He Came in Jigglin’ and Slapped That Seagull With a Spoon: Discovering Biddie Wilkins
By James Redman
Watercress Press; 386 pp.
Until now, little was known of the cornetist Leopold “Biddie” Wilkins. We know he was born in St. Louis in 1901 and died in New York in 1934. His reputation rests on recordings made in fewer than ten sessions over the course of the years 1931 to 1933. For a time it was believed he was the author, under the pseudonym Polly Kreth, of the illustrated children’s alphabet book, “Apple Banana Cookie,” but, as it turns out, no.
So readers owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to James Redman, who was Wilkins’ trombonist on most of those ‘30s sessions, and who toured with Wilkins’ Hot Six or Seven from 1932 until the bandleader’s untimely death, of a rare, non-symptomatic illness, whose fatal effects were triggered suddenly when someone sitting to his left at a restaurant requested dressing on the side. Redman has written the definitive biography of Wilkins, a larger-than-life character blessed with musical brilliance yet so tormented by demons that by the end of his life, we learn, he was drinking a gallon of rye a day and would not even touch a crab cake, which doesn’t sound that serious until you realize that in his twenties he made a point of touching at least two a week. (The title, as Redman explains in the prologue, is taken from one of the emotional, often incoherent stories Wilkins would tell on the road about his father, a St. Louis gambler and drunkard who abandoned the family when Biddie was five to take a job with the financial services firm Musky & Brop.)
The book crackles with tales of the road, as Wilkins, a relentless performer and notorious womanizer, delights audiences and seems unable to resist even the smallest temptation. Redman describes the agonizing visits of Wilkins’ wife, Rosie, who occasionally met up with the band on the road, unannounced. In one unforgettable scene, one of Wilkins’ mistresses is unable to suppress a sneeze as she hides in a hotel room where Wilkins and Rosie are dining. “He would simply throw tarps over them,” Redman writes.
In the bravado-thick, consequences-be-damned man’s world of New Orleans jazz, Rosie emerges as perhaps the book’s only fully sympathetic character. Redman describes her as “an attractive girl, probably a 3 in the face but, ooh gah ooh, her body was a 9, yielding an average of 6.” (Redman, it must be said, devotes far too many pages to an explanation of his rating system, including an entire chapter on how he decided, at age 40 and after much internal wrangling, to “allow .5s” because a 1-10 system didn’t do justice to the “infinite and varying terrain of feminine beauty.” And is it sweet or disturbing that he rates his own mom a 8.5?)
Still, Wilkins could have moments of tenderness and restraint, as Redman recounts: “We’d be tuning up before a show and one of the guys would pass around a smut magazine and all the cats would chime in with comments. And Biddie, he’d come in like he was always doing, puffing a cigar and holding a small scale model of Westminster Abbey, and say with a little tsk -tsk, ‘Man, that’s somebody’s daughter,’ and confiscate the magazine and then retire to his room to read scripture.”
Redman doesn’t hold back on the name-dropping, but that is one of the book’s indulgent pleasures. We read of Wilkins playing horseshoes with Cab Calloway and on the very same day discussing plate tectonics with James P. Johnson. And there is a rollicking scene, during a stop at the University of Michigan, when he and a young Louis Armstrong break into a lecture hall one night and make subtle changes to a large math problem in progress on the chalkboard, in a way the effusive Armstrong later said was “certain to affect the outcome.”
And of course, there’s the music. Wilkins believed jazz should address and honor the struggles of everyday people, and Redman liberally quotes from the master’s lyrics, as in the 1931 hit “An Elephant’s Dream”: “I don’t mean to be confusin’ / But have ya seen my darlin’ Susan? / I spilled some tomatillo salsa on these new blue jeans / and need advice on what stain remover to be usin’.”
Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times.