802 Bookshelf-“Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945”

by Richard Sudhalter, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999, $35, 747 pages

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Bill Moriarity

In this work, published amid some controversy in 1999, writer, trumpeter and Local 802 member Richard Sudhalter issues a corrective to what he sees as the selective, quasi-politically correct social criticism/jazz history of the last two decades. His is a brief in defense of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the Casa Loma Orchestra, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, musicians Miff Mole, Bud Freeman, Frank Trumbauer, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Red Norvo, Eddie Lang, Bobby Hackett and many others.

Sudhalter’s argument is that their role in the development of this most American of musics has been unjustly diminished, even ignored, in pursuit of a historical philosophy seeking to identify this art as an African-American only creation. If the reader goes back to the music – in this case, the recordings – it must be admitted that he makes a strong case, with one important disclaimer.

I found the book much more valuable than the argument it ostensibly sets out to make, though – principally because it delves more deeply into the actual music than is the norm, due to Sudhalter’s background as a performer.

First, the disclaimer. It seems clear that no white jazz musician of the stature of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker has ever lived. The same may be said with regard to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie or John Coltrane.

There was, of course, Bix Beiderbecke, whose musical spirit haunts the book almost from its first page and whose angular probing lyricism can be seen as the springboard for many subsequent artists, including Young, and from Young, Parker. Beiderbecke has now achieved sainthood and, in the odd way that saints are often treated, the myth sometimes overshadows the work. As Sudhalter’s analysis of his recorded performances demonstrates, though, his music is deeply satisfying and worthy of repeated examination.

And therein lies the real reward of this book. For beyond the polemic lies the music, with all its surprises, idiosyncrasies and satisfactions. The analysis, intended to support the agreement, assumes far greater importance than the social philosophy.

The author is obviously deeply and passionately committed to the jazz creations of this period. It is evident throughout, but especially in the sections on the Boswell sisters (pp. 369-375), Bobby Hackett (Chapter 25) and any of the numerous Bix references. Sudhalter is thoroughly knowledgeable on the subject of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, as might be expected, but he also sheds new light on Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet playing (yes, trumpet) and the arranging skills of the Casa Loma Orchestra’s Gene Gifford.

In fact, the book is full of thoughtful insights into unjustly neglected musicians such as Stew Pletcher, Clarence Hutchenrider, Jack Jenney and George Van Eps; in addition there is the brief bizarre biography of trumpeter Jack Purvis (Chapter 19). In fact, the author’s identification with the music is so great that a deep nostalgic sadness pervades the end of nearly every chapter, as if in acknowledgment that something had been lost that could never again be recovered.

The book is amply footnoted and many of the footnotes are written in a breezy, narrative style that renders this section as interesting as the main text. I had only two problems with the book, one with an editorial decision, the other something of a marketplace difficulty.

First, it is difficult to agree with the author’s exclusion of Harry James. Whether James’ playing had improved in the 1950s beyond his dazzling brilliance of the ’30s and ’40s, as the author claims, or not, his influence had, I believe, waned by that time. Beginning with his first national appearance, his abilities and approach to the instrument affected all trumpeters over a period of several decades. Along with Louis Armstrong, he was the trumpet player.

Second, I don’t know where to find some of these recordings. After whetting the appetite, Sudhalter gives no hint of where one might find all this material. A discography, even if it might be almost immediately out of date, would have been helpful.

We have the book in the Local 802 library or you can buy it at most large chains.