|Doris Day and a fraught-looking Kirk Douglas|
First of all, it has to be admitted that the music is great; Harry James, also a Bix fan, was in peak form (though he played trumpet rather than cornet), and Doris Day's vocals are among her best.
This story, however, film and novel, is based on several cliches that are insulting to musicians, music, and humans in general. It's also pretentious and annoying.
The imaginary jazz virtuoso who is the center of Young Man With a Horn loves jazz at first not because it is great music that just happens to have been invented by black people, but because he seeks escape from ordinary life. His background is barren of any kind of enjoyment or artistic feeling; his need to get away from what Shaw termed "middle-class-morality" drives him to "jungle music."
Jazz is seen as an emotive, anti-intellectual force, a "natural" music that bypasses the rigorous training that classical music requires. This was another common theme in fiction and criticism from the 1920s through the 1950s. And it is patently ridiculous.
Jazz is one of the most rigorous forms that there is; the top players are gifted with immense talent, it's true, but they became the virtuosi they were through endless hours devoted to practicing and honing their skills. Louis Armstrong did not just pick up a horn and become the greatest trumpeter ever; he picked up a horn and from that moment dedicated himself to mastering it in every way possible. Although he was a young teenager at the time, he had the discipline and strength of character to spend long, grueling hours practicing. So did Bix, and so did all great musicians.
The difference between geniuses like Louis and Bix and other musicians is that when they had mastered their instruments, they were vastly more technically proficient and intellectually creative than anyone else.
Another movie convention about musicians in general is that they are seeking a "sound" they can never find; so they have to keep trying harder and harder, and subside into drink and despair when they fail. You see this over and over in the movies, whether it's jazz or classical.
Generally I love Kirk Douglas, but he was totally wrong for a role generally considered to be based on Bix. Douglas was always at his best -- even when he was funny or charming -- in a part with a strong undercurrent of anger; often righteous anger, to be sure, but still -- rage seemed very close to the surface. From all accounts, Bix Beiderbecke, a cornet genius who rose to jazz stardom with his first few recordings, and died basically of chronic alcoholism at the age of twenty-nine, was a self-effacing, soft-spoken young man. Louis Armstrong described him as "timid." His confidence in his abilities was oddly yoked with an uneasy feeling that he needed formal training to better himself. Contrary (again) to popular legend, he had a loving, supportive family. He wasn't particularly interested in "society" one way or the other. Or in passionate love affairs; he seems to have had various flings with the usual showgirls but (unlike some of his pals) was never a woman-chaser. He was engaged to be married at the time of his death, to young woman his friends described as ordinary. Speculations that he might have been gay have never been substantiated. But he was never aggressive or violent; when angry, he was more likely to be sarcastic than loud. He was not an angry young man.
So one reason I hate Young Man With a Horn is because of the confusion it displays regarding jazz as an art form, and the misconceptions it has fostered regarding Bix Beiderbecke as a person.
It's also a pretty common theme in music-based drama that a wealthy dilettante, male or female, gets romantically involved with a musician of lowly origins to disastrous effect. Sometimes the rich one is serious, sometimes not, but the whole thing is a recipe for disaster. and in fiction it always leads to trouble.
It has happened a couple of times that a wealthy society girl married a musician from a humble background, but real life was not as dismal as fiction always seems to be; first there was the wonderful romance of heiress Elin McKay and Irving Berlin, and then that of Alice Hammond (whose mother was a Vanderbilt) and Benny Goodman. But both of these couples married happily and spent about fifty devoted years together. Real people are in fact able to overcome social differences if they love each other, it seems, in reality, anyway.
Whiteman was the man who had such faith in George Gershwin that he commissioned him to write Rhapsody in Blue; the Whiteman Orchestra was the first to record it. He discovered the great singers Mildred Bailey and Bing Crosby (who started with Whiteman as part of a hot singing trio, the Rhythm Boys, which included Bailey's brother). His orchestra at this period was practically a laboratory for modern 20s jazz; among the personnel during these years were great players like Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trombauer, Miff Mole, and Chauncey Morehouse. The suggestion that true jazzmen had contempt for Whiteman and hated playing with him is most unfair.
|Bix, 3rd from right back row|