Tito, Ceausescu, and All That Jazz

W ondering what they’ve been saying about Richard Sudhalter, I went on-line and came across these notes to his new CD: “As one critic astutely put it, ‘there is not another career in jazz remotely comparable to that of Richard Merrill Sudhalter.’ Equally adept at playing jazz and writing about it, Dick Sudhalter has forged a unique double identity, a dual personality, excelling at both.”

Or if not both, neither. A letter written to the New York Times two months ago had this to say about Sudhalter’s essay in the Times on “jazz fiction”: “When did Richard Sudhalter, an obscure trumpeter and author of a debatable book about obscure white jazz musicians, become a literary critic?” In his view Sudhalter irresponsibly ignored an array of distinguished black writers, beginning with Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.

But it’s Sudhalter’s “debatable book” that has really been sticking in craws. Ten years of research and writing went into Lost Chords, one of the most ambitious histories of music ever written. Its 900 meticulous pages cover only the years from 1915 to 1945. When Lost Chords was published at the beginning of the year, reviewers exclaimed in one voice, “It’s amazing. But…”

The subtitle explains their distress: “White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz.” Here’s a subject easy to dismiss as too arcane or inflammatory to trouble with–and plenty of jazzmen denounced the book before, or instead of, reading it. “Yes, there is a tremendous backlog of racial resentment in the jazz world,” Sudhalter told me, “most of it displayed by black fans, commentators, and musicians, who have convinced themselves that Whitey stole ‘our music.’ The premise is both misguided and self-defeating, but as you well know, an idee fixe, once in place…is hard to dislodge, especially through anything so prosaic as mere fact.”

As he writes in his introduction, the idea of jazz as an art form that’s black in every important way “can even be seen to feed a noble goal: granting American blacks, particularly black youth, the worthiest of birthrights, a lineage brimming with estimable role models.” But the truth being revealed by “a growing body of scholarly research” is, in Sudhalter’s view, “ultimately more beneficial.” It’s that “in at least one important field, 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.”

The reviewer for the Washington Times hailed Sudhalter for sallying into “joyful combat” against the “doctrine theorists…convinced that jazz is almost entirely the creation of black Americans.” The International Herald Tribune critic remarked that Sudhalter “has been called the Patrick Buchanan of jazz.”

What seems so strange about Sudhalter’s present notoriety is that it has nothing to do with the man who befriended me 30 years ago. It also contradicts the old axiom, which I take seriously, that most good reporters are good for nothing else. Talk about Sudhalter’s “dual personality” doesn’t go far enough. How many trumpeters have covered Ceausescu and Tito?

I didn’t know back in 1969 that Sudhalter was a musician. He was UPI’s man in Belgrade, typically resourceful and over-extended. His beat was southeastern Europe–Romania, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, and Yugoslavia. A lapsed UPI man myself, I’d backpacked into Belgrade and he was showing me around. Yugoslavia then couldn’t have been called a tyranny, but the first duty of the citizen was obedience. Information was a serious commodity, never casually acquired. “There is no free press in Yugoslavia,” Sudhalter told me, “but the people are well informed.”

He talked about covering a Communist Party congress in Bucharest. He massaged the Romanian, a Romance language he didn’t know, into French, which he could stumble along in. Then he wrote it up in English and reported it to an international audience of millions. I couldn’t have been more impressed.

We got back in touch when Sudhalter came to Chicago two months ago to sign books and play his horn at Jazz Fest. He was commemorating the hundredth birthday of Hoagy Carmichael, whose biography he’s now writing. After he left I sent him a letter asking how UPI had wormed its way into a musician’s life.

It seems he always liked jazz and he always liked journalism. He was playing trumpet in Munich in 1964 when he heard that the Frankfurt bureau had an opening. He wanted the work and he got it; he spent two years in Frankfurt and two more in London, playing jazz whenever he wasn’t reporting.

“On August 21, 1968, I was driving down Kensington High Street toward Barnes, where we had a riverside flat. The BBC announced that Soviet armor had moved into Czechoslovakia, ringed Prague, and effectively put an end to the Dubcek regime. One sentence above all caught my ear: the Czechoslovak embassy’s announcement that it was still issuing visas and would continue to do so until notified otherwise by a responsible authority. The embassy was in Kensington Gardens, which I just happened to be passing.

“Don’t ask me why, but I parked the car on the sidewalk and sprinted up to the embassy, proffered my passport, and emerged with an honest-to-goodness Czechoslovak visa stamped on it. Tore home, threw some stuff in a bag, and drove to Heathrow, where I talked my way aboard a BEA flight to Nuernberg. All this without even phoning the UPI bureau.”

He rented a car in Nuernberg, drove it into Czechoslovakia, and spent two days “sleeping in the car, dodging Soviet tanks on back roads, and generally getting the idea that I was the only Western newsman roaming that particular countryside. All others were ringed in Prague.” He came out, called Vienna, and the UPI man there replied, “Where the fuck have you been? You were due on the London desk an hour ago.”

“I told him where I’d been,” says Sudhalter. “And after a long, long silence he put their house dictation stiff on the phone and I started spewing.”

He got reamed by the London bureau chief–and front-page play all over the world. A couple of months later his reward was Belgrade. Yugoslavia, as he recalls the country then, wasn’t haunted only by its past; its future was just as dire a specter. Local journalists told him what was coming: Tito would die; a collective presidency would fail; Slovenia, then Croatia would break away. “PanSerbianism would rear its head,” he went on in a recent letter, “the cry would go up to annex Kosovo (1389 and all that) from the accursed sqipitari–spiritual descendants, it was thought, of the despised Turks. The ‘anomaly’ of Bosnia-Herzegovina would have to be ‘normalized.’

“Remember this,” his letter advised me: “the last thing in the world either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches want to see is an Islamic beachhead in central Europe. The Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians were widely viewed as the vanguard, thus to be hated and feared. The Western nations also resist an Islamic presence of any consequence–but are not going to admit it. But anyone who’s worked out there knows the reality.”

While Sudhalter was covering the Balkans he reported to the Vienna bureau, where Howard Tyner was a young deskman. Today Tyner edits the Chicago Tribune. He recalls that “we used to exchange lots of late-night messages, much to the annoyance of the Viennese office staff, who apparently liked to go through the overnight trash in the mornings.”

Sudhalter remembered an adventure he’d had in Belgrade. “At one point some fellow correspondents and I smuggled a Czech journalist out of Yugo to Austria. He’d been summoned home to Prague for ‘debriefing’–which in light of his outspoken role in the ‘Prague spring’ could only have meant one thing. Apparently his wife, socially ambitious and with the sexual morals of a rabbit, had sold him out. So we packed him under blankets in my Opel station wagon and ferried him to the border…

“High-adrenaline days, those.”

They were 18-hour days too, and aside from occasional sessions with amateurs who jammed at the British embassy, there were days without jazz. “I missed it dreadfully.” When UPI offered Nairobi and East Africa to Sudhalter, he weighed covering Idi Amin against making music again. It wasn’t a painless choice, but he asked to go back to London. That decision ended his career in journalism. He sat on the desk and in 1973 took “voluntary redundancy”–“it’s not like I was fired, but it was also not like retiring in good standing.” The next year he brought out his first book, a biography of Bix Beiderbecke, the pride of Lake Forest Academy. In 1975 he returned to the States.

“Do I miss the day-to-day scramble of the wire-service life? Sure, especially when there’s a really choice breaking story, driven by the machinery of lots of history,” he told me. “The only time it really gnawed at me was when Bosnia blew up. Things went on that I understood, and I realized a certain part of me long dormant, a spark of interest for that kind of get-the-story-at-all-costs existence, had not quite died out.”

Where’s the Music?

Other than a foot and a half of brass, there’s not much Dick Sudhalter has in common with Gene Glimmer, the sweet, inarticulate mope of a trumpeter played by Steppenwolf’s Rick Snyder this autumn in Side Man. The play was written by Warren Leight, a trumpeter’s son, and I asked Sudhalter what he thought of it.

“We all know Don Leight, Warren’s dad, on whose career the play is very loosely modeled,” he replied. “And the other trumpet guys are apparently drawn from Ziggy Schatz, Al Stuart, and one other NYC guy whose name escapes me for the moment. After years in the business, I’ve no doubt that guys like that existed–airheads who loved to smoke weed, get drunk, and wig out over the music. Who defied every rule of common sense and prudence just to live inside that hermetically sealed little universe. I’ve known my share. We used to call them musos, guys whose world seemed to be defined, enclosed, by sessions, road buses, scoring, getting high and laid, ‘digging sounds.'”

In the play, all the musicians were musos. “I don’t see how we can escape the implied synecdoche. The lay public knows little about the jazz life–especially as it was in the past, where these events are set. These guys are walking cliches and play handily into the old stereotype of the jazzer as a guy in beret and shades, talking in an idiot argot and bobbing his head to a beat only he hears. Musicians know what rubbish that was and is–but I doubt the casual theatergoer will give it more than a cursory thought, if at all.”

The other thing wrong with Side Man, Sudhalter went on, was that there was no live music. “It might have worked,” he said, “if there had been a trumpet-player figure, perhaps perpetually in shadow–elusive nature of the muse and all that–playing beautiful things as the acolytes listened, with light glinting once in a while off the gold or silver of his horn. We used a similar device in the 1981 Los Angeles production of the Adrian Mitchell play, Hoagy, Bix, and Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus. Harry Groener, as Bix, would stand there in the spotlight and appear to start playing, then rotate into darkness as I, standing back-to-back with him, came into the spotlight actually playing the solos. Toward the end we’d rotate again, with me melting into shadow as Harry emerged. Most effective.

“The key ingredient, sine qua non, was the music.”

News Bites

If Americans have more God-given rights than anybody else, maybe it’s because He likes to laugh at what we do with them. Last week I wrote about Steven Milloy, who’s been exercising his right to cover environmental issues for the Sun-Times after exercising his right to lobby for big business on some of the same issues.

This week’s symbol of liberty is Jerry McGlothlin, the founder of a new Net-based newswire for Chicago media, City News USA, that I described in a column October 1. Asserting his right to enter the fray, though the canons of journalism would stash him above it, McGlothlin this month issued a letter to editors, for publication, denouncing Governor Ryan. In McGlothlin’s view, Ryan allowed corruption to rage in the Secretary of State’s office while he “received hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars in illegal campaign contributions raised by selling phony drivers licenses.”

McGlothlin told Ryan to resign “while there is still some dignity left in the office.” And he wasn’t speaking as a private citizen either. His letter appeared on City News USA stationery, and he concluded it with “Bureau Chief, City News USA.”

When a news executive disseminates his political opinions along with the news, questions of propriety come up. They aren’t made any less complex by McGlothlin’s personal history. A year ago he was a spokesman for Chad Koppie, a candidate for governor running against Ryan.

Congratulations to the Tribune for its angry series on the death penalty in Illinois. A compelling successor to last winter’s investigation of prosecutorial corruption, the series demonstrates that the state’s most important newspaper has lost its tolerance for rough justice. When as many death-row prisoners are eventually exonerated as executed, justice has been rough indeed.