Richard M. Sudhalter, the jazz historian (and sometime COMMENTARY contributor) who died last Friday after a long illness, was that rarity of rarities, a first-class musical scholar who played as well as he wrote. His trumpet playing was renowned for its elegance and wit, and the fact that-unlike most critics-he understood jazz from the inside out added immeasurably to the lucidity with which he wrote about it. Alas, Sudhalter was only able to complete three books before a stroke brought an untimely end to his writing career, but all of them were important.I discussed “Bix: Man and Legend” (1974), the biography of Bix Beiderbecke that Sudhalter co-wrote with Philip Evans, in a 2001 COMMENTARY essay called “Jazz and Its Explainers.” On that occasion I praised it as
a landmark in the development of fully professional jazz scholarship….No previous book about a jazz musician had been so extensively documented, and none had been based exclusively on primary sources. Although few if any contemporary reviewers appreciated its significance, this was the first time the life story of a major jazz artist had been told in the kind of exhaustive detail that would be taken for granted in a scholarly biography of a major classical composer.
The furious controversy attending the publication in 1999 of “Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945″ (about which I will be writing in the November issue of COMMENTARY) made it all but impossible for laymen to appreciate the book’s significance, and so it mostly failed to receive the thoughtful appraisals it deserved. Nine years later, though, this groundbreaking critical study, in which Sudhalter wrote with acute penetration about the work of such noted white jazz musicians as Beiderbecke, Connie Boswell, Bud Freeman, Benny Goodman, Bobby Hackett, Red Nichols, Red Norvo, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Pee Wee Russell, Artie Shaw and Jack Teagarden, has finally won widespread recognition from well-informed scholars as a major contribution to the literature of jazz.
Not only is “Lost Chords” unfailingly insightful, but it is written with a journalistic flair rarely to be found in scholarly studies. Take, for example, Sudhalter’s description of the way the trombonist Miff Mole looked in 1960, not long before his death:
Just an old-looking guy in an old-looking overcoat, standing there beside his big, old-looking trombone case. No mistaking him, though: wire-rimmed glasses just a little askew on a leathery, seamed face. The look-still, so many years later-of a slightly quizzical owl….He was sixty-two and hadn’t played regularly in ten years. Repeated operations on an infected hip had undercut his health and depleted what savings he had. The jazz world of his time, embroiled in its usual intramural squabbling, neither knew of him nor gave a damn.
Vicious attacks on “Lost Chords” by race-obsessed critics incompetent to evaluate its merits were undoubtedly responsible for the fact that Sudhalter’s last book, “Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael” (2003), received so little attention in the popular press. Even though it was the first full-length biography of the composer of such familiar and beloved standards as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark” and “Stardust,” the New York Times Book Review took no note of its publication. Yet “Stardust Melody,” like “Bix: Man and Legend” and “Lost Chords” before it, is a book of the highest significance, one of the very few high-quality biographies ever to be written about a popular songwriter. Biographies are rarely definitive, but this one is unlikely to be bettered.
“Stardust Melody” is still in print from Oxford University Press, and used copies of “Bix: Man and Legend” and “Lost Chords” are readily available via Amazon and other online booksellers. Anyone interested in the history of jazz and American popular song should own all three.