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Richard Sudhalter: a Brief Remembrance

Jazz historian Richard Sudhalter passed away last year at the age of 69, having spent the last several years of his life fighting significant health challenges. This Monday evening there will be a memorial concert in his honor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City, with an all-star lineup of musicians and spoken tributes from jazz writers Dan Morgenstern, Terry Teachout, and others. Sudhalter left behind three important biographies and studies: Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945, Stardust Melody: the Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael, and Bix, Man and Legend (co-author with Phil Evans). But he was also an excellent and enthusiastic musician, who could play the music as well as he could write about it. After his death eulogies from around the jazz blogosphere poured in; the ones written by his friends Terry Teachout and by Doug Ramsey at Rifftides are especially worthy of note, and give a compelling sense of Richard as a man, a scholar, and a passionate proponent of jazz.

I met Richard in 2002, while I was working as a volunteer jazz programmer for WFHB, a community radio station in Bloomington, Indiana. He had come here to promote his Hoagy Carmichael biography and was gracious enough to sit with me for a 75-minute interview, which I then edited into a 3-hour program for live broadcast that evening about Hoagy's life and music. The response that program got gave me the confidence to pursue a career as a professional jazz programmer, and I now work for WFIU, the NPR station here in Bloomington, hosting two weekly jazz programs. Richard also took the time to do a long-distance ISDN phone interview with me the following year about Bix Beiderbecke, driving far through a snowstorm-struck landscape to get to the studio. We exchanged e-mails several times about Indiana jazz (one of the numerous subjects upon which he was both expert and advocate). He was never anything less than eloquent, concise, and generous, and I was lucky to cross paths with him at that point in my life.

I had hoped to talk with Richard again about further Indiana-jazz-related topics, but after learning via the Bix Beiderbecke and other jazz boards that he was battling grave health problems, I sent a contribution to his medical fund, and I included a note thanking him for the interviews he'd done with me. Not long after that I received a thoughtful and poignant reply from him-far more than my modest donation merited. I had not even expected to hear back from him, given the rigor of his afflictions, and yet he wrote with fondness of our interview chats about Bix and Hoagy. He alluded, with no trace of self-pity, to his sense of days quickly dwindling, and to how much he'd enjoyed the life he'd had. I remember sitting at my desk reading the letter, feeling slightly astonished, as I was merely a middling-young Indiana jazz DJ who'd talked with him at length only several times. I recount this not out of vanity, certainly not to exaggerate the significance of his fleeting acquaintance with me, but simply in hopes of connoting the way in which he could touch the life of anybody who loved some of the things that he loved. I feel as if I owe him so much.

You can hear Richard in Tom Roznowski's WFIU Hoagy Carmichael special, as well as the WFIU show that I did on Bix Beiderbecke. NPR's Piano Jazz also recently re-aired a 2000 program in which Sudhalter and Marian McPartland paid tribute to Beiderbecke. Later this week I'll post the review that I wrote of his Carmichael biography in 2002. Thanks again, Mr. Sudhalter.

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