With Louis Armstrong, Beiderbecke was one of the most influential jazz soloists of the 1920s. His turns on “Singin’ the Blues” (1927) and “I’m Coming, Virginia” (1927), in particular, demonstrated an unusual purity of tone and a gift for improvisation. With these two recordings, especially, he helped to invent the jazz ballad style and hinted at what, in the 1950s, would become cool jazz. Beiderbecke also has been credited for his influence, directly, on Bing Crosby and, indirectly, via saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, on Lester Young.
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke taught himself to play cornet largely by ear, leading him to adopt a non-standard fingering that some critics have connected to his original sound. He first recorded with a Midwestern jazz ensemble The Wolverines in 1924, after which he played briefly for the Detroit-based Jean Goldkette Orchestra. The band toured widely and famously played a set opposite Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in October 1926. The following year, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke left Detroit to join the best-known and most prestigious dance orchestra in the country: the New York-based Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Beiderbecke’s most influential recordings date from his time with Goldkette and Whiteman, although they were generally recorded under his own name or Trumbauer’s.
His death, in turn, gave rise to one of the original legends of jazz. In magazine articles, musicians’ memoirs, novels, and Hollywood films, Beiderbecke has been reincarnated as a Romantic hero, the “Young Man with a Horn”.