White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz:
by Richard M. Sudhalter
Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry
This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.
This is a big book in more ways than one. Physically, it is 862 large pages of small print. Intellectually, it remaps the jazz landscape, documenting, in more detail than has heretofore been the case, the influence of white musicians on jazz development.
As one might imagine, this book has political as well as musical ramifications. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, "authentic" jazz is often thought to be "black" music. At the University of Pittsburgh where I teach, the introductory course in jazz is cross-referenced with the Afro-American studies program. The idea of cross-referencing it with an Anglo-American program (if such existed) would be preposterous.
There are a couple of reasons for these racial associations. First, jazz is often confused in the popular imagination with the blues, which has undeniably African origins. Second, influential books like Albert Murray's Stompin' the Blues and Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues argue that jazz is an outgrowth of the blues and that, therefore, white men can't "feel" it or express it authentically. Such notions have been refuted in recent years, most notably by Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz. Nonetheless, the impression that jazz is fundamentally "black" music remains a tenacious cultural assumption. Sudhalter uses the mind of a scholar and the heart of a musician to correct it..
I do not mean to suggest that Sudhalterís tone is argumentative or his approach polemic. He is profuse in his praise of the great black jazz artists that we all love so much:
"Any attempt to look at the music without regard to such seminal figures as Armstrong, Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Henry Allen, Sid Catlett, Benny Carter and the rest would be folly. Their primacy, and the reverence in which they are held, belong to the unquestioned foundation on which the entire edifice rests."
Sudhalter views jazz as a "grand colloquy" of many artists from many backgrounds, each bringing an individualized voice and method of expression to a great musical banquet. His purpose is to help us hear more voices more clearly.
To accomplish all this, Sudhalter writes, in effect, two books in one. The first line of development is narrative and biographical. Sudhalter provides lots of background on dozens of musicians, from Nick LaRocca to Artie Shaw, always working to tie the lives of these men to their music and its signficance. Second, this is a book of analysis. In addition to general stylistic comparisons and contrasts, Sudhalter provides detailed analyses of major recordings, including transcriptions. Only a serious music student will be interested in such detail, but those not interested in transcript analysis can move ahead without fear of missing something crucial.
Sudhalter begins with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, focusing most on their leader, Nick LaRocca. In an impressive display of research, Sudhalter documents just how thoroughly LaRocca's business acumen and trumpet style affected the jazz world of the late teens.
Existing along side, and ultimately superceding the ODJB were the New Orleans' Rhythm Kings. Whereas LaRocca's cornet style provided an important early influence for brass players, Sudhalter sees Leon Ropollo's clarinet as providing an important reed influence. Once again, his documentation is impressive. Citing letters and using transcriptions of early recordings, he nails down his point that Ropollo's influence on all kinds of early jazz players was pervasive.
Even though Sudhalter relies heavily on recordings to make his point, he is always conscious of the danger in doing so. Many early players didn't get recorded. Others were not recorded well. What if a player of Bix Beiderbecke's talent has been lost in the mists of time because he wasn't recorded? Sudhalter addresses that point frequently in the early chapters, and in fact even devotes a chapter to Emmett Hardy, a much written about New Orleans cornetist who died in 1925 without being recorded. Sudhalter's point is not that Emmett Hardy is or isnít a great figure in jazz but that in basing our judgments exclusively on recordings, we are apt to lose important pieces of the historical puzzle.
Before launching into an extended discussion of Chicago and New York jazz, Sudhalter examines the white jazz elements of New Orleans in the twenties and very early thirties, giving plenty of space to Tony Parenti, Sidney Arodin, "Wingy" Manone and a very young Louis Prima. When most people think about early New Orleans, they think of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Kid Ory. Sudhalter is once again convincing in his assertion that the white jazz influences were more substantial than we have heretofore understood.
Of Bix Beiderbecke, Sudhalter is brief and eloquent, and I am impressed. Sudhalter co-wrote an excellent biography of Beiderbecke, Bix: Man and Legend, but often writers who have done such extensive research on a topic find it difficult to distill their knowledge into a few pages. Sudhalter briefly and gracefully argues that Beiderbecke, even more than Armstrong, is a phenomenon unto himself, springing from no particular style or school and influencing others less than we have imagined. Sudhalter argues that even though many musicians borrowed Bix's phrases, few pierced through to the brooding spirit beneath them.
Sudhalter's examination of the Austin High Gang is a case in point. Often thought of as disciples of Bix (in fact Jimmy McPartland replaced Bix in the Wolverines), Sudhalter sees the Austin High Gang as being more influenced by the ODJB and the New Orleans' Rhythm Kings in their aggressively intense styles. Sudhalter is particularly good at tracing the artistic development of Dave Tough and Bud Freeman through stages that ultimately made them standouts in their fields.
Many have pointed out that the traditional idea of jazz moving from New Orleans to Chicago to New York is oversimplified. But even so, there is a general truth to it, and Sudhalter's chapters follow that pattern. His discussions of the white New York players are particularly engaging. He has the most informative chapter on Miff Mole that I have ever read. His pages on Red Nichols, Phil Napoleon and Adrian Rollini are not far behind. When discussing players who have been written about more extensively, such as Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, his discussions incorporate significant new information and fresh assessments. (Did you know that Tommy Dorsey played and recorded on the trumpet before he made his name as a trombonist?)
As Sudhalter works his way into the Big Band Era, he concentrates not so much on Benny Goodman (though he does devote a chapter to Goodman) but on less celebrated figures--Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, Ben Pollack, Bob Crosby and the Casa Loma Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, of course, has often been derided by jazz critics as an imposter, billing himself as the "King of Jazz" while suffocating the creativity of men like Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. Sudhalter takes dead aim at that proposition, arguing persuasively that Whiteman's great jazz sidemen became better, more disciplined musicians under his tutelage.
As for Jean Goldkette, Sudhalter argues that his best band was not recorded well and thus has been forever underestimated. He lobbies convincingly that Goldkette's influences had more to do with the shaping of the Big Band Era than we have given him credit for. Sudhalter's analysis of why certain bands recorded certain things (and not other things) is interesting and useful, doing much to explain why some reputations have grown over time and others have not.
It is not possible, in a single review, to touch upon all the excellences of this book. Suffice to say that the chapters on Artie Shaw, Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, Pee Wee Russell and Jack Teagarden are as intelligent and insightful as anything I've read on the topic.
Most books embellish or refine an existing way of thinking. Only a few books prompt us to think in fundamentally new ways, to see a subject through an entirely new lense. Lost Chords is one of those rare books. It takes a large investment of time, but it's worth it. In most respects, this is a book that jazz lovers will never finish, but keep returning to as their listening trails expand.