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The white small-band style that was developing in New York during the 1920s was quite different from the rhythmically insistent music of the Chicagoans. Sudhalter writes,
On most of the pre-1929 New York records the sense of form seems uppermost, producing what is in effect a hot chamber music ensemble: miniatures, vignettes, cameos, finely crafted, and studded with small jewels of invention -- but with rhythm playing a decidedly secondary role.One of the first important bands to record was the Original Memphis Five, with the cornetist Phil Napoleon and the virtuoso trombonist Miff Mole. In 1925, playing in the pit band for Earl Carroll's Vanities, Mole met the cornetist Red Nichols, with whom he would make hundreds of records. These two quickly gathered around them a group that included not only two young Italians from Philadelphia, the violinist Joe Venuti and the guitarist Eddie Lang, but also the Dorsey brothers -- the reed player Jimmy and the trombonist Tommy, Pennsylvanians who had served their apprenticeship with a famous white "territory band" called the Scranton Sirens. This group defined New York's small-band style much as the Austin High Gang defined Chicago's.
The two styles memorably collided on July 6, 1928, at a Miff Mole record date when Nichols and Mole were joined by Teschemacher and three other Chicagoans: the pianist Joe Sullivan, the banjoist Eddie Condon, and the drummer Gene Krupa. Sudhalter says that "the raw energy of the young Chicagoans" helped Nichols and Mole to shed some of their New York reserve; I would add that the presence of the New Yorkers encouraged Teschemacher to play with more focus and discipline than he often did. The other major event that helped to loosen up the New York style was the arrival of the great southwestern trombonist Jack Teagarden.
The marked difference in regional styles did not stem from a difference in the ages of the two groups of players, for there was virtually none. Rather, it was caused by a difference in attitude toward a professional musician's career. The New York players had all received extensive classical training in their youth, and could play in a variety of bands. It was Red Nichols, for example, whom George Gershwin commissioned, in 1929 and 1930, to organize the pit bands for Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy. Most of the New Yorkers thus had the choice of what sort of musician to become. But the Chicagoans, as Sudhalter puts it, had "become professional musicians for the express purpose of playing hot jazz." Not having come up through dance bands, they had never had to accommodate the tastes of dancers and other patrons. They were therefore free to indulge in a single-minded idealism about the dignity and high purpose of a jazz musician's life -- as opposed to the commercialism of dance musicians.
We have here, I think, the birth of the purism that has disfigured so much historical and critical writing about jazz over the past sixty years -- and that is also responsible for the myth that jazz is exotic by nature, standing apart from the rest of American popular dance music in a way that makes it unique and superior.
SUDHALTER, who grew up in the music business, knows that the house of jazz has many mansions. There is nothing contemptible about the working musician's usually necessary effort to meet his public at least halfway. Playing any number of straight dance engagements need not make one a less proficient, less dedicated, or less "authentic" (whatever that means) jazzman -- though it may often be less enjoyable than playing jazz. Sudhalter, in other words, is no purist.
Therefore he is intensely interested in the process by which, during the 1920s, the modern dance orchestra evolved as bandleaders sought, in various ways and to varying degrees, to integrate jazz into their repertoires. In his chapters on the development of small-band styles he has more to say about the parallel changes in dance bands than I can even suggest here. He never allows us to forget that jazz originated as dance music, and that dance musicians, if they want to eat regularly, must take into account what the great black drummer Baby Dodds elegantly called "the comfort of the people." King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band -- the first great black band to record, the band that gave Louis Armstrong his start up north and with which he made his first records -- was famous for being able to play waltzes so softly that you could hear the dancers' feet shuffling.
Sudhalter's breadth of interest pays off when he comes to the first big bands that included, and tried to make serious frequent use of, a number of jazz stars -- the bands of Jean Goldkette and Ben Pollack. In 1926 and 1927 Goldkette had Beiderbecke, the saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, the trombonist Bill Rank, the bassist Steve Brown, and the arranger Bill Challis, another Scranton Sirens alumnus. In the late summer of 1927, when the band was forced to break up for financial reasons, these members went with Paul Whiteman. In 1928 and 1929 Pollack had McPartland, Benny Goodman, and both Jack Teagarden and his trumpet-playing brother, Charlie. Yet neither band is well represented on records. The skewed logic of record executives dictated that black audiences would accept only jazz whereas white audiences wanted polite dance music. Thus black bands like Fletcher Henderson's were encouraged to record their hot numbers but forbidden to record a medley of waltzes, and bands like Goldkette's and Pollack's were discouraged from recording their hot numbers and often forced to record wretched pop tunes they never would have played with wretched "house" vocalists they had never worked with. Throughout their lives many members of both bands complained about never having been allowed to show posterity what they could do.
A peculiar sort of racial discrimination was thus, for a time at least, imposed on white bands by the record companies -- those very sources of power and money that, according to many jazz historians, enabled whites, through superior access, to "steal" jazz from blacks. As Sudhalter shows, this whole way of reading jazz history has more to do with the leftist politics of certain early jazz critics than with reality. Black and white musicians learned the music together, by copying records and by simple trial and error. Black jazz and white jazz were both, from the beginning, subject to wide variation, and there was a great deal of overlap between them. If you were any good, the way you played was primarily a result of the person you were.
Though they were not allowed to play in public as members of the same band until the late 1930s, black and white musicians often did so in private. In October of 1926 the Goldkette and Henderson bands met at New York's Roseland Ballroom for a "Battle of Music"; Rex Stewart, Henderson's cornetist, later recalled, "They just creamed us." The members of the two bands became friends, and swapped arrangements. In early 1931 the Henderson band twice recorded Challis's arrangement of "Singin' the Blues," with Stewart lovingly copying Beiderbecke's famous solo note for note.
The remainder of Sudhalter's book covers more-familiar ground, and thus demands less comment here. He pays long overdue homage to the Casa Loma Orchestra and its pioneering arranger, Gene Gifford, who set the tone for the Swing Era with his riff-dominated writing for brass and reed sections. Sudhalter also shows how Artie Shaw and Red Norvo rebelled against the riff style, which they found boring and predictable. The only disappointing chapter is the one on Benny Goodman, which is evidently a reprint of a magazine interview published in 1981. Of course an enormous amount, both biographical and critical, has been written about Goodman and his bands. Still, it was Goodman who, briefly, made first-rate jazz the most popular music in this country, solving the problem that, Sudhalter shows, bandleaders struggled with from the early 1920s onward. It would have been most illuminating to have a record-by-record analysis of just how Goodman did it.
Lost Chords is a lifetime guide to its subject -- the sort of book that in a sense one never finishes. Indeed, it is unlikely that its subject will ever need to be dealt with again at such length. The only problem is that not enough of the music Sudhalter discusses is available on compact disc. The comparatively meager representation of early white jazz musicians on disc at the moment offers strong proof for Sudhalter's central contention that they have been treated unfairly by history. The splendid "Chronological Classics" reissue series, produced in France, now numbers more than 500 discs, and has found room for such obscure black artists as Skeets Tolbert and Charles Brown -- yet has not seen fit to devote a single disc to Red Nichols, Miff Mole, or Red Norvo. There are signs that this situation is changing. Only when it does -- only when far more white jazz, from all periods, is readily available -- will the injustice so eloquently chronicled by Sudhalter be put right at last.
William H. Youngren is a professor of English at Boston College. He has just completed his doctoral dissertation in musicology at Brandeis University, on the songs of C.P.E. Bach.
Illustration by Barry Blitt
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Black and White Intertwined; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 86 - 89.