All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Book Reviews

685

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

By

Sign in to view read count
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?

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

Related Articles

Read Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead's Long, Strange Trip Book Reviews
Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful...
by Doug Collette
Published: June 16, 2018
Read Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer Book Reviews
Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer
by David A. Orthmann
Published: June 3, 2018
Read As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution 1957-1977 Book Reviews
As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz...
by Ian Patterson
Published: May 14, 2018
Read Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 Book Reviews
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968
by Doug Collette
Published: April 14, 2018
Read My Life in the Key of E Book Reviews
My Life in the Key of E
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: March 19, 2018
Read The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums Book Reviews
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
by Steve Provizer
Published: March 3, 2018
Read "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz" Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017
Read "Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene" Book Reviews Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
by David A. Orthmann
Published: August 29, 2017
Read "The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966" Book Reviews The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 19, 2017
Read "Good Morning Blues" Book Reviews Good Morning Blues
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: January 11, 2018