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Interviews

Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball

By Published: June 23, 2010

Then there's the story about Clark Terry, who's playing in Seattle when Count Basie

Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
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
Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
b.1933
producer
.

AAJ: That's a great anecdote. In the book you describe Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
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

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
has yet to employ a full-time woman in the Jazz at Lincoln Center 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

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
1918 - 1990
composer/conductor
, 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

Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
, 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

Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day
1919 - 2006
vocalist
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

Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
1903 - 1972
vocalist
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

Benny Golson
Benny Golson
b.1929
sax, tenor
, like Clark Terry, who can hear the potential and out of it comes someone like Hailey Niswanger. It's just the way Ruby Braff
Ruby Braff
Ruby Braff
b.1927
cornet
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
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
said, in a very good book he wrote called Treat it Gentle (Twayne, 1960): "You cannot hold back this music."

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
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.

AAJ: That's a great answer, however in both the USA and in Europe musicians constantly bemoan the lack of gigs and the difficulty of getting gigs; if there aren't enough gigs you've got a lot of unemployed musicians, no?

NH: Oh yeah, well as you know what they euphemize by calling it a recession means there are people all through the economy here who will never get jobs like the ones they had, and some of them may never get jobs. The whole world economy seems to be tanking, from Japan to Germany to the United States, so it's going to be harder. However, when nothing much is happening there's a small club somewhere where you don't get much bread or you get only what they collect at the door, but they don't stop. There's a place in New York called Smalls; it's not a very large place, it's here in the Village, where I live, and all kinds of people have started there and in just a few years wind up with record contracts. In answer to the previous question there is no way of stopping it, you're not going to make a lot of money but as long as you can find a way to eat it doesn't matter.

One of my favorite people and musicians was Jimmy Rowles

Jimmy Rowles
Jimmy Rowles
1918 - 1996
piano
, a master pianist and accompanist; he played for Billie Holiday and a lot of other people. I asked him one day "What happens in terms of gigs? There must be times when nothing's happening?" He says: "Yeah, that's right." I said: "What do you do?" He said: "I wait for the telephone to ring."

AAJ: There are many tremendous characters of the jazz scene in your book and one who is mentioned just in passing is Willis Conover, of The Voice of America fame; he was a little known name in the US but very well known in Eastern Europe and you described him as "the single most effective evangelist in the history of the genre;" what was his importance in jazz?

NH: Oh Willis Conover, that was an extraordinary illustration of what can happen when you have somebody who can communicate and reach a large part of the world where he had people listening. The Voice of America then thought pretty highly of jazz and Willis had programs all the time; he knew all about the music, he loved the music.

AAJ: I've read that Conover had as many as thirty million regular listeners to his jazz programs in Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War.

NH: He was like a colonizer. We don't have anything quite like that now. In this country even the National Public radio which does a pretty good job of reporting and all that, they have very little jazz. On television the Public Broadcasting System has no regular jazz programs at all.

AAJ: In '60/'61 you oversaw the recording of forty or so records for the Candid record label, including Pee Wee Russell

Pee Wee Russell
Pee Wee Russell
b.1906
clarinet
, Coleman Hawkins and Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
. If you had the same freedom today as you had then to record any of today's jazz practitioners you wished, who would you like to let loose in a recording studio?

NH: I think I would do all ages. There are some very good players around who still don't get much attention, they may be in their eighties and nineties but still have so much to say, [James] Moody being one. If I had the record company to do that I'd get out more; my day job is rough. I spend a lot of time on a syndicated column which goes out to about two hundred papers and I have to cover breaking news, most of which is terrible these days. The first thing I'd do which I used to do as a kid is I'd ask musicians I knew: "Hey, who's making it? Who's coming up?" They are the best critics.

Probably the most fulfilling thing I've ever done in my life was being able to send out into the world not only Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee and Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, who was my good friend, but Booker Little
Booker Little
Booker Little
1938 - 1961
trumpet
, who died much too soon. It's one thing to write about it, and I know that some people have benefitted in that they began to listen, but to send the music out is almost as good as playing it. Not quite, but I had a great satisfaction in that.

AAJ: You make a very interesting observation in this book about the tail end of John Coltrane's career, and that is that although many whites didn't get his music the blacks were going to see him at his concerts. Then you had people like Phillip Larkin who never missed an opportunity to stick a literary knife into Coltrane. What do you think Coltrane's latter day music communicated to a black audience that the white folk maybe didn't pick up on?

NH: Art Davis

Art Davis
Art Davis
1934 - 2007
bass, acoustic
, the great bassist told me—and I used to see this at a place called the Village Gate where John would play one number for two hours—the crowd which was black, white, whatever, would be going like they were at a church.

AAJ: Could you understand Larkin's hostility to Coltrane's music?

NH: He was a poet; I didn't pay much attention to him as a jazz writer. I'll tell you something about John, it's in the book. There's a wonderful second grade teacher in Queens, the borough in New York where John lived in his last years and where he did a lot of his composing; this second grade teacher loved the blues and she began to listen to jazz and Coltrane really reached her. She'd already gotten the kids listening to all kinds of music and then she started to play Coltrane. The kids really got excited and they wanted to hear more and more. The Principal of the school heard about this and they had a school-wide program where the kids tried to show in their dancing what the music meant to them. I wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal and the result is that this teacher is now a teacher at Jazz at Lincoln Center. She teachers at other places and her whole life now is teaching Coltrane, and mostly to young people.

AAJ: Another musician with a very individualistic sound is Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
; I was struck by a story in your book which describes Jo Jones
Jo Jones
Jo Jones
1911 - 1985
drums
showing his displeasure at Taylor's music one night at Birdland by throwing a cymbal onto the stage and gonging him off...

NH: That was amazing because I knew Jo very well and he loved the music and tried to encourage what he called his "kiddies." The story with Cecil was [when] Cecil was unknown; he was gigging wherever he could and he sat in at Birdland and sometimes the guys just wouldn't listen, and Jo did indeed take a cymbal and throw it across the stage.

This happened too, though not with a cymbal, to Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
; the first time he came to New York he played a place called The Five Spot. Most of the older players came to listen to him because there had already been a fair amount of publicity about him. I was sitting next to Roy Eldridge
Roy Eldridge
Roy Eldridge
1911 - 1989
trumpet
one night and Roy was always open to all kinds of things and he said to me: "This guy's just jiving, there's no music in there." Even Coleman Hawkins, who was the first of the swing masters to have Dizzy [Gillespie] on one of his recordings, said: "I don't like to say anything negative about somebody but this guy needs a lot of seasoning." Ornette had already had the experience in Los Angeles when he came on the stage for some all-star thing where he was just sitting in, and all the other players walked out. He was hurt by that.

AAJ: Hardly surprising. People talk about the" Golden Age" of jazz, but these stories about the hostile reaction to Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman strike me as being ungracious in the extreme; there isn't that level of intolerance in the jazz scene today, is there?

NH: Well, it's like writers —different people have different ways of reacting. One thing I learned from Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
about listening, when I interviewed him on the radio, and it's helped me a lot, Bird said: "I heard a [Béla] Bartók concerto and I didn't like it at all. Then I was in Paris and I heard the same thing and I thought wow, and I decided to write a concerto for jazz musicians like that." He said: "Never listen to something just once."

I think too many of us, including some musicians maybe, make the mistake of listening just once. Sometimes how you react to music depends on whether you've had a fight with your girlfriend the night before or you have indigestion.

AAJ: Your own credo has always seemed to be that if you've got nothing good to say about the music, then say nothing; you're very aware of the responsibility of being a jazz critic, aren't you?

NH: Gee, I don't see myself as a critic. I used to have to review a lot of recordings when I was at Downbeat and it always bothered me writing something that might help the guy lose some of his work. So, when I finally got fired at Downbeat and went over to The Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes, I decided to only write about those musicians who really get to me. I'm not a musicologist, I can't tell you what the chords are, what the polyrhythms are; and that bothered me for a while.

One day one of my daughters, Marinda—who's a pianist, a teacher and a singer—really hit me once when she said: "How can you be negative when you're taking away the bread from somebody and you can't even tell what he's doing?" I brooded about that. Well, I was walking down the street where I live in The Village and I saw Gil Evans

Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
coming. I knew Gil when he was still with Claude Thornhill
Claude Thornhill
Claude Thornhill
1909 - 1965
vocalist
and I'd been with him at the Miles Davis sessions, and I decided I'd make him my Rabbi; I told him what was bothering me and he said: "Hey listen, I know musicians who can tell you everything that's going on technically but they don't get inside the music to the story the musician's trying to tell. I read you, you get there some of the time. Stop worrying."

I felt a little better after that, but I decided, to hell with all this, I'm only going to write about musicians that people will want to listen to because of what I write.

AAJ: I was a little surprised to read a JazzTimes article from '01, about Diana Krall

Diana Krall
Diana Krall
b.1964
piano
and Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit
b.1977
vocalist
, in which you basically discredit them as jazz singers...

NH: I'm not an absolutist; when something is so hyped, so publicized that it is way out of line with what is actually being sent out as jazz I had to say something. That's why I wrote that column about Monheit and Krall; they weren't in the same universe as Billie Holiday or Anita O'Day, or Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
1920 - 1994
vocalist
, my goodness! So I have to say I broke my rule on that one.

AAJ: Another fascinating article from JazzTimes that's included in this book is "Satchmo's Rap Sheet," which talks about the FBI's monitoring over many years of Louis Armstrong's alleged Communist sympathies . You co-authored a book in '74 called State Secrets; Police Surveillance in America (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974); did it come as a surprise to you to later learn that the FBI had also been keeping a file on you over the years?

NH: Not really. Don't forget I was young enough to have been around when Joe McCarthy was finding Communists all over the place. There's always been this undertow in this country because back in the '20s, when the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia the then Attorney General rounded up hundreds of people, citizens, and threw them out of the country. And the young man who helped him was a man called J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover started the FBI and all that. So no, I wasn't surprised. I was somewhat amused because one FBI file I finally found had me at a meeting of —quote—"radicals" —unquote—in North Africa. I'd never been to Africa, North or South. There was all kinds of other jive in there. I want to get an update on my current file but so far they won't give it to me.

AAJ: Can you understand why jazz musicians and jazz music have never been properly honored or fully appreciated in the United States?



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