Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
All About Jazz: There are several recurring themes in your writing in this collection and one is jazz as a life force, and musicians as the carrier of this life force. I know you're an atheist, but does it ever strike you that there is a strong element of religion about jazz?
Nat Hentoff: Well, you can have a secular religion that doesn't require a belief in God; I believe in the First Amendment for example, my right as a citizen to do what I'm going to do when I write an article calling the President of the United States a liar, because he promised there would be no rationing of health care under his leadership and he has just appointed the head of the Medicare committee that will do just that. I quote him directly; he's "in love with the British system," which is the worst kind of rationing. There's a waiting list of seven hundred and fifty thousand there to get to see a doctor and there's a lot of them are going to die, so I can't keep quiet about that.
Jazz as for life force? I can give you a recent story. Last Saturday I was working as usual and I was very low, for various reasons, and then I remembered what to do; I had a new release here by James Moodyand I put it on. As soon as the music started I burst into tears and they were tears of delight. That's happened to me once in a while, it's just a release. As usual, Moody makes you feel the life force.
AAJ: Has there ever been a time in all the years when you thought you might have lost faith in jazzsay with the advent of the avant-garde or with the conversion of so many jazz musicians to jazz rock and jazz fusion?
NH: When I was a teenager way back, there was always a small group of people of my age in various parts of the country who heard jazz and they were hooked for life. When rock came I was worried because it took over the whole generation practically. I mentioned this to Teddy Wilson, the prominent pianist and he said: "Don't worry, because even if they open their ears to rock they have ears which are attracted to music, and eventually a few of them are going to be open enough to go into jazz."
I never lost faith in the continuation of jazz because there are always young players. One day I was pulling out some records and I came across one, [Confeddie (Self Produced, 2009)] I'd never heard of this young woman, she's twenty years old and her name is Hailey Niswanger. She's a student at the Berklee School of music. I heard the first few bars and I thought "Wow, remarkable! I'm going to write about this." There are always going to be people like that.
I do admit that the enchantment of fusion rock, electronic rock by Miles Davis, cost me a friend; we had been very friendly but when I heard Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) I wrote about it very negatively. I figured Miles had enough electric wattage without this stuff and he never forgave me for that [laughs].
AAJ: There are many great examples in your book of the power of jazz as a life-force; do you have a particular favorite from this collection?
NH: When Francis Sweeney diedshe was the woman in Boston who first brought me into reporting Boston, thenand this should have been documentedwas really the most Anti-Semitic city in the county, and if you were a kid in the ghetto and you went out at night you'd lose some teeth. People would be after you as a Christ killer and I lost some teeth. When I was fifteen or so this woman Francis Sweeney, a devout Catholic, ran a newspaper that exposed corruption in politicsthat was easybut she was also angry with the church because it said nothing about the anti-Semitism going on. She got me involved in some reporting on this. When she died I was very, very low and the only way I could do anything was to play Ben Websterballads, all day long. My mother thought I was crazy, but that worked for me.
AAJ: One story from the book that really struck me was the story about Louis Armstrongin the Congo; where did you first hear that story? It sounds unbelievable.
NH: There was a big day at Queens, a borough of New York, when the Louis Armstrong home and museum was dedicated as a national landmark. I was there with people from all over the world, and all the kids from the neighborhoodthere's a Louis Armstrong Elementary School there, and a Louis Armstrong Intermediate School there. When Louis was there the kids would come see him and talk to him about the music. They also knew that when they were there and the ice cream wagon came along he'd take care of that.
As we're all gathered there in the street, all of a sudden, from way up high on a balcony beside Louis' den where he used to have his notebooks and play music, there was Jon Faddisplaying a capella, all alone, "West End Blues."It was one of the most thrilling things I ever heard. Then Jon told the story; he said there was a fierce civil war in the Belgian Congo, this is in '53, and the two warring parties called a temporary truce because the leaders had found out that Louis was booked for a concert in the Belgian Congo. I thought it wasn't surprising to me that they stopped a terrible war to hear Louis.
AAJ: [laughs] That's such an amazing story.