When bassist Dan Martin moved with his wife in 2007 to a quiet Queens neighborhood in New York City, he knew next to nothing about legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
Martin – now 52, with a 12-year-old son — moved within eight blocks of the Sunnyside apartment building where the Davenport native died of pneumonia Aug. 6, 1931, at just 28, and his life soon changed forever. A few years later, Martin founded his band, The Creswell Club (specializing in music of the ‘20s), which performs Saturday night at a new festival, The Heights of the Era, in Lindsay Park, Village of East Davenport.
“I’ve been a musician for a long time, and at that point, I never really listened to this kind of music,” Martin said recently of his pre-2007 life and traditional jazz from the heights of Bix’s era. “I was doing everything else in New York, because New York has every kind of music. It was that moment that I really discovered there’s this whole other world. New York is like the epicenter to me of this kind of music, we call ‘trad jazz.’”
“I met the guitar player for the Creswell Club and he kind of turned me on to what’s going on with that scene and it sort of turned a light bulb on in my head and it reinvigorated my musical life,” he said. “This whole kind of music that I never really listened to, and it’s a kind of music modern jazz players don’t play that much.”
Soon after Martin moved from Manhattan to Sunnyside, Queens, he happened upon Bix’s old building (at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard), with the plaque out front in his memory. “I thought, that’s crazy – I just moved to the neighborhood where Bix Beiderbecke lived,” he said. Martin wasn’t as familiar with Bix like he was the legendary Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), who moved to Corona, Queens (less than five miles east from Bix’s building) 12 years after Bix’s death, in 1943.
“When I first started learning about trad jazz, if you want to hear a definitive recording of every great song done at that time, you should listen to his recordings,” Martin said of Bix. “I’m sort of devoting my life to this music of the ‘20s. I think that the bias against it, people say that it’s a simpler form of music and the advancements that came around with swing and with bebop were making it a more sophisticated art form, but that’s absolutely not true. It has the added bonus of being really fun and you could dance to it.”
“It expresses a pure joy that I wasn’t really feeling until I got into this kind of music,” he said.
Of Bix, Martin said: “I’d like to understand what made him the brilliant musician he was, because I would try to do the same thing, but I mean, he was a prodigy and I think he is a blindingly beautiful trumpeter. His interpretations of tunes you could say, run-of-the-mill pop tunes of the day, and he would bring a kind of magic to it…It brings the hair up on your arm, and Bix had it.”
For the past two decades, there’s been an annual Bix memorial concert in early August at Bliss Plaza, under the 7 train tracks at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard, near his former apartment, where period-themed musicians and dancers perform for free.
“Besides that, nobody in my neighborhood knows who Bix Beiderbecke is,” Martin said, noting it’s very meaningful for his band to play together in Davenport for the first time.
“It’s pretty amazing — when I told everyone that there was a chance that we were going to do this, because I know that’s what it means to them,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to play in front of people, but the fact that it’s Davenport, that’s awesome.”
On Saturday night (7:50 p.m. to 9 p.m.), the six-piece band will include Bix’s famous composition, “Singin’ the Blues,” in their set, played by trumpeter Charlie Caranicas.
“I think when you play this kind of music, especially if you’re a trumpeter, everybody learns that solo, everybody learns that recording so he could do that. But the challenge is to make it your own,” Martin said. In addition to himself and Caranicas, Creswell Club is comprised of Betina Hershey (vocals/guitar), Nick Russo (guitar/banjo), Jay Rattman (sax/clarinet), and Dan Monaghan (drums). They’ve played with Cécile McLorin, Jon Batiste, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, among others.
Bringing some Bix back to Bix 7 day
For the first time in 11 years, the Dixieland jazz of the 1920s will be part of Bix 7 race weekend, with the FREE music festival – The Heights of the Era, all day Saturday, July 24.
“We really miss Bix Beiderbecke music being part of Bix weekend,” said event organizer Michelle Solis Russell, partner in Russell Group (the Davenport-based construction and development firm). The aim is to offer a feeling of taking a step back in time to the roaring 1920s, while stepping forward into the rip-roaring 2020s’ future.
“Steve Trainor of the Bix Society has been wonderful to work with,” Russell said recently, noting the 50th anniversary of the Bix jazz festival, Aug. 5-7 at Rhythm City Casino Event Center, Davenport. “He understands we’re not trying to encroach on anything. We’re just trying to bring something back to that weekend, and give some awareness to what they are doing. We knew we wanted that feeling of nostalgia and sound.”
The Bix 7 race (which attracts thousands of runners, like Russell) began in 1975 and until 2011, the two events were held on the same weekend. 2011 was the first year the jazz fest was separated into its own weekend, to create more tourism opportunities for the Q-C area (since people come from around the world for the race and jazz), and to honor the anniversary of Bix’s death date, on Aug. 6.
Russell’s first memory of the Bix is the jazz festival at LeClaire Park, back in the ‘80s.
“Those are great memories for me,” she said. “I watched my dad run it. He’s not a runner, but when he turned 40, he said ‘I’m gonna run this,’ like a lot of people do. I’m a runner and I’ve run it many, many times. In 2019, the last time they held the race, I watched as a spectator down here.”
Russell went to what they thought would be the jazz fest, but it was the Street Fest (which is being replaced this weekend with several smaller block parties). “We were just really sad,” she said. “We said, what a shame. Where did this music go and when did this become not a thing? We talked at that time, we should really try to do something.”
After 2020, she and her husband Jim (CEO of Russell) wanted to do something near where they live, off River Drive, at Lindsay Park. “It’s a tremendous park that doesn’t flood, and it was time to put together a great event that hopefully will be well-received by the community,” Russell said. “It was perfect timing, we felt just had to do it.”
“Heights of the Era” is named in part for McClellan Heights, the nearby neighborhood. “A big part of why we were motivated to put this together and bring Bix music back to Bix weekend is make it a wider purpose of a day,” Russell said. “The race is awesome, but it’s one part of the day. What seems to be lacking is, where do you land for the rest of the day?”
The Heights of the Era will start with the race at 8 a.m., presenting 14 ½ hours of live music in the genres of 1910s – 1920s Dixieland; “O Brother Where Art Thou” style Bluegrass; Traditional Irish, Barbershop Quartet, and a cappella.
The lineup of live music (until 10:30 p.m.) will be broadcast on WVIK Quad Cities NPR (90.3 FM), from the racecourse stages (until 9:30 a.m.) and then Lindsay Park.
Russell said it was a lot less difficult to gather financial support than she thought it might be, to ensure it would be a free event.
“Our first reach out was to Jim,” she said of Jim Huiskamp, CEO of Blackhawk Bank & Trust. “He’s in the neighborhood,” Russell said of her friend. “They’re great partners in business, Blackhawk Bank & Trust. It just seemed like a totally natural thing. His boat is called the Music Man.”
“The fact that you did reach out to me first shows you how odd the world is,” Huiskamp said to Russell. “Did you know that Bix Beiderbecke spent time in my current house? I found that out from Kathy Wine’s son-in-law. He used to have jam sessions in the area.”
When Bix died, two of the Von Maur boys were pallbearers at his funeral, and one of them grew up in Huiskamp’s house, he said. “My grandfather knew Bix,” he added, noting they both were at University of Iowa together, in the same fraternity.
Huiskamp’s earliest memories of the Bix jazz fest were from his maternal grandmother, who loved that era.
“She was in Keokuk, Iowa, and she’d come up for a week and always stay with us during that week,” he said of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s.
“For me, that music I started to appreciate it when we went to Chicago and the clubs,” Huiskamp said. “I didn’t have appreciation for the music when I was younger. It’s been something that’s more acquired later in life.”
A former history teacher in Keokuk, he takes pride in the fact Bix was from Davenport and he made such a big mark on the jazz world.
“My grandpa Huiskamp knew Bix and my grandma Fallon loved the music. It’s just kind of – that history – Bix Beiderbecke, nobody around here really understands how amazing he was,” Huiskamp said. He marveled at an interview with trumpeter Louis Armstrong about Bix. “Bix could never turn it off; he’d want to keep going, keep going,” he said, paraphrasing Armstrong. “He didn’t want to sleep. He’d keep drinking and keep playing.”
“That stuff to me is fascinating,” Huiskamp said.
The Heights billboard headliner
The face of Heights of the Era (used in advertising) is not Bix, but 36-year-old Dallas native Matt Tolentino, a bandleader now based in Cincinnati and the last act Saturday.
When he was 8, he got a compilation of recordings from the 1920s and early ‘30s, his first exposure to this niche music. “It just kind of stuck with me in a way that music I had heard at the time, had not,” Tolentino said recently. “So it just kind of left an impression on me. And so, I’ve been chasing it ever since.”
At 11, he played clarinet in elementary school band; in high school, he added saxophone, tuba, piano, and accordion to the ranks. Much of high school was spent playing in jazz band, and on weekends playing gigs at private parties and in German restaurants. Contrary to his generation, “The Lawrence Welk Show” was part of Tolentino’s TV viewing, and he became enamored of music from 1895 to 1935.
A true multi-instrumentalist, he’s equally at home on accordion, clarinet, tuba, piano, tenor guitar, banjo, and saxophones, specializing in baritone and bass sax. Some of his influences include Vince Giordano, The New Leviathan Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra, Paul Whiteman and Scott Joplin.
Tolentino heads several bands, and on Saturday he’ll lead a 10-piece, authentic ‘20s dance band, playing banjo and singing.
“I find the music to be very genuine – the 1920s and the early ‘30s for that matter too, were the only period in time really where jazz music and pop music were interchangeable,” he said. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, there became a great divide between what was jazz and what was pop. The jazz music, I feel became overly cerebral, and the pop music became anything but jazz, you know? So they kind of grew apart but in the ‘20s, the popular music was jazz. So it’s a very exciting time for me — I just find that a very sincere time. I find it a very honest time.”
Tolentino first heard of Bix when he saw the 2001 Ken Burns “Jazz” documentary, which came out when he was in high school.
“I was aware of 1920s pop music, but not to the level of knowing much about Bix, because sadly, everyone talks about Louis Armstrong and names like that, but guys like Bix are kind of left out of the greater circle of things,” he said. “I thought the documentary did a great job of serving as an introduction.”
“That’s another reason I love this music, because it’s a never-ending study,” Tolentino said. Armstrong and Bix were contemporaries but “Satchmo” lived for another 40 years after Bix.
“Bix didn’t get the chance to live into the swing era and stretch his wings a bit, and explore the other styles of music that were to come, the way that Louis Armstrong did,” he said. “Bix was kind of robbed of being more well-known in jazz.”
It will be special for them to perform in Davenport. “Like Chicago and New York, it’s sort of the cradle of jazz,” Tolentino said.
It’s important to continue to honor Bix’s legacy, especially for young musicians, he said, noting he visited Davenport 15 years ago, but has never played here before.
“To let them know who Bix was, who his contemporaries were. Without things like the Bix Society spreading his legacy, that would be a lot farther down the pike, and a lot harder to spread the word,” Tolentino said. “You’ve got to be somebody special to have a whole festival named for you.”
“It’s going to be fun and it’s a real honor and I’m so glad that Michelle came up with the idea of doing this event,” he said. “I’m really grateful to her and all of the team for putting this together.”
There will be seven free, constant shuttles to take visitors from designated parking to Lindsay Park. For more information, visit www.theheightsoftheera.com/.
Jonathan Turner loves music and loves writing, so The Echo is a harmonious marriage of his twin passions. A pianist for 50 years, his undergrad and grad degrees are in music from Oberlin and Indiana, and he’s an accompanist for Zion Lutheran Church, Davenport. Turner has covered the Q-C arts and culture scene since 1995, including for the Dispatch-Argus and Quad-City Times, and for QuadCities.com and WVIK since March 2020.