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Hentoff helped pave way for jazz journalism’s acceptance

Jim Trageser By

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I chatted up everyone I met—picking their brains about every aspect of the music I could. If I recognized them, I introduced myself and started a conversation. I even still have Feather's autograph on a program when I ran into him at the college jazz band national finals (won by the Berklee School of Music, featuring a young Delfeayo Marsalis).

But one seminar in particular from that conference has stayed with me all these years—that of Eddie Meadows, then a professor at San Diego State University, on the role of a jazz historian.

Meadows, who had taught a history of jazz and blues that I had taken, was speaking of the importance of how the biographical information of jazz pioneers would someday serve future historians and musicologists well, of how younger musicians needed to know the history of the music they were playing. He was particularly focused on the crucial role that oral histories can play in preserving the history of the music.

A few minutes into his presentation, a middle-aged gentleman began interrupting him. Hectoring him. Talking over him to argue, loudly, that every time a jazz fan bought a book or magazine about jazz, that was money not being spent on albums or concert tickets. That so-called "jazz journalists" were nothing more than parasites or thieves, stealing a living off the work and creativity of the musicians.

Being young and idealistic, I stood up and defended my professor. I asked this gentleman what he knew about Beethoven. He practically sputtered, asking what did that have to do with anything. "Humor me," I said, "Where was Beethoven living when he rose to fame?"

"Vienna!" he shot back. "Everybody knows that!"

How can you possibly know that, I asked, when you weren't there.

"It's in all the history books!" he shot back.

"How about that," I said, and sat down as Professor Meadows finished his lecture. (It was only after, when two elderly gentlemen came up, and one stuck his hand out and said, "I want to shake the hand of a young man brave enough to stand up to Ellis Marsalis" that I realized who I'd been tangling with. As my face went ashen, his friend started laughing, and said, "I told you he didn't know.")

But the point of sharing that exchange is to remind ourselves that even brilliant, passionate exponents of jazz don't always see the value in writing about jazz.

If I were able to go back to 1988 and be in that room again, what I would like to say to Ellis Marsalis and those who agree with him is this: I could make a lot more money writing about rock or rap or even country. But I want to write about jazz because I want others to discover it and get that same feeling I got when I first heard Basie's band blowing through a Neal Hefti chart, or saw Dizzy for the first time, or spent an evening listening to Charles McPherson at a sushi bar on a hill above the San Diego airport, or was a one-man audience at the Hotel Del Coronado as they closed the old Prince of Wales room and Peggy Claire, dying of cancer, sang for the last time in public when pianist Daniel Jackson saw us come in and insisted she join him. I want them to know that ethereal glow that comes when the music gets inside you, and you stop thinking about it and just let it wash over you and when it's done you're somehow a different person from who you were only a few minutes earlier, and it's a better person you've become and you can't wait until it happens again. I want to write about jazz and blues because when it's performed right it's a spiritual experience, and I want to help capture that because at some deep level I know it matters and is important—and God above gives all of us gifts and it seems my gift, however modest, is a talent with words.

That's what I'd like to tell Ellis Marsalis. I don't want people to spend money on something I've written in lieu of purchasing music—I hope if they read something I've written, it sparks in them a desire to experience first-hand what I've shared, that it provokes them into spending more money on jazz than they ever dreamed they would.

When I first started listening to jazz, it made me want to be creative—only I'm tone deaf and have less rhythmic impulse than Al Gore, and don't really feel the stories in me that a fiction author does. Then I came across Nat Hentoff's writing about jazz, and then Stanley Dance, and Leonard Feather, and being young and ambitious I thought, "Maybe I can do this, too—maybe I can contribute in this way."

Now, I'm obviously no Scott Yanow: I've written no books on jazz, I have—and have had for most of my life—a career other than writing about music, a career to pay the bills and put food on the table.

But I've also always written about the music—due in no small part to the example and inspiration of folks like Nat Hentoff and Stanley Dance. It's one small way to pay them back for all they have given us.

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