Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
NH: I'll tell you something else, Phoebe Jacobs, a close friend of Louis and Lucille , runs the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation which has done so many things; they have funded a Louis Armstrong Music Therapy Program at the pediatric center at Beth Israel Hospital in New YorkLouis always thought music was good for the health to help people recover. Phoebe was there on this big day and she says: "You know, people say Louis Armstrong is dead; Louis' not dead." That's true of all these people who are supposedly dead but their music stays very much alive.
AAJ: Absolutely. Another theme which is central to At the Jazz Band Ball is jazz as an educational force. Promoting education is something very dear to your heart but how do you think studying jazz can benefit young people today?
NH: In Sarasota Florida there's a very active jazz society and there's a woman who teachers in Florida, she grew up in Harlem, called Lucy White; she used to hear Chick Webband all those people back then. When she came to Florida to be a teacher she was trying to get the schools to put jazz in the curriculum and she finally succeeded. Fifth grade classes in twenty elementary schools include American history intertwined with the history of jazzthe whole black migration from the south to places like Chicago, the role of New Orleans, the role of jazz in the Civil Rights movement, and all of this is part of the history of America as taught in the schools. One of the results, among other things, is that some of the kids in the classes began to form their own small combos. It's very infectious.
I received an invitation to a fourth grade class here in Manhattan and they asked me to play the kids some jazz and talk about it. So, one of my favorite musicians is the New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis, and I brought along one of his CDs, George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers (Blue Note, 1955). I played a few bars and the kids got up and they started to dance, and pretty soon the teacher got up and she started to dance. The music really gets to you. The music does bring life. You can call it American music and all that but it happens anywhere in the world.
I once got a smuggled message from a tenor player in Moscowthis was when Stalin was in charge in Russia and, of course then, jazz was banned. Somehow this tenor player in Moscow got this message out and it came to me a circuitous way. He had heard that I knew [John] Coltrane and had written some liner notes and the message was, could I send him some liner notes on John Coltrane. Well, I found out how to do that. Even under Stalin the music was so important to this guy he took a big chance.
AAJ: That's remarkable. Something else that comes across in the book is the willingness of the elder jazz musicians, people like Dizzy Gillespiein his day, Clark Terry and Phil Woods to name but a few, to give of themselves to younger musicians. Do you think the same spirit of generosity, this passing of the torch if you like, is alive and well with the modern generation of jazz musicians?
George Wein Inducts Nat Hentoff as NEA Jazz Master, 2004
NH: Oh sure, you see your first question was is jazz a religion?; I've seen these young jazz musicians like Hailey Niswanger and Aaron Weinsteina young musician in his early twenties who plays hot jazz violinand they're always eager to share with young people; that's been the whole history of the music.
I used to hang out at the Savoy in Boston when I was a kid, and Frankie Newton, a wonderful trumpet playera black guy who was very race conscious and, like Miles, would react to any anti-black feeling if he found it, but he was also a guy who wanted to pass on the music. Some white kid asked him if he could take lessons with him and what it would cost, and Frankie said: "Well, if you're interested in this music I won't charge you anything."