Leon Bix Beiderbecke was born in Davenport, Iowa to a strict middle-class family. As a teenager he would sneak off to the banks of the Mississippi to listen to the bands play on the riverboats that would come up from the south.
His early influences were mostly New Orleans jazz cornetists. His first big influence was Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band; the LaRocca evidence is evident in a number of Bix's recordings (especially the covers of O.D.J.B. tunes), although Bix far surpasses LaRocca both in technique and ideas. Other influences included "King" Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and clarinetist Leon Roppolo. Bix's famous two note interjection on "Goose Pimples" puzzles some of his fans unfamiliar with the older New Orleans players, but is appropriate and unsurprising to those familiar with the style of Freddie Keppard. According to many contemporaries Bix's single biggest influence was Emmett Hardy, a highly regarded New Orleans cornetist of whom we unfortunately have no recordings; several fellow musicians said that Hardy's influence is very evident in Bix's early recordings with The Wolverines. Bix was also influenced by music that had hitherto been far removed from jazz, such as the compositions of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and the American Impressionists notably Eastwood Lane. Such influences aside, Bix is remembered today for the fact that he played like no one else. Bix developed his own individualistic style of jazz cornet playing, which was unlike his predecessors and influenced those who followed. As Louis Armstrong said, "Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain't none of them play like him yet".
Young Bix's parents thought he was going to ruin his life by going into music and sent him to a boarding school, but Bix broke out to pursue his music career.
Bix first recorded with his band The Wolverines in 1924, then became a sought-after musician in Chicago and then New York. He made innovative and influential recordings with Frankie Trumbauer ("Tram") and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. He and Trambauer, a saxophone player, joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular and highest paid band of the day.
Bix also played piano, sometimes switching to that instrument for a chorus or two during a tune. He wrote several compositions for the piano, and recorded one of them, "In A Mist".
In 1931 at the age of 28, Bix died of excessive drinking. Many of his family issues went unresolved.
Louis Armstrong paid high praise to Bix when he remarked that he never played the tune "Singin' the Blues" because thought Bix's classic recording of the tune shouldn't be touched.
The novel Young Man With a Horn (1938) by Dorothy Baker was a fictional work partially based on Beiderbecke's life. It was later made into a movie (1950) starring Kirk Douglas (with horn playing dubbed by Harry James).
Beiderbecke's music features heavily in three British comedy-drama television series, all written by Alan Plater: The Beiderbecke Affair (1984), The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987) and The Beiderbecke Connection (1988).