EVERYONE knows that the vast majority of jazz musicians have been black rather than white. Therefore it has seemed natural to conclude that jazz "is black: there have been no white innovators, few white soloists of real distinction; the best white musicians (with an exception or two) were only dilute copies of black originals, and in any case exerted lasting influence only on other white musicians."
These words are taken from Richard M. Sudhalter's brilliant and comprehensive new book, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 (Oxford University Press, 912 pages, $35.00). In these politically correct times any explicit recognition of white achievement in certain areas of endeavor, of which jazz is one, is in danger of being taken as a backhanded attempt to denigrate black achievement. Nothing could be further from Sudhalter's intent.
A superb writer who is the co-author, with Philip R. Evans, of Bix: Man & Legend (1974), probably the best biography of a jazz musician ever written, Sudhalter is also a fine cornetist, one of the best traditional jazz players around. He is therefore in a better position to appreciate, and to explain, the achievements of his great predecessors -- both black and white -- than most of the rest of us. He tells us at the outset,
[This book] is anything but an exercise in one-upsmanship or retaliation: any attempt to look at the music without regard to such seminal figures as Armstrong, Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Henry Allen, Sid Catlett, Benny Carter, and the rest would be folly. Their primacy, and the reverence in which they are held, belong to the unquestioned foundation on which the whole edifice rests.
Yet history is better than myths, Sudhalter insists, and history clearly tells us that "a distinct, significant, and creative white presence has existed in jazz from its first days," and that black contemporaries were "unhesitating in expressing respect for Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini, Jack Teagarden, Miff Mole, Frank Trumbauer, Steve Brown, Dave Tough, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, and numerous other white musicians." The true history of jazz, as Sudhalter sees it, is a "picaresque tale of cooperation, mutual admiration, cross-fertilization; comings-together and driftings-apart -- all despite, rather than because of, the segregation of the larger society."
Recent scholarship has taught us that the term "jazz" was not known in New Orleans but was merely the name that northerners and Californians gave to the music that in New Orleans was called ragtime. Three ragtime bands, the first black and the other two white, arrived in Chicago in 1915-1916: the Creole Band, Tom Brown's band, and what would soon become the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. By January of 1917 the ODJB had moved on to New York for its historic engagement at Reisenweber's Restaurant; on January 30 it made its even more historic first record. As Sudhalter points out, the ODJB seized the opportunity when others faltered: Brown had turned down the Reisenweber's job, and the Creole Band's cornetist, Freddie Keppard, had vetoed a recording contract -- supposedly because he feared that the band's music would be stolen by other bands.