Jazz and Virginia

Published:April 27, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

You might already know the Charlottesville photographer John Grant from this image, which I think you could say has gotten a fair amount of play, but it’s the photograph at top, of ink in water and titled Jazz, that I most love.

Ella Fitzgerald, a native of Newport News, is shown in the middle photograph singing to, among others, Duke Ellington (smiling) and Benny Goodman (glasses, looking amazed). The year is 1948 and the photographer Herman Leonard. More of Leonard’s work can be seen here.

Ten years earlier, Benny Goodman and his band played Carnegie Hall and, in tribute to the late great cornet soloist Bix Beiderbecke, performed “I’m Coming, Virginia.” The bottom image is the album cover, by Jim Flora, for Bix and Tram, a collection of cuts recorded by Beiderbecke and his musical soul mate, Frank “Tram” Trumbauer. On “I’m Coming, Virginia,” Bix is peerless.

In this, his longest solo, Bix is at the height of his powers. He eschews the gutbucket growls and half-valves that were just becoming popular with Duke Ellington and instead digs deep into the melody. In true Impressionist style, with all the manly restraint of Henry James, he suggests rather than declaims the tune’s dark melancholy, taking Trumbauer’s solo—the handoff is just perfect—and gently refining it. His “correlated” phrases (Bix’s term) build, one on top of the other, until Bix finally leaps up to a (relatively) high register and delivers what Richard Sudhalter rather dramatically described as “Caravaggio-like shafts of light.”

After the jump, hear Bix’s original 1927 recording and Benny Goodman’s homage, from 1938. You’ll also find a longer description of that amazing album cover …

 

 

 

And regarding Jim Flora’s Bix and Tram:

In 1947, Columbia Records released Bix and Tram: Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, a 78 rpm record that was, according to its cover, “#20 in a series that made jazz history.” About that cover: it’s twelve-and-a-quarter-inch square with a parchment-colored background and all-cap, serif letters that look to have been crayoned in black, red, and a pale, lizard-y green. Bix is blowing his cornet, Trumbauer his C-melody sax, but their heads (Bix’s topped with a tiny fedora, Tram’s a bowler) are more or less bean-shaped with great hooked noses, coffee-cup-handle ears, and bulbous, bird-like eyes. Bix’s arms and head are bright red, Tram’s that lizard-y green, and their shirts the reverse—finally, race is no longer an issue for these two—with everything attached to everything else collage-style (think Matisse, Stuart Davis, or Picasso’s Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass). And out of their horns: two Christmas-tree-ready strings of beads, notes “spun out … from a silver spool,” as Max Kaminsky once described Bix’s sound, a sound that this modernist bit of nonsense suggests must have been, to swipe a word from Richard Hadlock, “architectonically” perfect.

I first saw this album cover attached to its creator Jim Flora’s New York Times obituary, which itself was tucked into my hardback copy of Ralph Berton’s Remembering Bix. In the obit, the Times explains that until late in the nineteen-thirties, records were covered only with heavy art paper, a title embossed on the front and spine but no more. Flora, a jazz fan who at the time worked in advertising, sold Columbia Records on his vision for something better, was hired, and quickly advanced to the position of art director. From there, he used his “lighthearted blend of surrealism and cartoon notable for its comic juxtapositions of physically exaggerated characters” to revolutionize the way that record albums were produced and marketed in the United States. Jim Flora, in other words, was the father of album cover art, and what I’ve always loved about this particular cover were those beads. Then, recently, I looked at Bix and Tram more closely. I saw that Beiderbecke and Trumbauer’s red and lizard-y green heads were tied together by a piece of string, and the string was knotted in a bow and ornamented with a lovely Valentine-shaped heart. Bix and Tram, I realized, was more than mere nonsense; it was a study in collaboration and perhaps even friendship. I relayed this observation to a friend, and she encouraged me to look closer still: Bix’s heart beats firmly in his lizard-y green chest, but where is Tram’s? His must be the heart on a string—a tiny detail that suddenly transforms Bix and Tram into something much more fraught and more complicated than first meets the eye.