On Bix Beiderbecke's Birthday, Meet Mike Davis, Who Carries the Cornet Flame

Mar 10, 2017

Mike Davis
Credit Jane Kratochvil

The cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born on this day in 1903, came to his jazz career in a burst of youthful impertinence. For a white musician of his background — born into a striving German-American community in Davenport, Iowa — jazz was strictly disreputable stuff, and not just for its African-American ownership.

The music went hand-in-hand with a spirit of illicit associations — as well as an association with illicit spirits, which is what ultimately ended Beiderbecke’s life at the tragic age of 28.  

Mike Davis is 25, and plays Beiderbecke’s instrument with reverential flair. But he had a different path in most respects.

Growing up in Seattle, Davis started playing the trumpet at age 9, later moving east to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where his mentors included the late brass guru Laurie Frink. He gravitated to jazz in an age when the most dangerous thing about it would seem to be its tenuousness as a source of income.

“I was 20 and halfway through college when I first heard improvised jazz performed in the style of the 1920s,” Davis recalled this week in an email, “and immediately started listening and trying to play that way; I didn't know anyone was doing that!”

As it happened, Davis was joining a cohort of upstart jazz revivalists in New York, part of a vibrant “hot jazz” scene. You can reliably find him at the beloved Tuesday-night jam session at Mona’s Bar; with new-trad groups like Emily Asher’s Garden Party; or leading his own band, the New Wonders. Davis and the New Wonders are gearing up to play a Bix Beiderbecke Birthday Bash on Monday, March 13, at the Bickford Theater at the Morris Museum, in Morristown, New Jersey.

Mike Davis
Credit Jane Kratochvil

“Listening to recordings of Bix shaped my approach to sound,” says Davis, “in that all the instruments in a jazz band were designed to balance with each other long before the invention of the microphone, and they all produce a better tone at mezzo forte.”

Among the Beiderbecke-associated tunes in the New Wonders repertoire is “Clarinet Marmalade,” which the cornetist made with his closest associate, the great C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. Another classic in the book is “Reaching for Someone (And Not Finding Anyone There),” which Beiderbecke and Trumbauer recorded with the popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra, alongside Bing Crosby, in 1929.

This track might be notable more as a curio in Crosby’s career than for any contribution by Beiderbecke. Gary Giddins, in his book Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940, has this to say: “The potentially vital ‘Reaching For Someone,’ a [Bill] Challis arrangement recorded on Bing’s twenty-sixth birthday, is marred by his misguided attempt to vocally mimic Tram’s saxophone glissandi at the turnbacks, a tasteless conceit in an otherwise fine performance and one he never repeated.”

Still, the song has been a staple among the hot jazz crowd; Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have made it into a fan favorite. In his version, Davis not only plays the cornet part but also sings the lyrics, in a throwback patter. Here’s a performance of the tune filmed at Club Bonafide in New York last April.

Davis is planning to release a new album with the New Wonders this spring. His personnel at the Bickford Theater will consist of Dan Levinson on clarinet, Joe McDonough on trombone, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Jared Engel on banjo, Jay Rattman on bass saxophone and Jay Lepley on drums.