Carol Sudhalter smiles and sips herbal tea. At 71, the multi-reed player is in top form. An endorser of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign and a Downbeat poll winner, Sudhalter has just returned from her annual sojourn to Moderna, Italy where she spends a portion of every year performing and teaching master classes to aspiring young musicians. We are discussing approaches to improvisation.
“I’m really into standards,” Sudhalter tells me. “The American Popular Songbook, especially Jerome Kern, whom I love. And of course Ellington and Strayhorn. When I play, I’m not always conscious of the changes. Sometimes I’m simply thinking about the beautiful melody and sometimes I’m thinking about the words. Maybe not so much when I practice, but when I’m playing for an audience, certainly. Especially if there is a really emotional passage – I’m thinking I want to speak those words through my horn. The saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas taught me that. I try to study the tune and see it in my mind, where it goes, where are the ii-V-I’s, and once I’ve got that structure in a more or less mathematical way, then it’s as if I can actually see it in front of me.”
Sudhalter, who grew up outside of Boston in the 1950s, has been a member of Local 802 for almost three decades. After growing up in a musical family, she chose a divergent path early on. She studied biology at Smith College, then ended up working for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. and writing about alternative forms of pest control and the dangers of pesticides. She wanted to be a scientist.
Her father Albert had been a working musician; he doubled on alto and flute, and worked steadily with the bands of Herbie Marsh, Eddy Duchin, Bobby Hackett and others. Sudhalter remembers him as having a beautiful, florid sound on alto – “a lot like Frankie Trumbauer.” Her brothers were musicians as well; Richard Sudhalter was a first rate trumpet and cornet player, a critic and a biographer. And her oldest brother James was a baritone saxophonist who formed and ran a successful twist band back in the 1960s – Bo James and the Playboys.
There was always music in the house. “When I was ten they took me to Eddie Condon’s in New York,” she remembers, describing those sojourns as a huge part of her childhood. But Sudhalter wanted to be different. She was a good student, and even though she loved music, she needed to find a way to set herself apart.
“That job in D.C. was not the right choice,” she recalls. “I was out every night after work, hearing music. And then I’d practice after work. After six months I left. It had become intolerable. I went back to Northampton. I worked part time, and started taking courses to catch up in harmony.”
Massachusetts was familiar territory, but the rules had changed a bit.
Sudhalter remembers, “I didn’t want to follow in anybody’s footsteps in my family. But what happened, I went through a kind of a psychological transformation. I found I was depressed, and I went into therapy. I started to find my center, and my center was apparently not science but music. So I changed my focus. But I was a late starter. I started playing flute at age 20 and sax at 32.”
She adds, “I got a part-time job as a medical transcriber, since I’m a fast typist! And that was fine – it didn’t take any energy and I could practice. I started putting together groups. We were playing modern tunes, though all rooted in stuff I liked, melodic music. It was always improvised, though I did study classical flute for 15 years. But I loved the counterpoint of the early jazz and the Chicago style in particular. Bix Beiderbecke was a big influence in my flute playing. Not too ‘flutey,’ I guess you’d call it – more interesting note choices. I always have tried to be lyrical. During the height of the avant garde scene and the fusion era, when everybody was into Coltrane and Weather Report, I was listening to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Django Reinhardt.”
Beiderbecke is an obvious influence. Sudhalter’s brother Richard, who died in 2008, was known to generations of Bix fans as the man – along with co-author Philip R. Evans – who first published a comprehensive account of the cornet player’s short life. As a player/researcher/writer, Dick Sudhalter helped ground the work of the jazz historian in music theory rather than in straight anecdote, although ultimately it was his talent for narrative which made his writing memorable.
“My brother was heavy into getting at the truth of things, albeit the truth as he believed it to be,” says Sudhalter. “My approach might be a bit more empirical than his. But I appreciate the notion of interpretation, as long as it’s grounded in truth. With music, especially improvised music, you are taking your structure, your skeleton – which is a big part of the foundation of what you’re doing as a jazz musician – and then you’re adding all your feelings around it and all your training and all your creativity. And what’s fascinating to me is how who is in the audience changes that. How they change what comes out. Every single person who is even remotely listening changes what I play. If person X is sitting over here in the first and not the second set, and person Y is there the second set, I’m going to play a completely different solo from set to set. I’m fascinated by that.”
I ask Sudhalter about her big band, and her eyes light up. She started the Astoria Big Band in the 1980s when she realized that there were few if any big bands in Queens and, as she puts it, “I got tired of crossing a lot of bridges to New Jersey and paying tolls just so I could play in a large ensemble.” The band has been together almost 30 years.
“Different people have given me charts,” she recalls, “We’ve gotten grants from Queens Council for the Arts and the Department of Cultural Affairs and other institutions. We’ve done all these projects on the jazz history of Queens and on women composers of Queens and all these cool topics. We got Leonard Gaskin involved in our jazz history of Queens, and he was the narrator and later Big Nick did some projects with us and we featured him, and it was just really nice. We recently did a tribute to Rose ‘Chichi’ Murphy. She was a Queens person. And the pianist Jutta Hipp. Another fascinating character.”
The conversation turns to music education, music schools and the give and take between teacher and student during a lesson. Sudhalter loves to teach, and feels she gets almost much out of the experience as her students do. When she tours in Italy, she always gives master classes, a favorite part of the trip for her.
“Yeah, that’s one of the highlights,” she says. “Being fluent in Italian, I can give my classes in the mother tongue. I generally give two classes: jazz improvisation up to a certain level and then English diction for singers. That I love, that’s my favorite. It’s all described on my Web site, all written up in both languages. Everybody has to choose a standard, not a rock tune with psychedelic lyrics that I might not understand. And then they bring in the chart, they bring the text of the lyrics, and we give a copy to everybody in the class and there’s an accompanist who plays for them and they sing the tune. And I listen, and I can tell right away when they’re singing something they don’t understand. It comes right across, believe me! So we work on the pronunciation, the accents, and the meanings of the words. I explain the phrasing, the breathing, but based on the language.”
When she’s stateside, Sudhalter also works with small children. She sees her work with kids as an essential part of her development as a musician, and as a person.
“Teaching music to children has made me more aware of myself as a musician,” she says. “Some kids are more visual, some more auditory learners. I have a 12-year-old piano student who is amazing and when I tell him, ‘You can remember this because this goes here and that goes there,’ he’ll say, ‘You might as well not tell me all that, because the way I see it is like this: dot, dot, dot.’ And I really don’t know what he’s talking about! He’s not reading, he’s imagining the sound in a visual way. But he can memorize anything, so I’m not messing with his brain. So, I think it’s really important to know that we all are different animals. If I say ‘When I see the music in this way, I can play it,’ I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach to the next guy.”
Another scenario comes quickly to Sudhalter’s mind:
“Right now I’m writing music, because these little kids, they are so compelling to me, perhaps because I’ve never had kids. I find it so enigmatic what happens with them, and the only way I can express it is to write these tunes. I’m writing a whole suite of music for my next recording based on my observations of these kids. It’s based on specific moments, specific incidents. The first tune, when I wrote lyrics to it, was based on this one little girl. One day, in the middle of a lesson, she went racing out of the room and came back with all her dolls and set them up on the piano – so she’d have an audience. The dolls kept her engaged, they kept her in her world, even as she attempted to negotiate the new stuff I was handing her. It was resourceful, it was practical. It was a beautiful, creative thing she did.”
For more on Carol Sudhalter, see www.Sudhalter.com.