Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
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" unquotein 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?
NH: Well, that's a good question. When Obama was going to be inauguratedbefore I knew how hollow a man he wasI 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 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 in '06, in recognition of the importance of his music, and Ornette Coleman in '07, and to Coltrane as well I believeand 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 anymore or 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.