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


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Lost Chords Lost Chords
Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford Univ Press
ISBN: 019514838X

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.

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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