Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
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, 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, Coleman Hawkins and Max Roach. 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, who was my good friend, but Booker Little, 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, the great bassist told meand I used to see this at a place called the Village Gate where John would play one number for two hoursthe 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.