Dick Sudhalter, 1938-2008

Richard M. Sudhalter gave elegance and exactness to speech, writing and music-making.

Sudhalter 3.jpgDick’s perfection of expression came in natural flows, whether he was writing,
 playing the cornet or chatting over dinner. Gene Lees observed that Dick was the only person he knew who always spoke in perfect sentences and paragraphs. Sudhalter’s mastery of language is everywhere in his biographies of Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael and his monumental study Lost Chords. Currents of coherence, logic, passion and humor are equally evident in his playing.

A few years ago, a stroke robbed Dick of the ability to play and caused halting speech. Then a disease called multiple system atrophy (MSA) attacked him and, over a few years, shut down his body. He lost speech and the use of his limbs. The disease left his intellect intact but destroyed his ability to communicate, the thing he did extraordinarily well. Friends and admirers around the world donated to a fund for his medical expenses and there was a benefit concert, but MSA is progressive and incurable. Dick died in a New York hospital shortly after one o’clock this morning.

He sometimes used trumpet and he had a distinctive way with the flugelhorn, but he preferred cornet, the instrument his hero Beiderbecke stayed with despite the trumpet’s having come to dominance in jazz. Dick was a man out of his time in other ways, too. In an era of increasingly casual dress, he preferred the bespoke tailoring he learned to love during his London years as a UPI correspondent. He was open-minded about new developments in jazz,

Sudhalter, Crow.jpgbut had a firm attachment to the emotional and intellectual straightforwardness of Bix and the Chicago School. You can hear it on all three of his instruments in this CD with friends including Dave Frishberg, Daryl Sherman, Dan Barrett and Bill Crow, among others. (In the picture, Dick, on the left, is with Crow.) Sudhalter is exclusively on cornet in The Classic Jazz Quartet with Dick Wellstood, Joe Muranyi and Marty Grosz — a gathering of four spirits aligned in their love for music, writing and clowning.

Because of its subtitle, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 was reflexively attacked by partisans who chose to see it as an effort to diminish the importance of black musicians. Had they bothered to read the book, they would have found that Sudhalter does quite the opposite while balancing the historical record of achievement in jazz and providing deep insights into the nature of the music. As a player, Bix was his hero and primary influence, but Dick also wrote beautifully about Louis Armstrong in, among other places, the notes for Heart Full of Rhythm, Vol.2, a CD with some of the music Armstrong recorded for Decca. Here’s a small sample of his ability to draw on the present in illuminating a performance from the past.

Pianist Bill Evans used to insist that excision of sentimentality yielded the purest form of romanticism. My bet is he’d have been delighted with what Louis does to “Once in a While.” Even on paper its lyric teeters precariously on the edge of bathos. Yet Louis manages (how? what’s the secret?) to strip away the self-pity and make it affecting, even poignant.

A few months after Dick’s stroke, I was in the lounge above the front lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. His close friend Daryl Sherman was playing Cole Porter’s piano and singing. She told me that Dick was going to try to be there, but not to count on it; he was having some bad days. Soon, though, I saw him making his slow way across the room to where our friend Jill McManus and I were listening to Daryl. He was impeccably turned out in sport coat, slacks and tie, just the right late-afternoon outfit for the proper New York gentleman of the 1940s, a decade in which I think he would have preferred to be living. When Daryl took a break, the four of us sat chatting. Dick’s wit and incisiveness shined through the slow speech, but he tired quickly and returned to the apartment to rest.

After that encounter, we talked by telephone a few times. Then, he could correspond only by e-mail — then, only through relays from other people — then, not at all. One can only imagine how it was for this most articulate of men to be imprisoned within himself, unable to express ideas or emotions.

Dick wanted to go, I’m sure of that. His ordeal is at an end. Knowing that it was inevitable and coming soon did not prepare me for this depth of sadness. His music, his books, the good luck of his friendship, will enrich me for the rest of my life.

Our mutual close friend Terry Teachout was extremely helpful to Dick in his last year or two. For Terry’s tribute, go here.

(Photo of Dick Sudhalter courtesy of Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University) 


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  1. says

    A modest tribute to Richard and a reminiscence.
    All are saddened by the death of Richard Sudhalter, perhaps the more so because it had become inevitable. We in England, even if geographically distant from his ordeal, were thinking of him often in recent times. We were already pondering the tragedy that Terry Teachout expressed so well: namely, the absurd irony that an intellect so keen, so perceptive and so lucid in expression, was in the end, cruelly imprisoned and remorselessly forced into silence.
    You remarked that Gene Lees said of Richard, that he was the only person he knew “who always spoke in perfect sentences and paragraphs.” I too was lucky enough to have known a person who had that remarkable gift. More to the point, he was a friend and colleague of Richard for many years: John R.T. Davies, the multi-instrumentalist Jazz musician and master of audio restoration. Alas, John died over four years ago, on 25th May 2004.
    However, a few weeks before his death he held a combined family celebration of the wedding of his daughter and also of his and his wife Sue’s 50th wedding anniversary. A bitter-sweet occasion indeed! Richard came over to England for it. He seemed fine after his stroke, but as has been observed, spoke more slowly than before. To my surprise, I was there too. By this time John was very weak, and had to spend most of his time resting on a couch in an ante-room. I saw Richard go into the room and kneel at the couch, take John’s hands in his and talk to him. I don’t know what he said – well, actually, his first words were: ‘You have done so much…’, but then of course I went away, while those two old friends talked for a while.
    It then struck me for the first time that those two men were in many ways, ‘made for each other’. They were both Patricians. I dubbed them that there and then, and have never been able to come up with a better word. The things they did, they did with meticulous thoroughness, artistry and craftsmanship. They would never look at ‘second best’. They held artistic and aesthetic truth and integrity as sacred values.
    Nothing that either of them did was ever done lightly or with irreverence.
    It may seem a facile cliché on which to end, but I can’t help imagining them together again. They will doubtless be discussing the relative merits of some obscure alternative take of a little-known territory band; or perhaps, whether the second chord of that middle 8 (release) is a diminished or a minor ninth…
    Both of them were mentors to me; John in person, and Richard mostly by his books and recordings. Still, the only effective tribute we can really pay to human beings of this exalted stature, is to do our best to live up, however modestly, to the very high standards they set.

  2. Pat Goodhope says

    I awakened this Saturday morning to make my routine internet rounds, landing on your blog after reading the Red Sox page on the Boston Globe. Such sobering news to read that Dick Sudhalter has died.
    I never met Dick Sudhalter face to face, but the interview I did with him is one of the top three highlights of my radio career. It was after the Hoagy Carmichael book came out in 2002 and Jim Ferguson and I were on the phone one day when I mentioned reading it. Jim suggested that I have him join me on the show and he passed along Dick’s e-mail address. Sudhalter agreed to it without hesitation upon Jim’s recommendation and with no other discussion.
    When I called that evening the only preparatory comment I made was that I wanted to hear him in total, not in 20 second sound bites, a point he thought was humorous. I set up his introduction perfectly, coming out of the great Artie Shaw record of “Stardust” that he treasured and wrote so eloquently about. The conversation evolved from there and we had a fantastic two hours. I was even able to query him about the possibility of any kind of a relationship between Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Sinatra, a thought that he found intriguing. When we were through and off the air he told me how much he enjoyed being able to have the time to discuss things at length and without time contraints. He reminisced about his time doing a radio show like mine, bringing guests on like Pee Wee Erwin and others, finally inviting me to call him whenever I would like to chat. I am very proud of that, having earned my stripes with this brilliant man who has led a life I can only dream of.
    I am glad I first learned about his passing from you.
    (Mr. Goodhope conducts the Wednesday edition of the Avenue C program on WVUD-FM at the University of Delaware: http://www.wvud.org/listen_online.htm — DR)

  3. Rande Sandke says

    I don’t know how many have seen the Julian Schnabel film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but it concerns a man with “locked in syndrome” who comprehends everything but only has the use of one eye with which to see and communicate. It reminded me of poor Dick Sudhalter’s condition in that Dick seemed to be mentally alert but was unable to make his thoughts known. For someone with such an active mind this was probably worse than a death sentence, and I’m not surprised he expressed a desire to simply give up.
    I was very touched that he, Dorothy, and Daryl Sherman came to a concert I did only a few weeks ago. Dick seemed to genuinely enjoy the music and when I introduced him he received a hearty round of applause from the audience. I’m also happy that when we gave the benefit concert for him at St. Peter’s he had a chance to see the capacity crowd cheer him and show their appreciation.
    Still, this was all probably little comfort to such a dynamic personality who was consigned to remain a helpless bystander in a world he had been so much a part of.

  4. says

    Richard Sudhalter was one of the most thoughtfully articulate persons I’ve ever met, yet he possessed the kindest spirit. I’m blessed to have known him, and I’ll miss him deeply. Thank you, Doug, for your lovely tribute to him.

  5. paolo petrozziello says

    I am so lucky to have personally met Dick, when he was here in Rome, some years ago for for a serial of concerts he had. I used to be always present there, where he played and then, every night I gave him a ride back to the hotel where he was staying at. Those were the moments, when we chatted a lot, despite the late hours. He was so nice and friendly and I was really “taken” from his way of speaking.
    Dearest Dick you suffered so much, but now it’s all over and you are there, just among all the musicians idols you had and you have written so much about !!!

  6. Vivian Darian Sudhalter says

    Richard was my husband for 18 years – many of them spent in London. There have been so many tributes to him in the last few weeks, but none has so effectively evoked the essence of the man as yours does. His “back story,” known well to those who were close to him, is that Richard never quite grasped the difference between being and achieving. Now, after a lifetime of achieving, I hope he can rest and acknowledge just being. I and our two grown daughters will never escape measuring our lives against his standards, but our love for him focuses on his being.

  7. says

    Richard M. Sudhalter was a perfectionist and very elegant man. The tragedy directly and indirectly touch his surrounding world. Fortunately his real audience and friends were there to support him. Special thoughts to him and his presentations.