to demonstrate a totality of all such symptomatic behaviors in order to fit on the Autism Spectrum Disorder scale someplace.

 

Even another refutation of the notion that Bix might have lived with either undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or autism is that he could drive motor vehicles and distinguished himself in playing baseball, football and tennis, all of which require an ability to multi-task, which requires sensory motor integration, a capacity that those diagnosed with either Asperger’s Syndrome or autism are not well-renowned to possess to any useful degree, so Bix might not have lived with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, after all. 

 

Still another refutation of the notion that Bix might have lived with either undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or autism is that he developed a capability to sight-read printed music notation while performing on the cornet throughout the long-term course of his musical career, which also requires an ability to multi-task, and thus demonstrates that he possessed sensory motor integration. Yet the counter-refutation is that he developed this skill only from getting taught how to sight-read printed music notation while performing on the cornet by his contemporary jazz musician colleagues in the Jean Goldkette Dance Orchestra and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. This is perhaps an indicator symptom that he learned to do so only by means of “programming “ from outside sources, rather than teaching himself by observation, although any number of musical instrumentalists living without either Asperger’s Syndrome or autism have also learned to sight-read printed music notation while performing on their musical instruments.

 

Conclusion

 

Such conjectural hypothetical speculation is based on personal reading of the available biographical data accessible to this article’s author, not an undiluted scientific investigation of that available biographical data.

 

The possible additional tragedy of Bix’s life is that the diagnostic classifications of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism didn’t exist during Bix’s lifetime; nor did the paradigm of “special education services” or even “learning disabled”.

 

Perhaps this article might persuade some qualified neurobiologists and neurophysiologists to team up with a few qualified developmental disability specialists well educated about both Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism diagnoses for rigorous scientific examination of the exact same biographical data available and accessible to this article’s author. If such a project were to occur, the results of it might show either that their findings corroborate this author’s conjectural hypothetical speculation, or the results of it could perhaps show that Bix might have actually lived with an undiagnosed condition that doesn’t have any affiliation with either Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism at all.

 

Readers of this article who might feel curious enough to satisfy their interest in Bix’s observed behaviors by glimpsing specific examples of his jazz musician colleagues’ and his contemporaries’ recollections, remembrances and reminiscences may search for them in the Cited Biographical Data Sources listed on this article’s following bibliography page.

 

Cited Biographical Data Sources

 

 

  1. Berton, Ralph: REMEMBERING BIX: A Memoir of the Jazz Age, © 1974.
  2. Evans, Philip R., and Sudhalter, Richard M: BIX: Man and Legend, © 1974.
  3. Sudhalter, Richard M.: LOST CHORDS: White Musicians’ Contributions to Jazz 1915-1945: Part 5, Chapter 17, © 1999.
  4. Burns, Ken, and Ward, Geoffrey C.: JAZZ: A History of America’s Music: Chapters 3 & 4; © 2000 by the Jazz Film Project.
  5. Lion, Jean Pierre: BIX: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend; © 2005. 
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