Dick Sudhalter: Cornettist whose career was founded on his Beiderbecke connection

Steve Voce

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:48

Driven by the spirit of Bix Beiderbecke, Dick Sudhalter was a talented cornettist and an accomplished author. The remorseless research that he did on Beiderbecke was so intense that it caused a metamorphosis in his life, and although Beiderbecke died before Sudhalter was born, it sometimes seemed that they were as close as brothers. The enchantment was supercharged when Sudhalter was able to play Bix's cornet for several years, loaned to him by Beiderbecke's sister. Not surprisingly the book Bix: Man and Legend (1974), became the definitive work on the subject. But Sudhalter had yet more in him and his Lost Chords (1999) remains one of the best and most absorbing books ever written about jazz.

The Beiderbecke connection lasted for most of Sudhalter's life. He began piano studies when he was seven. "I hated every second of it," he said. "The other kids were out playing baseball, and there was I trapped in the practice room ... My father was a jazz saxophonist who owned quite a few jazz records. We had periodic visits to our home in Boston by jazz stars like Bobby Hackett and Phil Napoleon, so it would have been remarkable if I hadn't become interested in jazz ... One day when I was 12, rummaging through my father's records I came across Paul Whiteman's 'San', which featured Bix Beiderbecke. I didn't know it was Bix or even that it was a cornet – but when I found out it was Bix, I started seeking out his records. Then I convinced my parents it would be worth their while to rent me a cornet. I promised I'd practise and I did."

Sudhalter joined the Teenage Jazz Club, an afternoon meeting held in George Wein's Storyville Club in Boston to give young musicians a chance to play with the giants.

"Just about anyone in town would come along and we had Horace Silver, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jimmy McPartland. On one unforgettable occasion Serge Chaloff and Clifford Brown played together, and I've never heard anything like it before or since."

Beginning his research on Beiderbecke in 1958, Sudhalter majored in Music and English Literature at Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1960, then moved to Austria, where he worked first as an English teacher. Regularly crossing the border to Munich, he played with the Riverboat Seven from 1960 to 1966. He returned to the US in 1962 to serve in an Army band then went back to Munich and was a cornettist in the Bavarian State Radio jazz ensemble from 1964 to 1972. He moved to London in 1964 as European correspondent for United Press International, and writing on jazz under the pseudonym Art Napoleon. He formed and led the band Anglo-American Alliance.

"We made an exhilarating noise," he said. "A bit in the Bix mode." By this stage Sudhalter was able to play convincingly in more modern styles, but he always gravitated back to the music of his hero.

In 1972 he joined the band led by the clarinettist Sandy Brown, leaving in 1974 to form the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra, taking the Beiderbecke solos himself. Returning to New York, he played from 1976 in the famed New York Repertory Company until 1979 and in various bands that recreated early jazz. From 1984 to 1987 he co-led the Classic Jazz Quartet with the pianist Dick Wellstood and played on the soundtracks of several of Woody Allen's films. In New York, Sudhalter worked as a jazz educator and as a jazz reviewer for the New York Post from 1974 until 1984.

His masterpiece, Lost Chords, was published in 1999. Almost a thousand pages long, its subtitle, "White musicians and their contribution to jazz 1915-1945", gives some indication of why it caused an outcry among the politically correct. But few complained when books were written exclusively about black musicians. Sudhalter's book was a brilliant analysis of the music of a myriad of deserving players whose work had been overlooked, as well as providing cartloads of new information about Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and the established giants. His final book, Stardust Melody: the life and music of Hoagy Carmichael, was published in 2002.

Richard Merrill Sudhalter, cornettist, author, journalist: born Boston 28 December 1938; married 1961 Vivian Darien (two daughters); died New York 19 September 2008.

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