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Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball

By Published: June 23, 2010

NH: Well, that's a good question. When Obama was going to be inaugurated—before I knew how hollow a man he was—I was very taken by the fact that there was a concert the night before with Wynton Marsalis, and then Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the Supreme Court making a point of how important jazz had been in the Civil Rights movement and all through American history; but that didn't mean that any of that followed with any enthusiasm in Congress or anything else.

We have one guy in Congress, John Conyers, who's Chairman of the Judiciary Committee; he grew up in Detroit and knew the Detroit jazz scene but most of these guys are squares. There's very little of this in the schools. Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
is now trying very hard to get jazz, all music, into the schools. But you know, I don't think there's much interest now in Johann Sebastian Bach who really was a swinger, or in Bartók, or Gregorian chant, which is beautiful stuff. In terms of music this is an undereducated country to a large extent, but at least with jazz more and more young people are getting to play it. There's the annual Duke Ellington contest that Jazz at Lincoln Center does; Charles Mingus' wife, Sue Mingus has just started a Mingus contest at Julliard in New York, so High School kids throughout the country will be playing Mingus music. By the way, Charles always used to say: "I don't play jazz, I play Mingus music." So I have some confidence. It keeps the music alive.

AAJ: The Pulitzer Board awarded a special citation, somewhat tardily, to Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
in '06, in recognition of the importance of his music, and Ornette Coleman in '07, and to Coltrane as well I believe—and also to Bob Dylan and Hank Williams in recent years; do these citations give you hope that jazz is finally getting some of its due or do you think there's an element of tokenism about them?

NH: I'll give you an original tokenism story; before the people you mentioned there was going to be a Pulitzer award for Duke Ellington, a kind of "well, he's been around for a long time" thing, but then they snatched it away.

AAJ: The Pulitzer Board overturned the decision to award Ellington and recognize the seriousness of his music, didn't they?

NH: They did, and two members of the jury resigned in protest. Well, Duke said in public: "Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young [he was sixty-six]." The next day, I talked to him and he was furious. Since then the only person I can think of who got an actual Pulitzer Prize for composition was Wynton Marsalis, and that was a very long, overblown piece of music. I guess they had seen him on television, and that must have impressed them.

I'm of an age when I think to hell with them, who needs the token awards? What counts is, does the music stay alive? Well, nobody mentions Benny Carter

Benny Carter
Benny Carter
1907 - 2003
sax, alto
anymore or Bill Jackson
Bill Jackson
and I could name names for days, but this music is never going to die. Once you get involved as a listener, it's really for the rest of your life.

AAJ: What, in your opinion, can be done to increase the jazz audience in the US?

NH: I wrote a recent column for JazzTimes , which was about a Public School teacher in Massachusetts called Nick Carlon. He teaches Seventh Grade English, and he also brings in jazz recordings and tells the kids who the players were and, as always happens when you expose young people to the music, they react. Some of them want to get up and dance. He told me what some of the kids are saying: "Hey, I just put Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" on my iPod"; when that happens you've got more of an audience coming up. Is it going to be a huge audience? Probably not, but what the hell, as I said before, even Bach doesn't have a huge audience anymore.

AAJ: Nat, you were let go by The Village Voice at the end of '08, after fifty years of service; that must have been a hard blow to take, no?

NH: It surprised me a little, but what the heck, I've been fired from some of the most prestigious publications in America. I was at The New Yorker for many years, I was fired there. I was at The Washington Post for fifteen or sixteen years. It's a long list. Sometimes I tell young reporters: "Don't get down, there's always something going on."I finally wound up at the Cato Institute in Washington. It's a libertarian place; I write for them and I use their enormous research resources. Finally Tony Ortega, the editor of The Village Voice asked me to come back—at least once a week or so—and that's okay, because one of my big passions is education and I've covered the Public School system in New York since the '50s. So that's what I write about for The Voice.

I've got so much to write about; I still have my column, which is syndicated around the country, I write about music for The Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes. I'm working on a book called Is this America?, which I don't think either Dick Cheney or Obama is going to like. I'm about to turn eighty-five and I've never had so many deadlines.

AAJ: You've known, befriended and interviewed many of jazz's greats; is there anyone you regret not interviewing?

NH: I'm sure I missed some of them and I'm sure at two in the morning I'm going to be haunted by this question. I knew a lot of them even though I didn't have the space or the time to interview them. To me, knowing them made their music come even more alive.

AAJ: What advice would you give to aspiring young jazz writers?

NH: Until recently I did interviews at a club here in New York, called The Blue Note, for television, and I would ask interviewees about that and they invariably said journalists have to know more about music; well, that takes care of me. Sure, you really ought to try to learn more but the main thing is to listen. Duke Ellington once said something to me: "You know, I don't want people [who] listen to our music to analyze it, I want them to open themselves to the music and feel it." That's the way to listen, and then you begin to be able to feel it and if you can put this into words then you've contributed something.

AAJ: Taking a leaf out of your own book, is there anything you would like to add about At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene?

NH: As I wrote all of this I was seeing them and hearing them, which made me very pleased. One of the great things about being a reporter is that you get to meet people you would otherwise never meet. I became friends, for example with Malcolm X—which was to our mutual surprise— and an extraordinary guy called John Cardinal O'Connor in New York, and I also got to know Supreme Court Justice William Brennan very well. But the ones I most learned from as people are some of the musicians I've known; most of them are in the book so in a sense it was like having a soundtrack, an emotion track to my whole life. I'm glad I lived long enough to get this one out. But I still keep writing.

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