An exploration of the Bix Beiderbecke story
conducted loosely around the book:
‘BIX: MAN AND LEGEND’
by RICHARD M SUDHALTER,
PHILIP R EVANS and WILLIAM DEAN-MYATT
(Quartet Books, 1974
Bix Beiderbecke was there, the Jazzer with the enjoyably alliterative name – a mild, un-flamboyant self-taught white musician. Myth loves the doomed young demon-haunted martyr. And to Jazz, Bix is both its James Dean and its Buddy Holly. Benny Green observed that ‘sanity long ago fled in wild disorder from the task of interpreting his career, but about the end of his career there is little dispute’ – after transforming the possibilities of future-Jazz, Bix would be dead of alcoholic excess aged just twenty-eight.
When playwright Alan Plater scripted the hugely-enjoyable comedy-drama ‘The Beiderbecke Affair’ for ITV-television in January 1985, with Geordie actor James Bolam as a jazz-loving woodwork teacher working in and around Leeds in Yorkshire, with an opening theme and soundtrack of Bix Beiderbecke-style Jazz played by Frank Ricotti and Kenny Baker, there was much water-cooler speculation concerning even the veracity of Bix’s existence. Was he real… or an Alan Plater fabrication, contrived from strands of music mythology?
An upstart protégé from the outset he’d rather boogie-woogie than study parentally-approved ‘serious music’, weaving intuitive improvisations around set lessons, while able to memorise complete piano scores after a single hearing – complete with the tutor’s ‘clams’ or occasional bum notes. Later he taught himself cornet by playing along to Nick ‘DJ’ LaRocca on older brother Burnie’s Original Dixieland ‘Jassband’ recording of “Tiger Rag” c/w “Skeleton Jangle” (Victor, 1918). Inspired amateurism colluded with a concerted and solitary self-discipline to give Bix his unique Conn Victor Bb cornet style. Technically he ‘played all wrong’. Musician Joe Gustat commented ‘your fingering is all backwards – I’m not sure I even understand how you get some of those notes to come out in tune.’ Yet the style that would give him legendary status would also provide an important demarcation from ‘serious music’ – and hence the respectability that Bix would later need.
He hung around High School Bands and riverboat musicians, reputedly running into a teenage Louis Armstrong, the future King Oliver protégé, the two developing a mutual respect. Bix pestered pro bands and visiting Chicago musicians to sit-in and learn from their horn-players. He worked around Davenport with New Orleans cornet-player Emmett Louis Hardy, filching ideas. Plagued by his non-acceptance from the local 67 chapter of the American Federation Of Musicians the young German with the battered horn carried in a brown paper bag played dances and outings with a clutch of bizarrely-named ensembles – Neal Buckley’s Novelty Orchestra, the Plantation Jazz Orchestra and ultimately the Bix Beiderbecke Five. He was a good athlete, a life-long baseball fan, and an immaculate dresser, ‘clear-eyed, hair parted just off the middle in the fashion of the day… a combination of elements sketched into his face – seriousness and refinement, with white middle-class good manners, youth and romanticism.’
Bix skipped classes and got drunk, resulting in growing academic and parental disapproval. Ultimately, stoned on 85% proof ‘Ed Pinauds Face Lotion’ he led the morning service rendition of “Rock Of Ages” in syncopated Dixieland style – and was expelled. He retreated into Chicago for jam sessions and drinking binges, garnering an enviable reputation in both areas of achievement, before being hauled home by his father. He made an effort to conform to his parent’s wishes, working for a period as weighing clerk and bill-collector for his father’s East Davenport Coal And Lumber Company – all the time playing locally and on the riverboats, ‘beginning to punctuate his choruses with unusual intervals and excursions into the sixth and ninth voice of chords in ways unheard-of among jazzmen in the 1920s.’ The wild trips also continued – he played Syracuse, impressing Eddie Condon, he rode to New York slurping up the sounds while seeking out his life-long Sicilian-American hero, ‘DJ’ LaRocca.
When at last granted a union card, despite his inability to read music, he joined the now-legendary Wolverines shortly after their formation. Taking its name from Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues”, they were the first white Jazz band to be made up wholly of non-New Orleans musicians, accelerating the proliferating spread of Jazz while expanding its vocabulary. They played energetic catchy non-intellectual Jazz, gaudy and naïve. But they were to provide Bix’s first step into history, the first of three bands that would ignite the mythology. Playing free-jamming Dixieland at a gangster-frequented gambling and bootleg-booze joint – where they served illicit whiskey in coffee cups, Bix moved into a YMCA in Hamilton a few miles down the road from Chicago. As the seven-piece band’s reputation spread there were after-hours cutting sessions with visiting players, including the seventeen-year-old cornetist Wild Bill Davison. While Bix took the opportunity to check out visiting musicians. In 1923 he went to the Lincoln Gardens with Hoagy Carmichael to hear King Oliver (by now with Louis Armstrong). Carmichael wrote ‘Bix was on his feet, his eyes popping.’ Eventually a New Year battle between rival gangland factions, to which the Wolverines provide an aural backdrop, closed the ‘Stockton Club’. They moved on, driving their phaetons into Cincinnati playing dime-a-dance ballrooms and the Doyle’s Dancing Academy.
The Wolverines got to cut their first record in wintry 18 February 1924, on a 78rpm shellac single combining the good-time ensemble playing of “Jazz Me Blues” b/w “Fidgity Feet” for the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett label (1924, Gennett 5408). Despite such positive developments they hit hard times for a while, but hit pay-dirt playing the Rainbow Casino and the Indiana University campus where they provoked ovations. Bix hung out with Hoagy, they listened to Stravinsky and Ravel together. Bix improving his not-inconsiderable keyboard skills by absorbing Debussy. Bix’s classical allegiances lay in the direction of the impressionists and the modern tonal composers. Bix and Hoagy talked philosophy and books, read PG Wodehouse novels from which Bix picked up the mock-English accent he adopted when the mood moved him.
Thirteen more recordings for Gennett followed. With a second single consisting of Carmichael’s first composition “Riverboat Shuffle” (May 1924, Gennett 5454) – renamed, at Bix’s suggestion, from his original ‘Free Wheeling’ title, and Charlie Davis’ “Copenhagen” (Gennett 5453) which was named – not after the Danish city, but after a brand of chewing tobacco! They also did “Tiger Rag”, a side that indicates Bix’s phenomenal progression, using notes and figure-constructions that were increasingly innovative. The Wolverines played odd vaudeville gigs, attracting the attention of Red Nichols who lifted Bix’s “Jazz Me Blues” cornet solo for his Pop hit “You’ll Never Get To Heaven With Those Eyes”. Bix also jammed on piano with Mezz Mezzrow’s houseband.
Like Mezzrow, Louis Armstrong and the Wolverine’s drummer – Vic Berton, Bix smoked dope at the time. ‘Gage’ as it was known, was smuggled up the Mississippi by musicians and vagrant workers to sell in speakeasies around the riverfront for a dime a joint. There were also female camp followers. Bix dated Ruth Shaffner steadily, and there was some talk of marriage when she became pregnant. Instead, the pregnancy was terminated. Some proto-groupies accompanied the band on their hair-raising four-day cross-country trek to New York to fill out engagements that took Manhattan by storm. The Wolverines played straight tight hot Jazz, spurning the novelty commercial affectations that were the Big Apple’s norm, with Bix emphasising melody, while – unlike Armstrong, rarely straying into upper register. The essence of Jazz has always been in small-group line-ups, where soloists have space to both complement and compete. Bix played ‘with all fingers up, and leaned over at the floor at about a forty-five degree angle. They’d take about ten ‘last’ choruses on each tune, standing around the drummer and playing at him. It was frantic.’
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With no Social Media or TV, with both radio and the record industry in their infancy, the viral contagion of Jazz spread geographically, north up the river to Chicago, hopping east and west on the railroads and freeways to New York and Los Angeles, spawning new Jazz-centres with their own regional flavour. Yet, as JE Berendt notes – reporting a Californian musician, ‘the coloured men have ideas. But if you see who’s got the famous names, they’re all white.’ Music is the leveller. For a real musician, race or social status means nothing. Either you can play… or you can’t. If you can cut it, you get respect. Bix could play in a uniquely idiosyncratic way that demanded attention. A musician later commented that he could play anything that he could think. Louis Armstrong, by contrast – who was revolutionising black Jazz at the same time, as part of the Fletcher Henderson band a few city-blocks away from the Wolverines, had fought his way up from America’s worst social ghetto, the incredible poverty of New Orleans, and the Blues was etched across every note he played. They were travelling two parallel but intersecting evolutions, happening simultaneously.
Later recordings, such as the 1928 Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra credit for “Crying All Day” – selected as the theme of the TV ‘The Beiderbecke Affair’, bears witness that Bix’s approach was that of a classicist in the European tradition within the Jazz genre. He was well-distanced from the Blues. His love of Jazz, and his contribution to both black and white streams of the music cannot be understated. Yet he was a white middle-class kid who showed little interest in tracing Jazz back to its black roots. Maybe if he’d lived longer? Yet even at this stage in his career – playing at his hardest, roughest and most intuitive, there was an oddly Scott Fitzgerald charisma about Bix.
Then Bix got an offer, and started the second phase of his career. On 10 October 1924 he quit the Wolverines, a band he’d already outgrown. They would continue without him. Meanwhile he cut two sides with Miff Mole and Frank ‘Tram’ Trumbauer as part of the one-off Sioux City Six group – “Flock O’Blues” c/w “I’m Glad” (1924, Gennett 5569), then headed for Detroit and the big-time Jean Goldkette Orchestra. For Bix, a major step into ‘professional’ music. There were initial troubles with Bix’s new band at record dates and radio broadcasts, caused by his inability to read music. He’s said to have had a Western novel on his music stand instead! The Goldkette band relied heavily on scores that left precise spaces for its soloists – including Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti, to play hot unscripted. Improvisation was where he came into his own, but Bix was technically unprepared for ensemble discipline. So he was laid off for a year to brush up on his reading chores.
During the free downtime he guested on a Marion McKay single – for which he collected a $30 session fee, and also recorded sides with Tommy Dorsey – as a drunken Bix Beiderbecke Rhythm Jugglers, recording Bix’s composition “Davenport Blues” (as Genett 5654). A future standard, it would yield countless covers, from Gil Evans, Bobby Hackett and Ry Cooder, to Alex Welsh in the UK. Unsubstantiated stories persist that he also recorded with Red Nichols during this period. He studied music at the University Of Iowa, as per Goldkette’s instructions, but was expelled following a brawl. Instead he skulked around the nation’s Jazz centres high on bathtub booze and chords until 25 September when he opened at the St Louis Arcadia Ballroom as part of a pick-up Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra, with Pee Wee Russell. Bix traded intense licks with ‘Tram’s’ C-melody sax, evolving chase-sequences of startling empathy, with each soloist striving to outdo the other. Eventually – in the spring of 1926, Bix, Trumbauer and Russell were grafted back into the twelve-piece Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra to play a club on Lake Hudson and do radio broadcasts.
As Goldkette was an absentee bandleader, Tram acted as musical director, while William Challis – later to transcribe Bix’s “In A Mist”, worked on arrangements. At the time, as listed by the thorough appendices in Sudhalter’s book, the band played concert numbers, symphonic dance arrangements, hot tunes and medleys of old dance tunes, plus Pop songs such as “Five Foot Two Eyes Of Blue” – it was, after all, the golden age of the ‘Vo-doe-de-o, vo-doe-doe-de-o-doe’ trio harmonies, all punctuated by piano, sax, trumpet and banjo solos. Much later (June 1975) Bill Challis was to re-arrange another Goldkette number, “Sunny Disposition” – for Manhattan Transfer. For Bix it was an uneasy environment in which to operate, yet one way or another it was a period into which he was able to insinuate some of his best work. At the club, Mezz Mezzrow and Benny Goodman, escaping from Chicago, sat in at weekends. During a later tour of the eastern seaboard, a ‘Roseland Ballroom’ gig confronted the Goldkette Orchestra with the all-black Fletcher Henderson outfit – which sported the legendary Coleman Hawkins. In the ensuing ‘Battle Of The Bands’, the white college-looking kids vindicated themselves, and set New York on its ear. Again JE Berendt commented on the racial demarcation of Jazz – ‘we’ve now had Jazz for fifty years, and in all those fifty years there has been not a single white man, perhaps leaving aside Bix, who has had an idea.’
There were recording sessions for Victor that resulted in “Proud Of A Baby Like You” (Victor 20469, 1927), and the Goldkette band’s biggest selling title “I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now” (Victor 20675, 1927) which goes some way to proving Berendt’s assertion. There were also extra-curricular activities involving Bix sitting in with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club during a drunken odyssey. Tram had been approached by OKeh records, and in February he headed a scratch-band featuring Bix alongside Jimmy Dorsey’s clarinet to record “Trumbology” and “Singing The Blues” for them, issued as by the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra. Bix’s beautifully intense, brooding solo on the latter title carefully builds to a typical tumbling mid-point break – making the slow-tempo ballad swing, followed by a surprise sound detonation. It’s one of his finest moments, and possibly the most plagiarised and imitated solo in Jazz history, to the extent that Beat Poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) writes that – ‘like ‘Hamlet’’, “Singing The Blues” is full of quotations (in ‘Blues People: Negro Music In White America’, 1966, MacGibbon and Kee). Fletcher Henderson paid it the tribute of recording it twice. Francis Newton (Eric Hobsbawn) later described the sides as ‘chamber music Jazz’, and discovered in Bix’s solos an ‘astonishing combination of melodious sweetness, drive, spontaneous sophisticated Jazz sense’ and ‘a constant, veiled melancholy, even in his most joyous solos’ that ‘can still move us’ (in ‘The Jazz Scene’, 1960, Penguin Books).
We – the listeners, develop baffles of incomprehension decade-upon-decade as new musics distance and veneer older music-forms, refocusing ears, until it’s virtually impossible to listen without preconceptions. This music was happening a hundred years ago. A long time. Yet this was Bix at his creative peak, clean, well-defined white solos that remain valid, much imitated and influential. The raw rough energy of Jazz had yet to undergo the intellectualisation of the BeBop revolution, but within its limitations Bix’s pure cornet was a sophisticating element. Among the music of its time, Bix is still accessible. Listen to the clips on YouTube. It’s impossible not to stylishly tap your toe.
The Goldkette band toured non-stop, with Bix recording more sides under both guises. A Trumbauer release of “Ostrich Walk” was a Bix-Challis arrangement of LaRocca’s old Original Dixieland Jazz Band number. Tram, Bix and (Eddie) Lang also made trio recordings together. But not much later the Goldkette band broke up – largely due to financial mismanagement. They left “Clementine (From New Orleans)” (Victor 25283), perhaps the Orchestra’s best recording, featuring a long knife-edged Bix solo.
Bix, Tram, guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti, and some of Bill Challis’ arrangements were carried over into a brief, and economically-disastrous band – saxophonist Adrian Rollini’s New Yorkers. But more recordings followed under various mastheads, the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra, the Broadway Bellhops – Pop records with vocals by Irving Kaufman, the Willard Ribison Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke And His Gang – dipping into the Original Dixieland Jazz Band repertoire again for “At The Jazz Band Ball”, and the beautiful Claude Debussy-esque piano exercise “In A Mist”, written by Bix and going out in his own name. Where some music of the period now sounds quaint and twee, “In A Mist” retains its ability to transcend time, and still speaks directly, both loose yet jaunty, it’s a smooth fragmentation of notes that anticipates Thelonious Monk.
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To end this freelancing period Bix and Tram finally accept a long-held invitation to join Bill Challis in the hugely popular twenty-seven piece Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As part of the Whiteman line-up Bix received an astronomical $200 a week, and played alongside both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby and Ed Lang. Although this proved to be Bix’s greatest period of mass acceptance, many consider that it was creatively an ‘artistic defection.’ Benny Green records it as the ‘one blot on his copybook, the sole act for which posterity finds it difficult to forgive him.’ In his excellent book ‘The Reluctant Art’ (MacGibbon, 1962), Benny notes that ‘there were huge blanks in his musical education, and he evidently became increasingly aware of them. He must also have realised the comic ineptitude of many of the musicians with whom he worked.’
As with fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll, the entertainment industry had yet to come to terms with the Jazz phenomenon, it still retained its adolescent sweat, its exploitable novelty value. Self-misnamed the ‘King Of Jazz’, there was a vaudevillian – occasionally Wild West Show aspect to the Paul Whiteman band. They wore uniforms, an ethos that extended into the music itself. Yet it was within its jazz-influenced syncopated dance music that Bix took token hot solos to display his skill. Jazz writer Marshall Stearns wrote that ‘Jazz-loving record buyers wore out the grooves occupying a fraction of an inch on a Whiteman recording, concentrating on a few well-chosen notes by Bix. Their judgement appears sound today.’ Much as, decades later, fans would drop the stylus precisely at Eric Clapton solos on Delaney And Bonnie tracks, or on Cream’s “Badge”, or for Jeff Beck solos on Yardbirds singles. The records the Jazzers listened to – for which Bix got $67.50 a side, included “Mary” – the earliest Bix Whiteman classic, Gershwin’s “Concerto In F”, Rodgers And Hart’s “You Took Advantage Of Me” – with exciting Bix-Tram chase choruses, and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with vocalist Jack Fulton – all for Victor. One of the better sides from this period was a perfect version of “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth The Salt Of My Tears”, with the twenty-four-year-old Bing Crosby’s vocals interrupted by a jaggedy Bix cornet-break that pours out at the listener as if snatched from some other era entirely, like a smack in the mind.
Then came the pretentious and overblown “Grand Fantasia From Wagneriana”, “Tchaikowskiana”, Grofé’s “Metropolis” and many more, issued through Columbia. During one live broadcast the eccentric Joe Venuti reputedly vented his disapproval of his employer’s violin playing by snatching Whiteman’s instrument in mid-solo, chewing it up and spitting the pieces at Whiteman’s feet! For Bix, an important part of his Whiteman stint had been that it brought a respectability from which his unorthodox technique had previously barred him. Although there was inevitable musical dissatisfaction with the band’s imposed limitations.
One escape-route from Bix’s impasse was the inevitable after-hours jams with a range of musicians, moonlighting with Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa, Joe Sullivan and pianist Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Louis Armstrong came around backstage to rap. Bix also met Maurice Ravel – they spoke engrossed in a speakeasy. Bix even renewed his acquaintance with his early idol, the then-fading LaRocca in New Orleans. Another escape-route out from under the Whiteman yoke was splinter line-ups for further recordings. There were Trumbauer releases and records under Bix’s own name for OKeh, including Rodgers And Hart’s “Thou Swell”. Yet another escape route – of course, was booze.
The musical triple-life, accentuated by the pace of touring he’d already began to dread, was telling on Beiderbecke. He took part in CBS networked radio broadcasts sponsored by ‘Old Gold’ cigarettes – a brand Bix hated, then he was involved in an epic cross-continent train-tour that wound up in Los Angeles for the filming of Whiteman’s projected ‘King Of Jazz’ movie (1930 for Universal, produced by Carl Laemmle Jr). Bix was there playing at celebrity parties for Whiteman that were attended by guesting Hollywood ‘A’-listers Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton, but mostly he hid out in a crumbling Laurel Canyon hacienda, drinking. Boozing heavily, he was there instead of filming, until, by his brief hospitalisation with pneumonia in 1930, he was hopelessly addicted. There’s a story that at one point he collapsed onstage in mid-chorus, and that Benny Goodman retrieved the instrument and completed the passage for him. Weakened by illness he had a breakdown in a Cleveland hotel that seems to have been an acute attack of delirium tremens brought on by attempted self-withdrawal. He was also badly injured, probably by a broken bottle in the groin, in a badly-documented and not-satisfactorily explained fracas. Following the breakdown he was invalidated out of the Orchestra, and attended a sanatorium to dry out. He convalesced with his parents back home in Davenport. The retreat becoming to Bix what Woodstock would later become to a methedrine-crazed Bob Dylan.
Gingerly and nervously, as the Stock Market crashed and the bottom was dropping out of the entertainment business, Bix took faltering steps back into active Jazz. He played on the New York Radio ‘Camel Pleasure Hour’, jammed with James ‘Bubber’ Miley, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa and did sessions. He played with Trumbauer on the ‘Tram’ composition “Loved One”, and played unsatisfactory sessions in September as Bix Beiderbecke And His Orchestra, with Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Gene Krupa. For his final recording session – 15 September 1930, with a Hoagy Carmichael Orchestra that featured Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Jimmy Dosey (clarinet) and Charles Winters (double bass), Bix played on the original version of Hoagy’s new song and future-standard “Georgia On My Mind” (issued as Victor 23013). He also published, but did not record, his own sheet-music compositions “Flashes” and “In The Dark”… but inevitably got drawn back to the booze. Whiteman held his chair vacant, but the prospect of tour-fatigue and its possible consequences terrified Bix. He visited the New York Bellevue Morgue to ‘look at the stiffs’ – an incident that Jack Teagarden suggests as a premonition of his increasingly fatalistic view of his drinking.
After deliberating with the idea of forming his own band, Bix fluffed an opportunity set up for him by Challis to join the cooperative Casa Loma Band. The failure spun him into prolonged binges with Eddie Condon. Withdrawn into a dingy New York apartment, cold and with a sickly pallor, drinking three milk-bottles-full of gin a day, Bix died after a final nightmare seizure 6 August 1931. The cause of death was specified as pneumonia, but rumour blamed wholly or partly his alcoholism, via the inhalation of vomit. A phase of the twentieth-century’s greatest adventure died with him.
According to LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Bix’s emotional core was his conscious or unconscious disapproval and rejection of the tenets of his own white middle-class German-American culture. In doing so, he became ‘the first white musician who brought to the Jazz he created any of the ultimate concern negro musicians brought to it as a casual attitude of their culture.’ Marshall Stearns agrees, in that ‘although he tried, Bix couldn’t play the New Orleans negro style with any conviction.’ Instead, he played a more cerebral white classical Jazz, accelerating the slow seismic integration of black and white musics by establishing a splinter tradition that would later number Stan Kenton and Stan Getz. To Benny Green ‘Bix was the first Jazz musician who felt obliged to attempt a widening of the harmonic scope of Jazz by grafting onto it some of the elementary movements of modern harmony, the first improviser to try to take the patterns beyond the primitive shapes of New Orleans and give them a tint of the impressionist composers of Europe.’
Although largely unrecognised at the time, outside of the tight world of Jazz, the Bix story instantly assumed its own momentum. Because myth loves the doomed young demon-haunted martyr. He was ‘Rick Martin’ ‘The Young Man With A Horn’ – the title of a 1938 novel amplified around the Bix legend by Dorothy Baker (filmed in 1950 with Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall). His life was, according to the sleeve notes of the ‘Memorial Album’ on US Columbia, ‘the great romantic legend of America Jazz’. He was Jazz’s number one saint, Jazz’s Keats, Rupert Brooke, and – perhaps, its’ Jimi Hendrix too.
Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff have drawn on the Bix legacy, while both Lester Young and Charlie Parker confessed Bix derivations. Richard Sudhalter, who has devoted ‘the best years of his adult life’ to researching Bix, helped draw together the ‘New Paul Whiteman Orchestra’ in order to show what Bix’s work would have sounded like in context. Featured in an excellent BBC2-TV documentary in October 1975, the Orchestra went on to play selected London dates. Just as, into the present century, a group of jazzers led by Tom Pletcher, calling themselves ‘Sons Of Bix’, play and record in the Beiderbecke tradition. Sudhalter’s book, written in coordination with Philip R Evans and William Dean-Myatt tells the Bix story documented in obsessive and hypnotic detail. Expertly researched from then-living sources, with full chronological and discographical tables, with period photographs and technical notes, the book is invaluable. The results of their dedicated application should not be missed.
‘LUDDS MILL no.14’
(UK – January 1978)