Obituary: Spiegle Willcox

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IT SEEMS unlikely that there's anyone still alive who heard the legendary Bix Beiderbecke in the flesh during the Twenties. Not only did the trombonist Spiegle Willcox do that, but also he actually played in the same band with the cornettist.

Beiderbecke and Willcox were together in the little-remembered but formidable Jean Goldkette orchestra of 1926 (Willcox had taken Tommy Dorsey's chair).

"The records never sounded the way we did in person," said Willcox. "They're just a shadow, just a hint. Bix? Well, you can't begin to imagine listening to those records what his tone really sounded like. You had to be there. You could never imagine it without hearing it for yourself."

In those days black and white did not mix in jazz bands. The leading jazz orchestra was the black one led by Fletcher Henderson (Ellington's band was immature at the time) but the white band led by Goldkette, a Frenchman who had trained as a concert pianist in Greece and Russia before emigrating to the United States in 1911, was reputedly better. Certainly Goldkette's band outplayed Henderson's when the two met at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York for a night billed as "The Battle of the Bands" in 1926. Beiderbecke would have scored many of the points.

When the Henderson band came to record "My Pretty Girl" in 1931, Henderson's trombonist Claude Jones made a note-for-note reproduction of the solo that Willcox had played on Goldkette's record tour years before.

Because of his friendship with Beiderbecke, for the rest of his long life Willcox was booked into Beiderbecke festivals at the drop of a whiskey glass.

"When Bix hit a note, it was like a girl saying `yes'," said the guitarist Eddie Condon, who has presumably been roistering with Bix in the alcoholics' heaven for the past quarter-century. Bix went there aged 28 in 1931.

Jazz fans become misty-eyed at the thought of dear old Bix being taken so young, and the imagination conjures up a wan face with tubercular pallor. The truth was different. Bix chose to drink himself to death and to have a loud and raving time doing it. In this he was like the other trumpet virtuoso Bunny Berigan, but unlike Berigan he didn't have a parent to look after him. A worried management, fearing Berigan's drinking excessively while on tour, hired his father to go with him to make sure that he didn't. The two drank each other under the table each night.

Despite the boozing, Beiderbecke was one of the most forward-looking musical thinkers of his time. "He was always at the piano, fooling around with modern stuff," remembered Willcox.

As a young man growing up in New York State, Willcox too was surrounded by the excesses of the Jazz Age. But, having enrolled at Manlius Military Academy in 1918 and stayed there for two years, he was made of sterner stuff. He had originally been taught to play the valve trombone by his father when the two played in the town band at Cortland, but changed to the slide version while at the academy. He left to join a band in Syracuse led by Al Deisseroth and played in several long-forgotten groups before joining Bob Causer's Big Four in 1922.

He was with this group when, in 1934, they were taken over by Paul Whiteman. Whiteman expanded the four into an orchestra, renamed it the Paul Whiteman Collegians and under his baton it became world- famous. Willcox left before this happened and joined the California Ramblers, a band that made more records than almost any other did and remained firmly based in New York. Once again, Willcox took over from the trombonist Tommy Dorsey.

By the time Willcox joined Goldkette in October 1925 the Frenchman's band had become almost as popular as Whiteman's and the two bands fought for the top spot throughout the rest of the Twenties - Whiteman always stayed ahead. But Godkette's band included top jazz stars who, apart from Beiderbecke, included while Willcox was there Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the guitarist Eddie Lang and the violinist Joe Venuti. "We got our hand from the musicians," said Willcox, "but Whiteman got his from the crowds."

Willcox eventually left Goldkette to go into the family business in June 1927. While working there he put together his own band to work for evenings and weekends in Syracuse. This was very successful, but it and the business kept him away from the limelight for many years until the Bix Beiderbecke cottage industry grew up and he was called upon to play at reunions, recitals and festivals.

His return to the limelight began when, already an old man, he played at the Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke at Carnegie Hall in 1975, and after that he continued throughout the rest of his life to play festivals in the US and Europe. His trombone solos were eloquent and unadorned, sticking largely to the style used by Tommy Dorsey in his earlier years.

Earlier this summer Willcox played at a New Orleans Jazz festival in Ascona, Switzerland. A friend of mine went to hear him and I asked how Willcox had sounded.

"Like a very old man playing a trombone," he answered.

It figures.

Newell "Spiegle" Willcox, trombonist: born Sherburne, New York 2 May 1903; married (two sons, one daughter); died Cortland, New York 25 August 1999.