Lost Chords : White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945
Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford Univ Press
Richard Sudhalter, it might be said, has white jazz on the brain. Over the years, he's amassed a fantastic amount of knowledge and understanding of the white jazzmen who performed prior to World War II. He combined this research with his personal skills as a jazz trumpeter to author Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945. The book's publication in 1999, as well as a related essay he penned for the New York Times at the time, set off a firestorm in the jazz community. With the paperback's recent release, it's a good time to reassess the criticisms against Sudhalter's thesis, that jazz was a field "black and white once worked side by side, often defying the racial and social norms of their time to create a music whose graces reflected the combined effort."
Lost Chords is a daunting read. Physically, the book has the heft of an unabridged dictionary. A full seven hundred and fifty pages are dedicated to jazz history, musicology, and biography, not including notes and indices. Stylistically, Sudhalter's prose is consistent and well-executed, a sustained marathon of writing. Sometimes he drops into mawkishness (such as his valediction for Bud Freeman) but only in short bursts, keeping the meat of the book uncluttered. Occasionally the narrative bogs down in detail; in early chapters, when musicians are moving between bands and subbing in the studios, it feels a little like reading a phone book framed as a story. (Later, when dominant personalities emerge, the problem disappears.) For documentation Sudhalter mines everything: recordings, demos, radio air checks, magazines, newspapers, his own interviews, even musician union rosters. Regardless of the question of race, it's a colossal work of scholarship resting by and large on first-hand information. He even drops music transcriptions into the narration to buttress a point. While musicians might run off to the piano to reproduce a classic Frank Teschemacher solo, the rest of us have to take Sudhalter's word for it.
The controversy, of course, is not over a wrongly transcribed eighth note. Most reviews of the hardbound edition were conditionally positive; musicians' reactions were routinely negative. Branford Marsalis reportedly stated "It does not deserve the dignity of a response. It's not an argument I'm prepared to devote five minutes to." Gerald Early, writing in the companion book to Ken Burns' Jazz series, wrote of Lost Chords as "a long mess of a book that is neither serviceable nor kind to its reader." Some have called Sudhalter the Patrick Buchanan of jazz.
Unfair? For the most part, yes. Sudhalter goes out of his way countless times to stress blacks' importance in jazz history. However, in a matter of this sensitivity lip service is not sufficient. Blacks' due must be given, and here is where he falls short at times. For example, the book does not start in New Orleans, as expected, but Chicago. Sudhalter dismisses the traditional jazz genesis story of Buddy Bolden swinging and stomping in the dance halls around the French Quarter and Storyville. (In fact, he points to the lake resorts outside of town and the competing bands that played there as a more likely origin.) But this is all backstory in Sudhalter's narrative; white jazz, in his mind, begins in Chicago with Tom Brown's "Band from Dixieland" and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (the quintet who cut the first jazz record, now seen as a historical fluke). He misses a golden opportunity to develop the book's central thesis, a chance to explore (or prove) black and white bands coexisting in the pre-World War I years and fusing their styles together. As it stands, Sudhalter's compliments to black players ring a tad hollow without paying the ultimate praise of creation or exploring jazz's parentage between the races. It's not that Sudhalter's a racist, or even a Pat Buchanan revisionist. For a book this fully furnished, it simply starts at too convenient a moment in time.