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Bix Beiderbecke and to be able to reach to that unheard note: “Young Man with a Horn”

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Bix Beiderbecke and to be able to reach to that unheard note: “Young Man with a Horn”

28.01.2021

Text: Merdan Çaba Geçer 

Clint Eastwood’s Bird that stands in homage to the legendary Charlie Parker, Lady Sings the Blues where Diana Ross casts as Billie Holiday, Don Cheadle’s dream project Miles Ahead, Ray where Jamie Foxx won an Oscar with his performance... Although the history of cinema is filled with biographies focusing on the unforgettables in jazz, Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), which has just turned to 70, holds a special position in this category as it marks the first time a big budget Hollywood movie tells the story of a musical genious whose personal life was surrounded by tragedies.

American jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer Bix Beiderbecke rose to huge fame at an early age and passed away at the age of only 28, in 1931. Young Man with a Horn’s story mainly centers on the life and music of Beiderbecke, who was one of the most inspiring virtuosos of the 1920’s alongside Louis Armstrong and Muggsy Spanier. That said, it is hard to categorise this film as a sheer biography. A “loose adaptation” suits as a better description.

Although Young Man with a Horn is inspired by Dorothy Baker’s 1938 biography of the same title, American jazz writer and academic Scott Yanow suggests that it does not reflect his life and uses biographical materials arbitrarily. The film -possibly due to concerns over box-office return- makes a very different ending for the story too. Nevertheless, fictional trumpeter Rick Martin’s fights with gang leaders, his move from Chicago to New York and battle with alcoholism is quite familiar.

Imagining Beiderbecke as Rick Martin 

Rick Martin’s story begins when he sees a trumpet in a pawn shop as a little child. The ravishing melodies he hears as he walks past jazz clubs makes him stick his head out the window and lead the way to change his life. In a time when boundaries through colour drew sharp lines between people in the USA, Art Hazzard, a Black musician, hands the curious kid his first ever trumpet. We watch as Rick grows older in the hands of Hazzard, and assumes the form of Kirk Douglas.

Although he keeps dreaming on reaching to the highest and never heard note on the trumpet, he now has to find work in white orchestras in order to earn his keep. He is hardly an easy going person though; his passion for improvisation always gets him in trouble. On the other hand, his work buddies do not want him to hang out with Art Hazzard and his band. The contradictions between Black artists of the legendary New Orleans jazz scene and the white members of the populist dance orchestras lie in the very heart of the movie.

Besides pianist Smoke Willoughby and jazz vocalist Jo Jordan (played by Doris Day), the femme fatale archetype Amy North (played by Lauren Bacall) enters the story. The beginning of the end starts for Martin as his love towards this mysterious woman who shows no interest to his music or career grows, as he never makes it to that note he always wished to reach for and as he loses his dear mentor Hazzard.

Secret heroes: Harry James and Hoagy Carmichael

A write-up on Young Man with a Horn published in The New York Times in 1950 says: “But the unseen star of the picture is Harry James, the old maestro himself, who supplies the tingling music which flows wildly, searchingly and forlornly from Rick Martin's beloved horn. This is an instance where the soundtrack is more than a complementary force. It is the very soul of the Picture.”

The film truly draws its strength from the jazz tunes that are played to the viewer’s ears. The contribution of Harry James, who performs Rick Martin’s trumpet scenes, to the film is undeniable. A very famous trumpeter of his time, as well as an actor, James, also served as an advisor on the set and directed Kirk Douglas on how to use his instrument. Let’s also point out that the soundtrack album climbed up to the top of the Billboard charts at its time.

It is essential to mention famous pianist and lyricist Hoagy Carmichael as well. As Bix Beiderbecke’s close friend and musical partner, Carmichael, besides performing in the film, provided Douglas with various clues on the musician and helped him develop his performance. He performs as Martin’s best friend Smoke in the film. He at times breaks down the fourth wall and informs the viewer about the musician.

Young Man with a Horn’s darkens its screen with Hoagy Carmichael’s following monologue: “You see, Rick was a pretty hard guy to understand. And for a long time, he didn't understand himself. But the desire to live is a great teacher, and I think it taught Rick a lot of things. He learned you can't say everything through a trumpet. (…)  Maybe that's why Rick went on to be a success as a human being first and an artist second. And what an artist!”

Maybe Bix Beiderbecke is hearing these words up there somewhere, who knows… 

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