Hoagy Carmichael, ultimate piano man

March 17, 2002|By Robert Sirota | By Robert Sirota,Special to the Sun

Stardust Melody: The Life and Music Of Hoagy Carmichael, by Richard M. Sudhalter. Oxford University Press. 416 pages. $35.

My life as a musician began in the late '60s as a piano player at parties and in bars. Regardless of the venue, the most frequently requested song was "Stardust," the beautiful, spun-out melody written in the 1920s by a neophyte jazz pianist named Hoagy Carmichael.

Although much has been written about Hoagy Carmichael, including his own memoirs, Stardust Melody is the first full-blown biography of this significant but elusive figure in American music. Richard Sudhalter has assembled a thorough, well-documented portrait of the largely self-trained musician who began his life in poverty and emerged as one of the most important and versatile songwriters of the century.

Born near the very dawn of the 20th century, on Nov. 22, 1899, Hoagland Howard Carmichael became the exemplar of the middle-American piano man. He took on this identity in the student haunts of Bloomington, Ind., later honing his skills as a songwriter in New York. But it was in Hollywood that he became the archetype of the world-weary saloon pianist, a role that he played repeatedly in films of the '30s and '40s.

Carmichael's life peaked early. We are enthralled by his struggles to find a voice, first as a jazz pianist, and then as a songwriter. The most profound influences on his early development are the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and an eccentric young musical genius named William Moenkhaus. (It was Beiderbecke who gave Carmichael his indoctrination in jazz, and Moenkhaus who exposed him to the great European composers of the time, including Ravel and Stravinsky.)

As the '20s give way to the '30s, we are told of Carmichael's struggle to choose between the practical study of law and his obsessive attraction to music. When the music finally wins out, we witness a string of successes -- after "Stardust" come such great works as "Georgia On My Mind" and "The Nearness of You" -- and acceptance into the heady cultural world of New York. Sudhalter's account of Carmichael's 1936 Manhattan wedding reception lists a who's-who of High Society, including George Gershwin, Bunny Berigan, and Conde-Nast.

From New York, Hoagy Carmichael moves to Hollywood There he prospers as a songwriter, eventually establishing himself as an on-screen personality in such films as To Have and To Have Not and Young Man With a Horn.

It is not entirely Sudhalter's fault that the last part of this biography is not as compelling as its beginning. The world eventually passed Carmichael by. Television and the advent of rock and roll made him less marketable. From the mid-'50s to his death in 1981, Hoagy Carmichael would remain active in the music world, but would never reach the level of genius that marked his first 50 years.

Musically knowledgeable and truly dedicated to his subject, Sudhalter writes for a general audience with passion, enthusiasm, and a fine understanding of the subtleties of the songwriter's craft. Musicians will appreciate the indexed listing of Carmichael's songs. As perceptive as Sudhalter's analyses of the songs are, I would have welcomed more musical examples to accompany the text.

Robert Sirota is director of the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. His compositions include more than 50 works for orchestra, piano, organ, opera and chorus. He has taught at M.I.T., Boston University and New York University, where he served as chair of the department of music and performing arts. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard.

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