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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].


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