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Richard Sudhalter Dies At Age 69

The jazz world has lost one of its finest writers and historians. On September 19th, after a lengthy illness, Richard Sudhalter finally succumbed to aspiration pneumonia in a New York City hospital. He was 69.

Although he was himself a fine musician, Sudhalter was best known for his writings, which represented some of the most scholarly works in the field of jazz history. He wrote three major books, including biographies of Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael, published in 1975 and 2002 respectively. These were recognized by many as definitive works on their subjects, indeed the critic Terry Teachout compared the thoroughness of Bix: Man and Legend to "a scholarly biography of a major classical composer," declaring it a "landmark of jazz scholarship. Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael was praised as "meticulous, admiring, perceptive and informative."

In addition to these biographies, in 1999, Sudhalter published Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, in which he made the case that greater recognition should be given to white musicians for the formation and development of jazz. Needless to say, this was a provocative thesis and it stirred up significant controversy. But none of it moved Sudhalter, who continued to advocate for such soloists as Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Red Norvo, Bud Freeman, the Dorsey brothers, Bunny Berigan, Pee Wee Russell and Artie Shaw, and to hold to his thesis which was 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." Ultimately, the thoroughness of his research made it difficult for his critics to undermine his work.

Sudhalter was also known for the equally scholarly columns he wrote for the New York Post in the 1970s and '80s, and for annotations of classic jazz recordings, some of which he also compiled. But the authority of his writing was reinforced by the fact that he was also a fine musician, a trumpeter and cornetist with a style that betrayed his admiration for Beiderbeck, Berigan, Louis Armstrong and Bobby Hackett. Thus it was, for example, that his research not only provided the details of Bix's life, but also allowed Sudhalter to create, in the manner of a true musicologist, a 29-piece orchestra that performed the music of bandleader Paul Whiteman. The orchestra was formed in London, where Sudhalter was living at the time, but performed at Carnegie Hall and other major venues. Sudhalter also played with such groups as the Classic Jazz Quartet, and recorded for several labels including Audiophile and Challenge. He preferred 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."

With all of this, Sudhalter's life was not only in music. His father was a professional musician, a saxophonist, and Richard did take up the trumpet in high-school, forming groups with pianists Roger Kellaway and Steve Kuhn, but his degree from Oberlin College was in English literature. While at Oberlin he continued his trumpet studies with a member of the Cleveland Symphony, and he subsequently worked as a musician in Europe for some time, but then Sudhalter made a significant career choice by becoming a reporter for United Press International, for whom he worked from 1964 to 1972. Based in London, Berlin and Belgrade, he covered events of the Cold War, including the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia at which time he was one of the only Western reporters inside the country. He continued to file his reports even as dissidents were being brutally suppressed by the Soviet military.

In 2003 Sudhalter's activities were interrupted when he suffered a stroke. Although he partially recovered, he then learned that he had contracted multiple system atrophy, an illness described as similar to Parkinson's Disease. Progressively debilitating, it robbed him of speech and mobility and was to be the ultimate cause of his death.

Mr. Sudhalter is survived by his partner Dorothy Kellogg, his sister Carol, herself a significant jazz saxophonist, flutist and bandleader, his brother James, and his daughters Adrian and Kimberley.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Richard Sudhalter
  • Subtitle: Jazz Historian Succumbs After Long Illness
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