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Book Reviews

Lost Chords : White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945

By Published: March 4, 2004
Some reviewers suggested Sudhalter was attacking "Crow Jim" in jazz, that is, favoritism toward blacks. This is a more tenuous complaint (or commendation, in some cases) because it begs the question, who's favoring whom? More to the point, who in what time period is repressing white musicians? A historical perspective skewed toward one race does not compare to a formal policy of segregation that reached into the daily lives of millions of blacks. Jim Crow and Crow Jim are contemporaneous biases, and Sudhalter never presses the claim that whites somehow suffered in the name of elevating blacks. He does argue that whites had their share of headaches, but bullheaded record executives and penny-pinching club owners pale beside the mantle of segregation. Sudhalter also delves into the whites' ethnicity and its effect on their lives and musicianship, but lightly. He suggests problems German-Americans (Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer) might've endured in a time bookended by two major wars with Germany. He highlights the tribulations Sicilians (Nick LaRocca, Louis Prima) faced during organized crime's rise. And Jewish-Americans (Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw) had their own set of luggage to bear. Unfortunately, this theme is left not fully explored. With jujitsu-like skill, the question of black vs. white could've been transformed into a display of Americans of varied ethnicities intent on making the best music possible. The idea is toyed with but never followed up in force; too bad.

Branford Marsalis' definition of jazz, a music based in the blues which swings, is questioned outright. Sudhalter suggests adding other influences, including Appalachian folk music, vaudeville, and grand opera. This is the nub of his argument, a theory of interlocked development: blues connecting to ragtime, Dixieland connecting to Tin Pan Alley, and so on. It's hardly controversial stuff, yet Sudhalter can't let go of sinister forces working against white musicians and their accomplishments. His analysis is riddled with suggestions of politically-correct historians tarnishing his subjects, particularly in the early chapters. When Sudhalter finally jettisons his animus toward a "black creationist canon" the book really shines. He obviously loves discussing these early pioneers and their work. The narrative grows comfortable, and with that comfort comes insight and revelation.

But revelation at what cost? A book dedicated to white achievements at the outset of the twenty-first century? Isn't this one giant step backward? Mike Zwerin, reviewing for the International Herald Tribune, asked "Wouldn't it be nice if [black and white musicians] could be in the same book now?" Indeed it would, but prior to Sudhalter, who bothered researching the Bunny Berigans and Emmett Hardys for inclusion in any color-blind book? Sudhalter diligently tracks his subjects from band to band, on the road and in the studio: Miff Mole, the California Ramblers (none from California, of course), the Casa Loma Orchestra, the Boswell sisters. The chapter on jazz guitar is fascinating, as is a hilarious account of grifter/adventurer/raconteur/trumpeter Jack Purvis. Sudhalter is a biographer who can't bear to overlook even one potential subject. The book lives up to its subtitle.

For all the heated talk about race and revisionism, Lost Chords is best read as a tribute to some overlooked and forgotten souls, musicians who entertained and recorded, some living the good life into old age, others drinking themselves into oblivion. They were human and they played jazz. Really, isn't that all that matters?


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