“A melodic line, after all, can be compounded out of any combination of notes, intervals, distribution of phrases. In that sense it is almost a random process: as a prose stylist fits words, phrases, together to form a coherent whole, so does the architect of a melody assemble its component parts. What distinguishes a great prose stylist from a mere compiler of words has to do with selection, with inner rhythm, with factors far transcending the simple mechanics of sentence construction.”
Who would expect to find an instructive comparison of musical and prose composition (or improvisation) in a history of jazz? The answer is: readers of the late Richard M. Sudhalter, a accomplished trumpet player, and author of some of the most exhaustively researched, least politically muddled books on America’s musical glory. The passage above comes from one of his two masterworks, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915 – 1945 (1999), which I’m reading for a second time. The other is Bix: Man and Legend (1974), a biography of Beiderbecke co-written with Philip R. Evans. Sudhalter also published Stardust Melody (2002), a biography of Hoagy Carmichael.
Lost Chords is a book big (890 pages) and elastic enough to accommodate digressions on almost any subject. Sudhalter worked as a reporter for UPI, covering the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and wrote jazz criticism for the New York Post from 1978 to 1984. As a journalist and musician he upends two stereotypes simply by writing well. When he distinguishes “a great prose stylist” from “a mere compiler of words,” he might be thinking of former colleagues and most other jazz writers (he adored Whitney Balliett and quotes him generously in Lost Chords).
For so vast a subject, the appropriate structure is all-important. A strict chronological approach, Sudhalter writes in the preface, would have been “not only impractical but often downright impossible.” Instead, he deftly organizes musicians and groups “by stylistic and personal affinity.” The passage above comparing prose and melody comes in the middle of a chapter devoted to the great trumpet player Bobby Hackett. Sudhalter writes in his preface: “Aesthetic evolution is never neat or calendrical, but full of back-and-forth episodes.”
Sudhalter cites “selection” and “inner rhythm” as essential to writing great prose. Too many would-be writers are indiscriminate and tin-eared. Language, their medium, seems not to interest them. Prose need not be flowery or vulgarly “musical” to sing. In his essay “The Journal of John Cardan,” J.V. Cunningham writes:
“No dignity, except in silence; no virtue, except in sinuous exacting speech.”
After stating that prose “far transcend[s] the simple mechanics of sentence construction,” Sudhalter writes:
“The writer of prose understands instinctively that certain combinations of phrases and rhythms – the inflections as it were, of the rhetor’s inner voice – will produce strong and varied responses in a reader. It’s equally applicable to the great melodists: Tchaikovsky among nineteenth-century composers, Jerome Kern among songwriters of the American twentieth century, knew the emotive power of certain intervals, certain combinations of notes and rhythms, and the contexts in which they could be presented most effectively.”
In this context only, a writer of prose can make music.