Long before Slipknot, the famed heavy metal band, was founded in Des Moines, before Bob Seger sang about “a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha”, and even before the tragic event known as “The Day the Music Died” took place near Clear Lake—Iowa was carving out a place of its own on the map of American Music History.
At the dawn of the 20th century, two people destined to become music legends were born in Iowa: Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, born in Davenport on March 10, 1903; and Alton Glenn Miller, born in Clarinda on March 1, 1904. At the time the men were born, Jazz—the genre of music on which they would leave a lasting impression—was only in its nascent stages of existence. The lives of both men were cut short by unfortunate circumstances, but by the time they died, they had left their marks on American Jazz—and American Jazz had left its mark on the world. Their music lives on and, thankfully, their legacies are preserved in their respective birthplaces.
In Clarinda, the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum does an outstanding job of chronicling the journey, from childhood to stardom, of the celebrated trombone player, bandleader, arranger, and composer. A well-reviewed film on Miller, exhibits about his life and career, and authentic personal belongings are all highlights of a visit to the GMB Museum. And no stop at the museum is complete without a walk through the Glenn Miller Birthplace House, adjacent to the museum and furnished to match the time period of Miller’s childhood.
I’ll leave it to the museum to provide the details of Miller’s life and death—no spoilers here—but suffice it to say that his story is both inspiring and tragic. I’d recommend going to the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum anytime it’s open, but a great time to visit would be during the 42nd Annual Glenn Miller Festival, held this year from June 8-11. More information about the annual festival is available here.
Fans of Bix Beiderbecke have not had a similar museum to visit in Davenport, but that is about to change: the Bix Beiderbecke Museum is set to open in late July/early August, to coincide with the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, August 3-5. Bix died at just 28 years old on August 6, 1931, so the annual festival is scheduled to mark his passing and celebrate his life.
I recently had an opportunity to meet with some of the folks responsible for the opening of the Bix Museum, which will be located in the River Music Experience (RME) in downtown Davenport. Howard Barren, President of the Bix Museum, Gerri Bowers, Historian at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society, and Deb Powers, CEO of the RME, were all kind enough to give me a sneak peek at the plans for the museum. The plans look—and sound—great. Without spilling any secrets, a trove of collected memorabilia from Bix’s life and music from his own cornet will be on display in the museum, bringing even more meaning to the expression, “Bix lives.” I can’t wait to see it this summer when it opens.
I urge everyone to visit both of these excellent museums honoring Iowa’s Jazz legends, and enjoy the festivals held in their names. The musicians themselves died many years ago, but their music and legacies are alive and well.