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Music of Sunnyside jazz legend lives on

Like a nameless lover encountered in an anonymous café, Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke entangles his listeners with the seductive strains of his coronet before they even know his name.

That’s how Albert Haim was drawn to the man and his music.

A childhood neighbor who lived below Haim’s family in a two-story home in Montevideo, Uruguay kept “an amazing collection of 1920s jazz” in his garage, his music seeping into the young boy’s room whenever the window was open, Haim recalled.

“Bix’s sound was something that really got to me,” said Haim, a retired chemist who now lives on Long Island.

Decades later, lawyer Mike Heckman was a college student in Massachusetts when he caught the Bix bug after listening to his roommate’s jazz collection.

“I heard this one trumpet player and, as I say, he talked to me,” Heckman said.

Seventy years after his death, the music of the celebrated jazzman still has the alluring powers that earned him a devoted base of fans with the sound of his coronet making him a legend before his premature death at age 28.

On Monday evening — the 70th anniversary of Bix’s death from pneumonia and alcoholism in a first-floor apartment at 43-30 46th St. in Sunnyside — two dozen dedicated and passionate lovers of music gathered in the courtyard beneath the window where Bix had died to pay their respects to a legend.

Strains of Bix’s recordings played from a Magnavox CD player set atop a large amplifier, which was bathed in the narrow rays of two floodlights brightening the courtyard of the All Saints Episcopal Church next door to Bix’s apartment.

Like history repeating itself, the sound of the coronet lured John Basquez out of his nearby apartment and into the crowd, where he reveled in the music despite the thick air that covered everyone in a film of perspiration.

“They don’t make it like that anymore,” he said.

Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke is considered to be one of the greatest white jazz musicians to have left the impression of his horn on the music world. His devoted fans describe the sound of his coronet as bittersweet, simultaneously happy and mellow, an emotion he drew out in improvisations so inventive they were like compositions all their own.

“When people ask about a white musician who has made a real contribution — not someone who has followed what was done by others — the name of Bix Beiderbecke has been standing out from most of the others,” Haim said.

The observance of Bix’s death was an outgrowth of a pilgrimage Haim and Heckman had first made two years ago.

A combination of modern technology and musical nostalgia brought together the two unlikely friends, but it took the tenacity of a stubborn neighbor to turn their camaraderie into something more.

The two men had engaged in a bidding war for an out-of-print record featuring Bix on the E-bay Internet auction service, and when Haim came out on top, Heckman e-mailed him to request a copy. The minor imposition blossomed into a friendship, and the two eventually decided to hold a vigil outside Bix’s Sunnyside apartment to commemorate his death two years ago.

“It wasn’t a big showing, I have to tell you,” Heckman said.

Following an even more dismal showing the following year, the celebration got a boost this week from Sunnyside resident Paul Maringelli. After learning from Ken Burns’ epic documentary on jazz that Bix had died in Sunnyside, he embarked on a four-month quest to discover the site of his death — finally locating it directly across the street from his own home.

“I’m just a passing fan of Bix,” he insists. “I’m not a Bixologist.”

Maringelli is presently raising funds to hold a concert beneath the window where Bix died and dedicate a plaque marking the location. A group of Bixologists is petitioning the postal service to issue a commemorative stamp in his honor on the 100th anniversary of his birthday.

As Monday night’s ceremony, Bix’s celebrants passed a flame from one candle to the next, each set in a plastic holder shaped like an inverted mouthpiece from a coronet. East Elmhurst resident Nick Mascetta played a Dixieland tune in tribute to Bix, and when 9:30 p.m. rolled around, signature Bix tune “I’ll Be a Friend With Pleasure” was played from the CD player to mark the exact moment of his passing 70 years ago.

Lingering outside the courtyard stood a group of participants from the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the church basement next door who could hear the sound of Bix’s coronet through the windows of the church.

One AA participant — a flute player well acquainted with the story of Bix’s life and death — could not help noting the irony that a group of recovering alcoholics was present to mark his death from alcohol. AA was founded in 1935, she noted — just a few years too late for Bix Beiderbecke.

“Maybe the guy could have survived for a lot more years,” she said wistfully.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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