It’s Jazz Week here at The Retro Set! Put your glad rags on while we cut a rug, because from August 3rd through August 8th the Retro Set is diggin’ the swingin’ beat of some of the greatest jazz musicians in history as we look at the role jazz plays in film. Today guest contributor Lindsay Affleck (a talented trumpeter in her own right) revisits Kirk Douglas in Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), the powerful drama inspired by the life and music of jazz pioneer Bix Biederbecke.
Eighty four years and two days ago, on a hot summer night in Queens, cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke succumbed to pneumonia most likely brought on by his lifelong struggle with alcohol. It was August 6, 1931, and the jazz legend was only 28 years old. Bix, (and I refer to him here by first name because like all the jazz greats their first names invoke all that they were: Dizzy, Louis, Miles…) because of the way he played and the way he lived, and his music that still lives on, has also come to stand for an iconic type of jazz legend: the tragic talent felled by an early death.
Films dealing with jazz figures or the history of the art form often emphasize the desire of the musician to play “authentic” music that means something to them. Oftentimes this delineation is made by the simple dichotomy of what is commercial and what is not, as well as the difference between legitimate and popular art. In many Classical Hollywood films, populist jazz is pitted against “respectable” classical music. But curiously, jazz on its own finds itself divided into categories of value as well. Certain types of jazz are validated while others are condemned, mostly on the notion that music as a commercial enterprise sucks the art and true pleasure out of it.
Thus the trope of the jazz musician as the ever-striving artist becomes important. What drives a musician, and what are the potential pitfalls of their craft? In someone like Bix Beiderbecke, we understand the talent and the innovation. Dorothy Baker must have heard something in his music that lead her to create protagonist Rick Martin in her debut novel, Young Man with a Horn, which was published seven years after Bix’s death in 1938. In fact she writes in her dedication that “The inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke…” Baker’s book, and the later Warner Brothers’ film adaptation of it, ultimately is a portrait not of Bix himself, but perhaps the jazz artist created in his image.
By the time Young Man with a Horn was published, the traditional jazz era marked by styles of collective improvisation had moved on into the larger ensembles and style of the big band swing era. By 1950, when Young Man with a Horn was released in theaters, jazz as a mainstream popular form was already pretty much gone, replaced by bebop on the jazz side and the rise of rock n’ roll.
Warner Brothers’ adaptation of Baker’s novel is a biography like her book, and contrary to many descriptions of the film today (Amazon, I’m looking at you), it is not a straight biography of Bix Beiderbecke. In fact, Warner Brothers hoped to minimize any allusions to Bix because of potential issues of copyright and dealing with the family. Instead it focuses on the life of Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas), a young trumpeter growing up in the New York City scene. The film seems firmly rooted in the swing era, even though narrator “Smoke” Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) mentions in the opening of the film that he and Rick Martin were there at the “beginning of jazz.” Ultimately, Young Man with a Horn is a film about the obsession with his craft that drives Rick Martin to the edge and how it affects those close to him.
Boasting a top acting trio in Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall, the film also is loaded with talent behind the camera with director Michael Curtiz and co-screenwriters Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North. The opening title sequence reveals another important player in the creation of the film in “Musical Advisor” Harry James. James, himself a well-known bandleader and movie star, agreed to dub Douglas’ trumpet playing for the film and serve as an advisor. He was paid $25,000 for the eight weeks of work he put into the film. Later, he and star Doris Day would record a popular Columbia Records release of the soundtrack of the film. When I first saw this film, knowing it was supposedly loosely based on Bix’s life, I found it odd that Warners found literally the antithesis of Bix’s pure cornet playing in James’ powerful, sizzling trumpet schmaltz.
Beginning with Rick’s childhood, Curtiz paints the picture of a lonely child being brought up by his absent older sister. Left to his own devices, Rick first teaches himself piano by using the local church’s facilities every night. Seeing the array of instruments in a local pawn shop window, Rick becomes interested in the trumpet. This is compounded when he is lured away to a nearby jazz club after hearing the sounds of a band playing. Staying late at night to hear Art Hazzard (Juano Hernández) and his combo play, Rick is soon taught the ropes of the instrument by Hazzard. Rick idolizes Art as a father figure and also as a musician.
Curtiz de-emphasizes the harsher realities of race relations and integration during this time but allows Rick and Art to have a well developed, close friendship throughout. However, Curtiz does insert a few subtle references to race throughout the film. As Rick grows up, he finds most of his work in all white jazz bands, but plays nights at the local club where Art plays as a favor to his mentor, who in his older age has lost some of his prowess on the horn. In one scene near the middle of the film, the ballroom owner who employs him confronts Rick. He asks Rick why he goes out for another set with Art at Galba’s club after finishing his playing duties at the ballroom. The owner argues that Rick is a draw over at the smaller club, and he plays for free. Eventually the owner lets it slip that in reality he doesn’t understand why Rick would want to play with black musicians, and Rick angrily storms out of the club.
Art warns Rick early on about his obsession with achieving greatness on the horn, a concern that singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day) later echoes when she tells Rick that he should have other hobbies in addition to his job as a trumpet player. But for Rick, music is all he knows and wants. With Art, most of their communication is done through trading fours on the bandstand, and he often dominates conversation with Jo with technical trumpet talk. Jo, presented as a warm, caring individual who has some romantic interest in Rick, is described one-dimensionally as “a good singer” when he first discusses her with the other main female character in the film, Amy North (Lauren Bacall). Amy becomes interested in Rick because of his one-track mind and achievements as a musician. A college student who admits that she does many things, but none of them well, Rick’s obsession and mastery of the trumpet intrigues her. Noticing that Rick is spending the nights he used to play at Galba’s with Amy instead, Jo stops by his apartment to warn Rick about Amy, who she describes as a troubled and strange girl. As Jo pours out this information, Amy emerges from the shadows behind Rick and he announces that they were married the previous night.
Moving from his threadbare musician quarters into Amy’s luxury flat is a lifestyle change for Rick that doesn’t seem to suit him. In several shots, Curtiz catches Rick as almost a stranger in his own house, looking decidedly out of place among the rich and expansive space. Again, money and commercial success are portrayed as undesirable in Rick’s mind; he’s chasing that elusive high note. His record collection, really the only possessions he cares about besides his trumpet, are given places among the apartment shelves, but it is obvious that Amy shares little of Rick’s enthusiasm for the music.
Amy soon decides to go back to school, leaving Rick and her on opposite schedules. One night, after returning late and falling asleep on the couch, Rick opens the bedroom door to reveal that Amy never slept there that night. It’s no wonder their marriage fails because, as Jo has mentioned earlier in the film, Rick is really married to his trumpet. As he angrily tells Amy during their later falling out, “That trumpet is part of me. It’s the best part, and you almost made me forget that.”
In a drunken rage, he takes out his anger on a concerned Art Hazzard, who is later killed in an automobile accident before Rick can make amends. Despondent, Rick continues to drink, losing his ability to play. Missing notes in a recording session with Jo, Rick commits one of the most heinous acts of trumpet abuse seen on screen, destroying his horn over a chair. He announces that he’s done with playing, and eventually drinks himself into an alcoholic ward with pneumonia. Unlike Baker’s novel (and Beiderbecke’s life), he’s rescued by Smoke, and instead is given a chance to make a new life with Jo.
Young Man With A Horn is really an actor’s film, and what could be a one-note melodramatic story is brought along by the efforts of the three leads. Douglas does brooding and seething beneath the surface better than anyone and his transformation from idealistic, driven young man to bitter washout is stark. Day is allowed to be her usual radiant self and the film is really a chance for her to showcase her singing talent. Although Harry James’ playing is being dubbed in, Day is given the full movie star treatment in her musical numbers, and the action somewhat grinds to a halt around each soundtrack selection. Where Day is the caring, sympathetic “good girl,” Bacall represents the “dangerous women” with dubious intentions. She really steps into Amy’s persona of crumbling self-esteem glossed over with cool control.
Playing six degrees of Bix Beiderbecke, pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael himself had played with Bix back in the 1920s. It has been said the Bix’s own compositional and improvisational style rubbed off a bit on Carmichael’s own work, and Carmichael writes fondly of Bix in his memoirs. Here as Smoke Willoughby, Carmichael is given narration duties, and the story is told from his recollections. I’ve always admired Carmichael not only for his talents as a musician but also for the grounded and worldly characters he seemed to always bring to life on screen.
From what I know, Rick Martin’s fictional life is nothing really like Bix’s. However I think the film does paint an interesting picture of the internal drive of an artist and the fine line they walk between greatness and madness. As Dorothy Baker alluded to in her dedication, there lives a special something inside the best musicians that gives them the impetus to push the boundaries, and we can hear that in the music of these great players. Rick loves his craft as much as I’m sure Bix did, for the pure delight and challenge of making good music. Unlike him, Rick gets to go to the edge and come back. I often wish Bix had gotten that Hollywood ending.