Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball

Ian Patterson By

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This interview was first published at All About Jazz on June 23, 2010.

Nat Hentoff was eleven years old when, walking down the road one day in Boston, he heard music so exciting that he shouted with pleasure and ran into the shop to learn that the music was of clarinetist Artie Shaw. In that moment was born a love affair with jazz which has lasted seventy-four years thus far. At nineteen, Hentoff was hosting his own jazz radio program, and by the age of twenty-eight he was an editor of Downbeat Magazine, which was to fire him in 1957 for hiring a staff person of color. Over the years he has written for a number of the most prestigious publications in America, and has authored a large number of books, many pertaining to his passion for jazz.

His impassioned writing for over half a century on issues such as civil liberties, criminal justice, health and education have earned him a reputation as one of the foremost chroniclers of American politics. One thing is for sure, in his writing Hentoff never sits on the fence. He has received a large number of awards over the years for his literary contributions in the fields of law, journalism and jazz and in 2004 he became the first non-musician to be designated a NEA Jazz Master. With modesty, and probably in all seriousness, Hentoff says that the greatest award he has ever received was a kiss of gratitude from Billie Holiday.

His latest book on jazz, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University California Press, 2010) brings together his writings from various publications over the last decade, most notably JazzTimes and The Wall Street Journal. These sixty-four essays and articles read like a colorful potted history of jazz in America, and are peppered with rich anecdotes and first-hand stories from the mouths of the great jazz artists that Hentoff knew personally. Hentoff said, in a recent JazzTimes column, that it may be his last book on jazz, but like the musicians he writes about he too has the calling, and, driven by a passion that was sparked by the clarinet of Artie Shaw all those years ago, it is just as likely that it won't be. As Hentoff says about the music which has fulfilled him and inspired him all his life: "You just can't hold it back."

All About Jazz: There are several recurring themes in your writing in this collection and one is jazz as a life force, and musicians as the carrier of this life force. I know you're an atheist, but does it ever strike you that there is a strong element of religion about jazz?

Nat Hentoff: Well, you can have a secular religion that doesn't require a belief in God; I believe in the First Amendment for example, my right as a citizen to do what I'm going to do when I write an article calling the President of the United States a liar, because he promised there would be no rationing of health care under his leadership and he has just appointed the head of the Medicare committee that will do just that. I quote him directly; he's "in love with the British system," which is the worst kind of rationing. There's a waiting list of seven hundred and fifty thousand there to get to see a doctor and there's a lot of them are going to die, so I can't keep quiet about that.

Jazz as for life force? I can give you a recent story. Last Saturday I was working as usual and I was very low, for various reasons, and then I remembered what to do; I had a new release here by James Moody and I put it on. As soon as the music started I burst into tears and they were tears of delight. That's happened to me once in a while, it's just a release. As usual, Moody makes you feel the life force.

AAJ: Has there ever been a time in all the years when you thought you might have lost faith in jazz—say with the advent of the avant-garde or with the conversion of so many jazz musicians to jazz rock and jazz fusion?

NH: When I was a teenager way back, there was always a small group of people of my age in various parts of the country who heard jazz and they were hooked for life. When rock came I was worried because it took over the whole generation practically. I mentioned this to Teddy Wilson, the prominent pianist and he said: "Don't worry, because even if they open their ears to rock they have ears which are attracted to music, and eventually a few of them are going to be open enough to go into jazz."

I never lost faith in the continuation of jazz because there are always young players. One day I was pulling out some records and I came across one, [Confeddie (Self Produced, 2009)] I'd never heard of this young woman, she's twenty years old and her name is Hailey Niswanger. She's a student at the Berklee School of music. I heard the first few bars and I thought "Wow, remarkable! I'm going to write about this." There are always going to be people like that.

I do admit that the enchantment of fusion rock, electronic rock by Miles Davis, cost me a friend; we had been very friendly but when I heard Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) I wrote about it very negatively. I figured Miles had enough electric wattage without this stuff and he never forgave me for that [laughs].

AAJ: There are many great examples in your book of the power of jazz as a life-force; do you have a particular favorite from this collection?

NH: When Francis Sweeney died—she was the woman in Boston who first brought me into reporting —Boston, then—and this should have been documented—was really the most Anti-Semitic city in the county, and if you were a kid in the ghetto and you went out at night you'd lose some teeth. People would be after you as a Christ killer and I lost some teeth. When I was fifteen or so this woman Francis Sweeney, a devout Catholic, ran a newspaper that exposed corruption in politics—that was easy—but she was also angry with the church because it said nothing about the anti-Semitism going on. She got me involved in some reporting on this. When she died I was very, very low and the only way I could do anything was to play Ben Webster ballads, all day long. My mother thought I was crazy, but that worked for me.

AAJ: One story from the book that really struck me was the story about Louis Armstrong in the Congo; where did you first hear that story? It sounds unbelievable.

NH: There was a big day at Queens, a borough of New York, when the Louis Armstrong home and museum was dedicated as a national landmark. I was there with people from all over the world, and all the kids from the neighborhood—there's a Louis Armstrong Elementary School there, and a Louis Armstrong Intermediate School there. When Louis was there the kids would come see him and talk to him about the music. They also knew that when they were there and the ice cream wagon came along he'd take care of that.

As we're all gathered there in the street, all of a sudden, from way up high on a balcony beside Louis' den where he used to have his notebooks and play music, there was Jon Faddis playing a capella, all alone, "West End Blues."It was one of the most thrilling things I ever heard. Then Jon told the story; he said there was a fierce civil war in the Belgian Congo, this is in '53, and the two warring parties called a temporary truce because the leaders had found out that Louis was booked for a concert in the Belgian Congo. I thought it wasn't surprising to me that they stopped a terrible war to hear Louis.

AAJ: [laughs] That's such an amazing story.

NH: I'll tell you something else, Phoebe Jacobs, a close friend of Louis and Lucille , runs the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation which has done so many things; they have funded a Louis Armstrong Music Therapy Program at the pediatric center at Beth Israel Hospital in New York—Louis always thought music was good for the health to help people recover. Phoebe was there on this big day and she says: "You know, people say Louis Armstrong is dead; Louis' not dead." That's true of all these people who are supposedly dead but their music stays very much alive.

AAJ: Absolutely. Another theme which is central to At the Jazz Band Ball is jazz as an educational force. Promoting education is something very dear to your heart but how do you think studying jazz can benefit young people today?

NH: In Sarasota Florida there's a very active jazz society and there's a woman who teachers in Florida, she grew up in Harlem, called Lucy White; she used to hear Chick Webb and all those people back then. When she came to Florida to be a teacher she was trying to get the schools to put jazz in the curriculum and she finally succeeded. Fifth grade classes in twenty elementary schools include American history intertwined with the history of jazz—the whole black migration from the south to places like Chicago, the role of New Orleans, the role of jazz in the Civil Rights movement, and all of this is part of the history of America as taught in the schools. One of the results, among other things, is that some of the kids in the classes began to form their own small combos. It's very infectious.

I received an invitation to a fourth grade class here in Manhattan and they asked me to play the kids some jazz and talk about it. So, one of my favorite musicians is the New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis, and I brought along one of his CDs, George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers (Blue Note, 1955). I played a few bars and the kids got up and they started to dance, and pretty soon the teacher got up and she started to dance. The music really gets to you. The music does bring life. You can call it American music and all that but it happens anywhere in the world.

I once got a smuggled message from a tenor player in Moscow—this was when Stalin was in charge in Russia and, of course then, jazz was banned. Somehow this tenor player in Moscow got this message out and it came to me a circuitous way. He had heard that I knew [John] Coltrane and had written some liner notes and the message was, could I send him some liner notes on John Coltrane. Well, I found out how to do that. Even under Stalin the music was so important to this guy he took a big chance.
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