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Bix

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Thoreau was only one of many Americans who favored experience as the best teacher. "Who would know knives better," he asked in Walden, "a boy who went to Harvard and took classes in metallurgy, or a boy who mined and smelted his own iron ore, hammered out a knife blade on an anvil, tempered the blade and sharpened it?"

At least one young boy who grew up in Davenport just across the river would have found Thoreau comforting. Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903 to a prominent family of German descent where he was taught respectable behavior. One day he cranked up the family gramophone and heard a jazz recording. Jazz was virtually unknown to white Americans at the time, but something in Bix awakened.

His father refused his request for a cornet. Even his cornetist uncle refused to help, advising his nephew to select a more socially acceptable career. Forced to his own resources, Bix borrowed a cornet from a friend, put his ear in the gramophone horn, and learned to play the cornet by imitating the sounds he heard on the record.

As a result, Bix learned to play the cornet all wrong. He wiped his lips dry rather than wetting them before playing. His fingering turned out to be exactly the opposite of the correct positions. His attack was wrong, his vibrato too excessive, his phrasing a mess.

A trumpeter with the St. Louis symphony was asked to correct Bix's mistakes, teach him legitimate techniques. After listening to Bix, the wise teacher declined on the grounds that it would be like putting a wild animal in a cage, that it might destroy a tone so pure that Hoagy Carmichael compared it to a mallet hitting the chimes.

Bix went on the play with some of the best bands in the East, helping bring jazz from its sleazy bars and vaudeville associations to respectable halls and recording studios.

Bix's budding career was cut short in 1931 when he died at the age of 28, partly from the effects of alcohol abuse—a reminder that if experience is the best teacher, she often demands a high tuition.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.