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At The Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years On The Jazz Scene

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At The Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years On The Jazz Scene
Nat Hentoff
Hardcover; 246 pages
ISBN: 978-0-520-26113-6
University California Press
2010

The photograph which adorns the jacket of Nat Hentoff's At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years On The Jazz Scene—a collection of articles, interviews and reviews—couldn't be more appropriate. It depicts Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
blowing his trumpet to the sky in an apparent state of rhapsody, surrounded by ecstatic kids from a medical center in Cairo, Egypt. The picture dates from 1961 and is a perfect illustration of the central themes in Hentoff's book—jazz as a universal, joyous language, jazz the healer and life force, and jazz as an educational force.

The majority of the articles collected in the book were originally published during the 2000s. An anomaly, at least time-wise, is a Downbeat piece from 1956, a revealing interview with pianist Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
.

Hentoff is privileged to have known the likes of pianist Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, saxophonists Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
and Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
and singer Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
. Many of the musicians he writes about were his friends, and the intimacy with which they speak to him makes for absorbing reading. Monk says: "I've liked something about nearly every musician I've heard," and with regard to the notion that his tunes are somehow difficult to understand he replies: "Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand." Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell
Pee Wee Russell
Pee Wee Russell
b.1906
clarinet
says: "You take each solo like it was the last one you were going to play in your life."

There's an illuminating nugget from Davis regarding latter day Holiday, and some advice from Ellington which seems ever so pertinent in this age of cross pollination of styles: "Never get caught up in categories," Ellington implores. Hentoff repeats these quotations, and others by saxophonist Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
, drummer Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
and trumpeter Clark Terry
Clark Terry
Clark Terry
b.1920
trumpet
like a mantra, and one of Gillespie's reflections—"It's taken me all of my life to know what not to play"—appears eight times in the book. The reader certainly comes away with these pearls of wisdom firmly embedded in the brain.

Much of Hentoff's attention since 2000 has focused on the greats of the past. There is little space in the collection for jazz's modern practitioners and what Hentoff makes of them must therefore be a matter of speculation. There are a few portraits of modern jazz musicians such as saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen

sax, tenor
and a couple of bright young prospects that excite Hentoff, but it is telling that singer Amanda Carr
Amanda Carr
Amanda Carr
b.1962
vocalist
's father played in the bands of Woody Herman
Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band/orchestra
, Louis Prima
Louis Prima
Louis Prima
1910 - 1978
composer/conductor
and Herb Pomeroy
Herb Pomeroy
Herb Pomeroy
b.1930
trumpet
, that trumpeter Theo Croker
Theo Croker
Theo Croker
b.1985
trumpet
's grandfather was Doc Cheatham
Doc Cheatham
Doc Cheatham
1905 - 1997
trumpet
and that singer Catherine Russell's mother, Carline Ray, was bassist, pianist and singer in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Since a negative review of Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) cost him his friendship with Miles Davis, Hentoff's writing has reflected his personal tastes.

The articles are steeped in a century of American history. The reader is reminded of the significant role of jazz in the Civil Rights movement. The FBI's tracking of the movements of Louis Armstrong for years, and Hentoff too, may raise a few eyebrows. Women in jazz are given a fair amount of space, and two revealing anecdotes about pianist Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
and saxophonist Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and the "searing fires of rejection" that both suffered at the hands of their peers raise questions about the intolerance that certainly existed on the jazz scene in the so-called "golden age" of jazz.

Hentoff's life-long dedication to the individualization of education in America is reflected in articles on jazz programs in schools and it is heartening to learn that at least some school children are being weaned on the music of saxophonist John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
. Second-grade teacher Christine Passarella, of Holliswood School in Queens, says to Hentoff of Coltrane's music: "(It) tells children to be who they want to be, that it is OK to be different, it is OK to feel, and that we all need to be able to express who we are in our own way to find what writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell called 'following your bliss.'"

Hentoff has been following his bliss for more than 60 years. He remains optimistic about the future of jazz and the infectious nature of the music. Its power to inspire, heal and regenerate comes across vividly. Sixty Years At The Jazz Band Ball is a celebration of the music and its practitioners and challenges those who would read jazz the last rights.

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