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Interview: Nat Hentoff (Part 2)


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Nat Hentoff has some ear. To accurately capture the notes and quotes of jazz musicians over the past 60 years, Nat has employed a fast pen, a photographic memory and enormous sensitivity. Even today, Nat's deep voice resonates with hot-type urgency and a hard-boiled sense of purpose. Little distracts him from doing what's necessary to arrive at the truth, whether he's writing about jazz or the Constitution. Woe to those who call and cannot get to the point or interrupt him mid-thought. For me, what has always made Nat special as a jazz writer is his analytic view--a burning desire to understand not only “what" but “why."

Take this passage, for example:

“It is unrealistic--whatever else one may feel about the direction of jazz--to expect that much of jazz from now on will be made for dancing. And the nightclub is hardly an optimum place for listening. There are the egregiously noisy distractions of bibulous customers, chattering customers, rude customers, waiters, cash registers and other insistently competitive sounds indigenous to the nightclub. Without attempting to equate or even to compare the two kinds of music aesthetically, it is as disturbing in the middle of infinitely varied degrees of inattention as it would be for a string quartet to play Mozart at Birdland."

The above passage is from a New York Times Magazine essay by Nat entitled Jazz Makes It Up the River, from August 1958. The article goes on to look at the exigencies that jazz musicians faced at the time as they struggled to create in tight clubs where patrons smoked, carried on and treated jazz like background music in personal parlors. Throughout his career, Nat has exposed the issues jazz musicians faced, illuminating the music's sensuality and social injustices.

In Part 2 of my two-part conversation with Nat Hentoff, the legendary jazz journalist talks about Charlie Ventura, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus and the links between jazz and justice:

JazzWax: What did jazz musicians see in Nat Hentoff that moved them to grant you access?
Nat Hentoff: The only answer I have appears on the back of one of my books, American Music Is. It's a quote from Dizzy [Gillespie], whom I knew very well over the years: “Thank god for Nat [Hentoff], who places the soul of the musician above that of his art." I can't live up to Dizzy's blurb, but it struck some chord in Dizzy.

JW: In some ways you're the first jazz intellectual.
NH: Oh, no. Think about musician and writer Andre Hodeir [pictured] in France. And Charles Delaunay, whom I knew when I was in Paris in 1950. Charles gave me a driving tour of the city and told me an incredible story. Charles was already an established jazz writer and jazz discographer by the time the Nazis occupied France in 1940. During the war he was a member of the Resistance. One day he was rounded up by the Gestapo. While waiting in his cell to be interrogated, Charles was visited by a Gestapo official. The guy said to him, “You had the second trombonist wrong in the Lucky Millinder band in your discography." The Nazi was a closet jazz fan and let him go. Jazz had kept Charles alive.

JW: But in the States...
NH: Here you had many great writer-thinkers, including Ralph J. Gleason. My god, he was so bright in so many different fields. So I'd have to decline your description of me.

JW: Was the competition tough among jazz writers back in the 1950s?
NH: There weren't that many of us at the time to have much competition. Besides, I never compete with anyone. As a reporter, I don't believe in exclusives. If your job is to get the news out, I'm happy to help. I've often given leads to reporters on other newspapers. I've even shared things with reporters if I knew things they didn't. I never viewed jazz writing as a competitive sport. I may not have agreed with other writers and critics, but I never saw them as rivals in the pure sense.

JW: Who was your hardest interview?
NH: Hmmm. That's easy, now that I remember. It was Benny Goodman.

JW: Why?
NH: Because everything I'd ask him, he'd say, “Well, what do you think?" Obviously the guy knew his horn. But compared to Artie Shaw, I don't think I knew much about Benny's soul. I knew a lot about his technique. But Goodman was odd like that. You couldn't read him. Just when you assumed he felt one way about you, he'd do something that would surprise you. For instance, just after I arrived in New York from Boston to work for Down Beat in the early 1950s, my phone rang. When I picked it up, the voice on the other end said, “This is Benny Goodman. I need a tenor saxophonist for my band. Who would you recommend?" I was surprised.

JW: So who did you offer up?
NH: Zoot Sims [laughs]. Zoot was perfect. What's funnier is I think Benny hired him.

JW: We're you ever afraid or intimated by a subject before an interview?
No. I don't go into an interview as a combatant, so I have nothing to be anxious about. An interview shouldn't be about the writer. It should be about the subject.

JW: Do you regret anything you've written?
NH: One time I was writing too much about Charlie Venutra [pictured], and I think it hurt him economically.

JW: What do you mean “economically?"
NH: I mean his records kept coming out, and I kept saying the same things in different ways: “Why doesn't this guy stop and reflect rather than shouting all the time?"

JW: Did you ever talk to Ventura about your advice or columns?
NH: No, fortunately [laughs]. But if I did and he had hit me, he would have had a legitimate reason [laughs].

JW: Did you ever pan anything that turned out to be great?
NH: Well, it took me a while to figure out what Bird was doing. Dizzy less so. And I never fell into the “sheets of sound" thing John Coltrane was playing. I knew where he was coming from though. He was hurt by all the critics who were put off by his approach in the early 1960s without understanding what he was trying to do. So I tried to be careful about that sort of thing.

JW: Whose potential did you spot early?
NH: I was one of the first to really dig [Thelonious] Monk. At the time, even some of the critics were saying, “How much of the piano does he really know?" and “What is he saying?" But he reached me immediately. That may have helped when Blue Note recorded him. I was writing about Monk from the start. It makes you feel good if you get great artists known and help them make some money. [Pictured: French critic Charles Delaunay and Thelonious Monk]

JW: Which jazz musicians of the 1950s have been largely forgotten but still matter?
NH: Lucky Thompson comes to mind. Don Byas comes to mind. And some of the guys in Duke's band, like Tricky Sam Nanton and Rex Stewart. Rex was an extraordinary musician and, by the way, a very good writer. You don't hear his name mentioned much anymore. And Pee Wee Russell, who was one of the most original jazz musicians of his time. The guys on the front lines of the bands he was in surely wondered how he was going to get out of a chorus.

JW: Any others?
NH: On Count Basie's band, we hear a lot about Prez [Lester Young], of course. But what about Buck Clayton and Dicky Wells? There are plenty of great musicians who don't get attention any more. But I'm glad to see one thing. Back when I started, common wisdom said that jazz was a young man's game. Bix [Beiderbecke] had died young. Bunny Berigan had died young. Today it's different. There are musicians in their 80s--like Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Jon Hendricks, [James] Moody]--still touring and playing all over the world. That's heartening. [Photo of Frank Wess by John Herr]

JW: Which musician's words continue to echo most in your head?
NH: I guess Charles Mingus. I learned so much from him--not only about the music. What I remember most from Mingus is him saying, “The problem in our society isn't race. There is a race problem, for sure, but the real problem is that most of us get so caught up in the rhythms of work--work we don't like to do--and we lose who we are." I'm relaying his words badly, I'm afraid. Charles said it much better.

JW: What's the biggest joy you've derived from your close friendship with Charles Mingus?
NH: In addition to the delight of any friendship, I'd have to say hearing his creative process evolving. Every so often I'd be sitting at my desk, and at about 10 a.m. or so my phone would ring. When I'd answer, I'd hear some music. Well I knew whose music it was. Mingus had that signature sound that you could dig right away. After about 10 minutes, Mingus would come on and ask, “I just taped this. What do you think of it?" What a privilege that was. It was like Beethoven calling to ask, “What did you think about my sonata?" [laughs].

JW: Is there a link between jazz and justice?
NH: Oh sure. When Max Roach was teaching at the University of Massachusetts, I was auditing a class there. Afterward we were talking. He said, “You know, what [jazz musicians] do, each of us as individuals, is listen to one another very carefully to make this thing work. And out of that process comes a whole that has its own identity." Isn't that something? Wow. That's exactly what the U.S. Constitution is all about. Look at all the people who got involved in the Civil Rights Movement even before it reached its crest. Thinkers coming together to create this thing that has enormous purpose.

JW: You played a role in Roach's album, We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite, didn't you?
NH: Marginally, and it was such an honor. Max had played the material originally at Art D'Lugoff's Village Gate. I was with Candid Records at the time [1960]. So I called Max up on a hunch and asked if he was going to record it. Max said no, that other record labels weren't interested. I said how about recording for Candid records? He said, “Great." Wow, what a session that was.

JW: Do you think that jazz improvisation and justice-seeking are similar?
NH: Interesting... How so?

JW: That jazz improvisation is a form of unrestrained truth-seeking and that justice and those who seek it are on a similar mission?
NH: Oh my lord, yes. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, whom I knew well, turned me onto a lecture that Justice Benjamin Cardozo had given. Cardozo had criticized a lot of judges for being “pharmacists." I'm paraphrasing, but Cardozo said, “You give justices a formula and they go by it. The human being is never there in their thinking." With Brennan, the human being was always there. Great justices like Brennan are always interested in the people. When you're interested in the people, you listen, just as jazz musicians do. Brennan always wanted to track cases from the beginning, to find out who the people involved were and what the essence of a case was. [Photo of Nat Hentoff by Marilyn K. Yee for The New York Times]

JW: As a writer, did you feel a connection with Brennan and Cardozo?
NH: Yes. That's how I've always written about jazz. I want to get to know who the people are and what they're doing and feeling and what the music is saying from their point of view.

JW: Would judges and Supreme Court justices be better served if they listened to jazz?
NH: I think so. It's the music of the people, of the soul. You get a clearer sense of motivation through the music.

JW: Does objectivity become threatened when jazz writers become close friends with musicians?
NH: That's interesting. Whitney Balliett [pictured] and I used to talk about that all the time. Whitney was one of the very few people who could put the music to words, so the words sang. Whitney used to say that he didn't want to get to know jazz musicians well because he felt he wouldn't have the necessary objectivity to write about them.

JW: Balliett must have had a change of heart somewhere along the way.
NH: Yes, he changed his mind, of course. His interviews with some of these people are superb. Personally, I don't see the problem. If you're saying. “I dig this person's music and I want to learn more," what's the big deal? How else are you going to learn more about artists and their art than by talking to them? What is objectivity after all?

JW: But did you ever worry that you'd be inclined to give a bad record a good review because you knew the artist behind the art?
NH: No, never. I listen to the fact that it's my byline, and if I say something that I don't really believe, what am I here for? They used to teach objectivity in journalism school. Today this has shifted rightly to fairness, not objectivity. The writer's tone and perspective has to be included. When I taught journalism, I used to say if you read The Nation, you need to read The Weekly Standard. You need know what everyone is saying. The same is true of jazz. You have to listen to everything. That's the only way you can be fair.

JW: How do you want Nat Hentoff's jazz writing to be remembered?
[Laughs] Probably something like this: “You could hear the voices of the musicians in just about everything he wrote."

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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