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Hentoff helped pave way for jazz journalism’s acceptance

Jim Trageser By

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Nat Hentoff's passing last week left me feeling, well, old. Whenever we lose a mentor—a grandparent, a teacher, someone who encouraged us—it's a reminder of our own mortality, that we are, in the parlance of football coaches, the next ones up.

I don't feel anywhere near to ready or worthy or capable of assuming even a sliver of Hentoff's prodigious mantle, and yet the only way to honor a mentor is take up their work and carry it forward.

But honesty compels us to admit that Hentoff's absence will be felt throughout the jazz (and free speech and civil liberties) world. His knowledge is—outside what he left us in his books, articles and liner notes—gone. That kind of loss can't help but make itself felt.

When I got word just about 17 years ago that Stanley Dance had died, that, too hit like a ton of bricks. While Hentoff had been encouraging via correspondence, I had gotten to know Dance in person—introduced by Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham, and then running into Stanley and his wife, writer Helen Oakley Dance, throughout the San Diego area over the years. Stanley, like Hentoff, was always available to critique my latest bit of writing, to offer advice and guidance.

But the debt I owe to Dance and Hentoff is, in many important ways, far larger than the personal interest they took in a young man who decided he wanted to dedicate his life to writing about jazz and blues. It's a debt owed by every one of us who writes for, and reads, All About Jazz—and every other jazz and blues website and publication.

Dance, along with Leonard Feather, Barry Ulanov and George T. Simon, was part of that first wave of journalists who made it socially and intellectually acceptable to write about music largely created by and for an African American population. In every daily newspaper in the country, and in national magazines like Down Beat, Metronome and Billboard, jazz was chronicled throughout the Swing Era as one of the staples of American cultural life, alongside cinema and literature.

Hentoff, 15 years younger than Dance, was part of a group of younger writers (including Whitney Balliett and blues journalist Paul Oliver) who came along and carried jazz journalism into the age of bebop and free jazz.

And when swing began losings its place of primacy on the charts after World War II ended, and newspapers and general-interest music magazines lost interest in the new jazz styles emerging, that next generation of jazz journalists started their own magazines devoted to the music: outlets like Jazz Times, Living Blues and Cadence.

This is the heritage of All About Jazz, and those of us blessed enough to have the opportunity to write here.

It is also important to note the historic reality that so many early jazz journalists were white—covering an African American form. That most of the commentary and reporting on jazz has been provided by white males is an irony that does not reflect well on the larger industry in which jazz was born and grew up.

But despite limited publication opportunities and little money to be made, the above jazz journalists persevered, writing about an art form that touched their souls in a way no other form did. They interviewed the musicians, rubbed shoulders with the fans, spent far too much time in front of their hi-fi, and devoted unseemly amounts of wall space to their music libraries.

And, over time, alongside the musicians they wrote about, they helped create a culture that values jazz as an important part of the life of the intellectual. The expectation that to be alive in the world of ideas, one must have at least a modest knowledge of jazz. That jazz stands alongside literature, sculpture, drama and the other artistic endeavors that enrich human existence.

That jazz matters.

The simple fact of the matter is, without the efforts of Hentoff and his colleagues and mentors, All About Jazz simply wouldn't exist.

There is nothing in the nature of the world that guarantees jazz a place of honor in our cultural landscape. We should not take jazz journalism for granted, for it is writing about jazz that helps the music keep its place at the table.

And, still, not everyone thinks jazz journalism has value.

In 1988, the National Association of Jazz Educators (now JEN) held its annual conference in San Diego. I cashed out some vacation time from the twice-weekly newspaper I was working for (because my publisher had no interest in a national jazz conference right here in town), and got press credentials through the arts editor who, I think, liked my enthusiasm. I ended up practically living at the Town & Country resort hotel in Mission Valley those four days, taking in every performance, every workshop, every lecture I could.


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