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Jazz Greats Who Didn't Die Young

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WHAT IF ......Five of the jazz greats had not died so young ; (alternate obituaries that extend their careers by decades):

Jazz Greats Who Didn't Die Young

Bix Beiderbecke

Born Davenport Iowa March 10th 1903, died in Paris August 4th, 1988

Leon Beiderbecke, whose career was marked by jazz stardom in his youth and classical music achievement in later life, has died from a stroke in a Paris hospital, age 85. His family and some friends from his younger days, including pianist Jess Stacy and arranger Bill Challis, were at his bedside.

Rising to fame, if not fortune, as the first great white cornet player, Beiderbecke carved out a stellar career in jazz before his 27th birthday. He attracted attention from the jazz world first as a member of his own band the Wolverines, then in partnerships with Frank Trumbauer and Paul Whiteman. After recovering from illness due to severe alcoholism in 1931-32, Bix (as he was called then), was featured soloist in the NBC network dance orchestra from 1933-35, then joined Benny Goodman’s trend-setting big band in 1936. His trumpet duels with his friend Harry James were the high points of many a Goodman concert. His major musical achievement in that era, though, was a stunning eight chorus solo on Sing, Sing, Sing at the famed Carnegie Hall Concert of January 1938. His solo, following on from masterpiece solos by Goodman and Jess Stacy, remains a high point of innovation, often mentioned as inspirational by such latter-day jazz giants as Miles Davis, Art Farmer and Randy Sandke.

Along with Stacy, he left Goodman in 1939 to form his own big band which featured many of his own compositions and occasional forays into an impressionistic style later copied by Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans. The band had some early successes with very melodic Bix tunes like Skylark and Ottumwa Autumn, but suffered from personnel losses due to conscription after Pearl Harbor. Just before he disbanded, he took part in a now-legendary 1942 Town Hall concert re-uniting him with his jam session buddy of the early 1920s, Louis Armstrong. The ten tunes they played together, for a War Bond charity event, remain the most admired examples of classic jazz playing ever recorded.

In 1943, tired of jazz and the commercial aspects of the music world, Beiderbecke stunned America by announcing his retirement from brass playing and jazz to concentrate on piano and formal music. He moved to New Haven to improve his piano playing and study classical music with Paul Hindemith at Yale, then to California in 1947 to work with Darius Milhaud, then on to Paris for further study. His 7th Symphony, debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1952, was the most acclaimed formal music work by an American performed in that decade. He made only one surprise return to the jazz world, playing on cornet alongside Miles Davis with the Gil Evans Orchestra at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, performing music from Bix’s beloved Porgy & Bess. Returning to Paris in 1963, Beiderbecke taught composition, retiring in 1974. He never married.


Leon Roppolo

Born Lutcher, Louisiana, March 16th 1902; died Echuca, Victoria (Australia) January 4th, 1997

One of the most important pioneers of New Orleans-style clarinet playing died in his adopted nation of Australia, aged 94. Leon Roppolo (frequently misspelled Rappolo) first established himself as a vital jazz voice while playing with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings from 1922-25. Although it’s hard to discern from listening to the primitive recordings of the day, Roppolo was far ahead of his contemporaries both harmonically and rhythmically, displaying a freedom that was not to become familiar in the jazz world until the 1950s.

Between 1926 and 1931 he was out of music, treated for mental disorders. Upon his recovery and release in 1932, Roppolo formed a small combo with fellow New Orleans reedman Irving Fazola, playing for three years at Chicago’s famed Three Deuces nightclub. In 1935, the sextet (two reeds, guitar, vibes, piano, bass and drums) had its own network radio show on NBC, helping to give the group’s hot new chamber jazz sound a national audience. The sextet broke up in 1937 when Fazola left to join the Bob Crosby band. Resolutely opposed to the disciplines of big band swing, Roppolo turned down many requests to join larger ensembles. Instead, throughout the trad boom of the 1940s, he worked with mostly (then) unknown musicians like Bob Wilber and Bill Stegmeyer, playing the New Orleans repertoire with remarkable freshness and zeal. In 1944-45 he formed his second great two-reed band, working on 52nd St. with Joe Marsala and Joe’s harp-playing wife Adele Girard.

In 1951, after hearing a record of the Bell brothers band from Melbourne, and consulting with his friend Rex Stewart, Roppolo sailed to Australia, where he made a series of sparkling recordings with the Bells for the Ampersand label. Sales were good and the experience so inspired him that he applied for citizenship and was given permission to settle in Australia. He joined Len Barnard’s band, mostly playing alto sax, and at the 1956 Jazz Convention, he played in yet another two reed front line with ardent admirer Ade Monsbourgh, winning loud applause and demands for no less that seven encores.

In 1958, joined by Joe Marsala, Roppolo and Monsbourgh toured Australia and the far east. Later Roppolo and John Sangster began performing Leon’s own compositions like Terrick Moon, Nathalia Backwater and Roger’s Rag, which have since become traditional jazz standards around the world. He was a familiar figure at jazz conventions throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, returning to New Orleans only once, in 1979, for a street parade in his honour. In 1981 he bought a home along the Murray River to be near his friend Ade Monsbourgh in Nathalia, where the two often played impromptu duets in the Town Hall to the amazement and delight of on-lookers.

In his later years he gave clarinet lessons to future Aussie jazz stars such as Jo Stevenson. He died at an Echuca nursing home with his Australian-born wife of 40 years, Mary, and a host of grandchildren by his side. (*Andy Firth has removed his name in this report as Roppolo did not give him lessons and Andy never even met him unfortunately!).

Charlie Christian

Born July 29th 1916 in Sherman Texas; died Nashville Tennessee, September 23rd, 1979

Charlie Christian, the man who revolutionised jazz guitar playing, then left an idelible imprint on rhythm’n’blues and rock, has died of lung cancer, aged 63.

Christian rose to fame as a 23-year-old in Benny Goodman’s 1940 Sextet, composing tunes like Seven Come Eleven, Wholly Cats and Breakfast Feud and playing the then rarely-heard amplified guitar with amazing harmonic ingenuity. After a near-fatal bout with tuberculosis in 1942, Christian formed an astonishing quartet with alto genius Charlie Parker that recorded all original music for Dial Records between 1944-47. On these landmark 40 sides, the alto and guitar share the front-line roles, with bass and drum support. Playing compositions by the two Charlies, the quartet took the complexity and rebelliousness of bop and fused it with the earthy blusieness and hard swing of Kansas City jazz to produce a popular new sound called Hard Bop When Parker left for California in 1947, Christian stayed in New York and led a band that increasingly featured the leader’s own blues-tinged vocals and high energy guitar riffs.

Angered by the commercial success of what he regarded as R’n’B style white imitators like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, Christian moved first to London in 1957 and then Liverpool in 1960. He was a constant presence in the British blues clubs of that era, profoundly affecting the styles of young players like Eric Clapton and Keith Richard. He toured Europe with John Lennon & The Quarrymen, and in 1966 shared the spotlight at a memorable Albert Hall concert with protege Jimi Hendrix, each outdoing the other with blazing blues-rock solos.

Disillusioned with the early ‘70s British pop scene, he returned to the USA in 1973, settled in Nashville and resumed a gentler, more melodic style of playing and singing which won him millions of new fans and paved the way for similar singer-guitarists like George Benson. His lungs weakened by TB and years of heavy smoking, Christian died of lung cancer at Nashville Medical Center. He left a fortune from record sales and royalties estimated at five million dollars.

Charlie Parker

Born Aug 20th 1920 Kansas City; Died Hollywood May 12th, 2005

Charlie Parker, the only film music composer to ever win 11 Academy Awards, died last week at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, aged 84. Cause of death was listed as heart and kidney failure.

If Parker had died in 1955 (he was in a coma for a week before miraculously recovering), he would instead be remembered chiefly as one of the co-founders of bebop, a new and freer style of jazz playing. Beginning in 1944, the Kansas City native put out an amazing series of small band records (often alongside fellow bop creator Dizzy Gillespie) that influenced thousands of jazz players and revolutionised the music. In the early ‘50s, Parker recorded two dozen standards with a small string orchestra, records he later told interviewers was “the best music I ever produced”.

A drug addict and very heavy drinker, Parker barely survived a brush with death in April 1955, when he was just 34. After taking a year off to recover, Parker moved in 1956 from New York to a small farm in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where, away from the temptations of night club heroin dealers, he rested and composed several long jazz suites. Fellow altoists Phil Woods, Jackie McLean and Charles McPherson would often join him for all-night jam sessions in an acoustically-ideal barn named for its odd colour,‘The Big Purple.” Bootleg recordings of this music eventually found their way to Hollywood, where director Vincente Minelli heard them and commissioned Parker to write the score for his new film Backstage. More film score offers followed, and in 1961, Parker won the first of an amazing 11 Oscars for music from The Apartment.

In 1962, Parker moved permanently to Los Angeles and continued to write for films while studying at night with his composing idol Igor Stravinsky, who wrote three suites with orchestra for the veteran altoist to play at the Hollywood Bowl. Throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Parker gradually reduced his playing gigs, by now restricted to jazz festivals and concert halls. “I hate playing in night clubs and I never will again,” he said. “I predict that in my lifetime, jazz in its proper setting of the concert hall will supercede the clubs. That’ll be a good thing.” Parker did make an exception to his no-night clubs rule, visiting Melbourne’s Embers Night Club in 1959 to play for a week alongside local alto star Frank Smith and pianist Bob Sedergreen. “Man, that cat’s amazing!,” Parker famously said of Smith. “If he came to the States, he’d cut everyone.”

In 1988, after winning his 11th Oscar for the music in the film ‘Bird’ (loosely based on his own life), Parker chose the Academy Awards podium to announce his retirement from both jazz and cinema writing. He spent his final years giving long and witty interviews to documentary film makers, writing provocative essays on a variety of topics for The New Yorker, and overseeing a scholarship fund with Milt Hinton to educate young black photographers, a hobby he took up in his 70s and which, characteristically, he mastered instantly. He died in his sleep, his wife Chan and their five children at his side.

Clifford Brown

Born Wilmington Delaware, October 30th 1930; Died April 1st , 2005 in Wilmington.

Clifford Brown, who survived three near-fatal auto accidents to become America’s most beloved jazz ambassador and pioneer of jazz education, has died of heart failure, age 74.

A protegee of the young and doomed trumpeter Fats Navarro, Brown rose to fame in 1953 as part of Lionel Hampton’s big band. The next year he formed a stellar quintet with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins that is certainly one of the most significant groups of the 1950s. He was widely admired for his rich tone, percussive attack and knowledge of the styles of past stars like Bunny Berigan and Frankie Newton. Never a drug user or even much of a drinker (“one beer a night was enough for Brownie,” his friend Quincy Jones recalled), Brown was unfailingly polite to fans and helpful to young musicians wanting guidance. In short, he was not just a magificant player but an exemplary human being as well.

It all very nearly came to a premature end on a wet night in June 1956, when a car in which he was riding skidded off a turnpike, flipped over and exploded in flames. Pianist Richie Powell and Powell’s wife died in the crash; Brown was thrown clear and only broke his hip and shoulder. It was the second near-fatal crash of his life.

After convalescing, Brown returned to the jazz scene in late 1957, leading a septet on a cultural exchange mission for the US State Department to Russia, Poland and Hungary, the first such US jazz tour to communist nations. He endeared himself to the local musicians by jamming with them till dawn each morning, then rising to give classes to children in local schools. It was this overseas success that prompted Brown to reduce his night club commitments in the USA and devote ever more time to jazz education at home. His efforts were rewarded in 1963 when the University of Delaware established a School of Jazz Studies (one of America’s first) and made Brown the department head.

His third near-fatal car accident happened on another State Department tour, this time in Malawi in 1971, when his Land Rover was attacked and destroyed by two rogue elephants. Undaunted, he continued the tour and organised several bands of young African players to tour the USA, precipitating a nationwide revival of interest in African music. Throughout the 1970s he was a frequent guest at the Newport-New York and Monterey jazz festivals, usually playing alongside students or with his three jazz-playing sons. He officially retired in 1996 but still gave trumpet lessons to young people who would come from all over the world to his home. He also became active in Democratic Party politics, campaigning for Al Gore in 2000 in North Carolina and Florida, states Gore won in a close election.

He was teaching his tune Joy Spring to a Cambodian teenager last week when he suddenly clutched his chest and died. President Gore declared a National Day Of Mourning for the day of Brown’s funeral, the first time a jazz musician has been so honoured in US history.

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