Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
AAJ: That's remarkable. Something else that comes across in the book is the willingness of the elder jazz musicians, people like Dizzy Gillespie in 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."
Then there's the story about Clark Terry, who's playing in Seattle when [Count] Basie had a small combo, and this young kid turns up, as thin as a stick, but he's a serious young kid and he's trying to learn trumpet and could he study with Clark? So Clark says: "Look, the only time would be after a long night if you want to come by at six in the morning before I go to bed." The kid said sure. The kid's name was Quincy Jones.
AAJ: That's a great anecdote. In the book you describe Wynton Marsalis as "the pre-eminent jazz educator of our times," and yet you have also been critical of him for his failure to employ women in the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra.
NH: Wynton [Marsalis] has yet to employ a full-time woman in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Women musicians are very aware of how blind Wynton is to this, and a few years ago they had a demonstration outside the Lincoln Center and one of the women had on a big sign saying: "Testosterone is Not a Musical Instrument."
AAJ: You suggested a few years ago that he employ blind auditions; did he ever took you up on that?
NH: Not that I know of. I should say though that when he gets on television he is just like Leonard Bernstein, and there ought to be more of that. There's very little jazz here on radio or television.
AAJ: On the subject of women in jazz, you write about an important but perhaps largely ignored women's jazz band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who were together for about eleven years in the ' 30s and '40s; do you know of any live recordings that have surfaced over the years?
NH: There have been a few but I'm surprised there hasn't been a box set. They had some musicians, and I've talked to players who were contemporaries of theirs like Coleman Hawkins, who said that some of their players were at least the equal of many leading male players.
AAJ:It seems that there are still relatively few women jazz artists who play an instrument other than the piano or singing; do you see it that way?
NH: No, that used to be the case but it's no longer the case. There are a lot of women players now. One of the stimuli for this is Diva, which is an all-woman band directed by Sherrie Maricle; she's a percussionist, she teaches at New York University. My goodness, some of those players will out swing almost anybody. They have a number of recordings and they play the college circuit. Sherrie tells me that there is great interest from budding young women musicians and that swells the numbers. It's growing all the time.
AAJ: There's a wonderful portrait of the great singer Anita O'Day in At the Jazz Band Ball ; do you think the art of jazz singing is alive and well today?
NH: I don't know that there are any Anitas around. I would say that there are too few. I don't know why that is but then again there's no Jimmy Rushing around either or any of the really good blues singers. The whole vocal scene is worse than it was; I don't know why that is but I'm hoping it will change. There are some around like Catherine Russell, daughter of Carline Ray of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She is superb; she's now in her fifties.
AAJ: A question which arises now and again in At the Jazz Band Ball is whether or not jazz has a healthy future and you seem to be quite optimistic, no?
NH: Well, like I've said in part already; there are always young musicians who have to play, and they have a calling, they have to play the music. Then there are players who also teach like Benny Golson, like Clark Terry, who can hear the potential and out of it comes someone like Hailey Niswanger. It's just the way Ruby Braff started; he was a kid in Boston listening to jazz and he'd take his cornet and play along with the music. You just can't stop it. Sidney Bechet said, in a very good book he wrote called Treat it Gentle (Twayne, 1960): "You cannot hold back this music."
Duke Ellington told me: "Don't give me these terms like modern jazz or cutting edge; it's the individuals who make the difference" he said, and if you have enough of them you have a band.