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OBITUARIES : Richard M. Sudhalter, 1938 - 2008

Jazz musician, historian, critic

September 30, 2008|Matt Schudel | The Washington Post

Richard M. Sudhalter, a jazz musician, critic and biographer whose history of white jazz musicians prompted gales of protest when it was published in 1999, died Sept. 19 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. He was 69 and had multiple system atrophy, a degenerative condition similar to Lou Gehrig's disease.

Sudhalter was a first-rate trumpet and cornet player who specialized in the early styles of jazz. He led groups in the United States and Europe, recorded widely and was considered one of the finest heirs of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan and Bobby Hackett.

His more lasting contributions, however, came as a writer, first with "Bix: Man & Legend," a 1974 biography of Beiderbecke, the trumpet star of the 1920s who drank himself to an early grave.

Critic Terry Teachout called the book, co-written with Philip R. Evans and William Dean-Myatt, a "landmark of jazz scholarship" and the first jazz biography written to the standards of a serious study of a classical composer or other major historical figure. The book helped revive interest in Beiderbecke, whose lyrical recordings and compositions have inspired generations of musicians.

In 2002, after years as a performer, promoter and critic, Sudhalter published a biography of Indiana-born composer Hoagy Carmichael, which Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley pronounced "meticulous, admiring, perceptive and informative."

But he made his greatest impression in 1999 with the 890-page "Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945." The exhaustively researched history, which challenged the prevailing notion that jazz was exclusively a black art form, ignited an angry backlash.

Sudhalter highlighted the many ethnic and musical strands that compose the rich brocade of jazz, emphasizing that "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."

He delved into the lives and legacies of scores of musicians, maintaining that many white performers, including Bud Freeman, Red Norvo, Pee Wee Russell and Artie Shaw, had not received their full due from history.

Many critics and musicians were incensed at Sudhalter and called him the Pat Buchanan of jazz, referring to the often-inflammatory conservative commentator. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis said the book "does not deserve the dignity of a response. It's not an argument I'm prepared to devote five minutes to."

Critic Gerald Early wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "I fear that the length of the book may be a sign of the author's desperation."

At public forums, where he gamely tried to defend his work, Sudhalter was sometimes mocked and jeered.

"The angrier the denunciation, it seemed, the less the writer had actually read," he told the Contemporary Authors reference work in 2000. "Far from a racial screed, 'Lost Chords' was simply a book of musical history."

Richard Merrill Sudhalter was born Dec. 28, 1938, in Boston. He began playing trumpet at 11, when he first heard Beiderbecke on record. In high school, he formed groups with two classmates who became celebrated jazz pianists, Roger Kellaway and Steve Kuhn.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, Sudhalter majored in English and studied with a trumpeter from the Cleveland Orchestra. He graduated in 1960 and moved to Austria to teach English and play jazz.

From 1964 to 1972, he was a foreign correspondent for United Press International, based in London, Berlin and Belgrade. He covered Cold War flare-ups and was one of the few Western reporters to report from inside Czechoslovakia in 1968 as dissidents battled Soviet military forces.

In 1972, Sudhalter settled in London to concentrate on performing and writing the biography of Beiderbecke. He also organized a 29-piece orchestra to present the 1920s music of bandleader Paul Whiteman and often appeared with his aging heroes, including Hackett, Freeman and Doc Cheatham.

He was drawn to early jazz, he said, because "this music is more emotionally direct than other jazz styles. After the 1940s, jazz musicians gained more technical complexity, but they lost their warmth and individuality."

In New York since 1975, Sudhalter followed a dual career as performer and critic, including nine years as a jazz writer at the New York Post. He had a television interview program and was a concert promoter in the 1980s.

He usually wrote as Richard and performed as Dick.

In 2003, Sudhalter suffered a stroke but recovered enough to begin performing again. Soon afterward, however, the signs of his systemic disease appeared and eventually robbed him of all ability to communicate.

His marriages to Karen Rolf Sudhalter and Vivian Darien Sudhalter ended in divorce.

Survivors include his companion of 22 years, Dorothy Kellogg of New York; two daughters from his second marriage, Kimberley Sudhalter of Los Angeles and Adrian Sudhalter of New York; a sister; and a brother.

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