Richard Sudhalter's 'Lost Chords': Making jazz's culture intact

February 28, 1999|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

"Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945," by Richard M. Sudhalter. Oxford University Press. 743 pages. $35.

When race consciousness comes in the front door, common sense -- and, all too often, honesty -- jumps out the nearest window. Rarely has this been more true than in the case of jazz. As all jazz historians know, one of the glories of America's most original contribution to Western music is that it is a truly multiracial art form. Invented by New Orleans blacks not long after the turn of the 20th century, it was immediately taken up by whites as well, and is now played by musicians throughout the world.

But a small yet powerful cadre of black writers and musicians, most notably Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, argues that jazz is an African-American music pure and simple. This profoundly ahistorical position is echoed in the programming of Lincoln Center's influential jazz concert series (in which the contributions of whites are either passed over in silence or relegated to a distant second place) and the increasingly strident rhetoric of certain young black musicians, many of them alumni of Marsalis' various bands.

Dissenters from the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis line were initially reluctant to speak out, mainly out of fear of being smeared as racists. But a growing number of critics, scholars and working musicians -- black and white alike -- are now bluntly criticizing Marsalis and his colleagues, though many more remain afraid to go on the record.

Now Richard Sudhalter, the jazz trumpeter, critic and co-author of the definitive biography of Bix Beiderbecke, has entered the fray. "Lost Chords" is not a debater's manual: it is, rather, a serious work of musical scholarship, straightforward and impressively free of rancor. But no one who reads it will ever again be able to take seriously the argument that all white jazz is derivative and second-rate.

As much a critical study as a conventional history, "Lost Chords" examines the work of virtually every key figure of pre-bop jazz who was white, paying special attention to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Red Nichols and Miff Mole, the Dorsey Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Jean Goldkette, Ben Pollack, Casa Loma and Bob Crosby bands, Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Bobby Hackett, Red Norvo, Pee Wee Russell and Jack Teagarden. Some of these musicians are dealt with in greater detail than others, but all are discussed fully and fairly (the chapters on Freeman, Berigan, Shaw, Hackett and Norvo are particularly fine), and their achievements put into proper historical perspective.

Sudhalter leaves no doubt that these artists were universally respected in their own time and that their best work has proved to be of permanent value. Just as important, he shows that many black musicians -- including such indisputable giants as Lester Young -- were strongly influenced by their white contemporaries. This last claim has caused particular controversy, for it is widely believed that stylistic influence in jazz has always been a one-way street, running from black musicians to white. Sudhalter knows better, and proves it: "Many white musicians found black ways of swinging -- and the blues idiom -- irresistible and set out to incorporate them. ... But so, too, did black soloists and ensembles absorb precedents in harmony, form, melodic and thematic organization, timbre, texture, tonal color, and blend from white musicians."

All this is presented clearly and cogently, and without a trace of the dryness that is the curse of most scholarly writing. Regular readers of The Sun's book section will already know Sudhalter's work, so I will simply say that he writes as stimulatingly in "Lost Chords" as he does in his book reviews. This is a very long book -- it had to be, given the scope of the subject -- but it is no burden to read.

Most of the people who know enough about jazz history to competently judge the quality and significance of "Lost Chords" know each other, and know Sudhalter as well. Many of them read the manuscript, and made suggestions that were incorporated into the book. I read "Lost Chords" a year and a half before it was published, and am cited in the acknowledgements; for this reason, I would not normally have agreed to review the book. But it is precisely because I am competent to address the question of its quality that I have decided to break my self-imposed rule -- especially given the fact that a good deal of angry, uninformed nonsense has already been written about "Lost Chords." Speaking as a trained musician who is intimately familiar with the literature of jazz, I can say without reservation that this is one of the half-dozen most important books about jazz yet published. If you care about American music, you must read it.

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, is a contributor to Time magazine. He played jazz professionally in Kansas City from 1977 to 1983, and writes about it for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He is at work on "H. L. Mencken: A Life" and is editing Mencken's writings for the Library of America.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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