Richard M. Sudhalter gave elegance and exactness to speech, writing and music-making.
Dick’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,
but 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)