Tender and Fierce Blessings: Malcolm, Coltrane and My Mentor Nat Hentoff

Christine Passarella By

Sign in to view read count
Dear Nat,

It has been awhile since I wrote. You are heavily on my mind. I must say I miss the ability to reach out to you when I had something magnificent to say about my Kids for Coltrane Project in Education. Sharing other positive news in education such as George Lucas's online magazine Edutopia and the amazing research coming out of Harvard's Project Zero was nourishing. Working out my personal deep frustration with certain aspects of the educational system in New York City with you from 2007 through 2015 was also profoundly life-changing. You always understood and sent me on my way with words of empowerment, enlightenment, and ethics. I was blessed to have you as a mentor. As your great and dear friend John Coltrane was a force for good, so were you. Indeed, I must tell you that the lives you touched while you were here, continue to be elevated and enriched by your love and consideration. Your brilliant body of work certainly impacted me and my students through your courageous and unwavering commitment to beauty, love, and justice.

I attended your memorial service last year at Saint Peter's on the east side of Manhattan with my son. The rooms were filled with people who loved and respected you throughout your unique and dedicated life. I spoke to your daughter Jessica and two of your grandchildren that evening. There were paintings of some of your best friends in the jazz world covering the walls. Sweet conversation flowed with memories of knowing you. I gravitated to the paintings of John Coltrane. I stood by them while we waited to be ushered into the church. The paintings were created by Victor Kalin. I was excited when I saw them as I remembered a deep conversation I had with the artist's daughter Rebecca a few years ago. She told me how much John meant to her dad. It seems this message repeats itself as I meet more and more people through my Coltranian experiences. I hear many narratives in which people state John Coltrane and his music uplifted their lives, so I was moved to see Kalin's work at your Memorial service. As you know, Kalin is the artist who created the portrait of John which is in the inside cover of A Love Supreme.

In my view, John Coltrane brought the protection of the divine and message of A Love Supreme for people all over the world. He preached through his extraordinary music. Tears welled up in my eyes when Jessica told those in attendance that my work with the Kids for Coltrane brought joy to your life! You always encouraged the work which focuses on jazz to teach children about American history, equality, character education and the Arts. By doing this, children become invested in literacy, creativity, compassion, curiosity, and courage. I think you really valued that the program celebrated the individual while also working in collaboration with others. You kept the flame alive, and your spirit pushes me to continue. Something else was stated that evening that blew my mind and touched me to my core. Your two daughters told the mourners what transpired the weeks before you passed with Grace. It still takes my breath away when I think about it, and has enabled me to write this letter which others will read during Black History Month.

I know that you lived a vibrant life as an atheist. You stated this publicly and told me as well. We discussed John's belief in God throughout our talks, and your personal view of a higher power existing was otherwise. It was clear that the difference in this area between the two of you made no difference in your admiration and respect for one another. And then that evening at Saint Peter's the astonishing words uttered by your family, with a song sung by your granddaughter Ruby who was accompanied by your daughter Miranda on piano told what transpired artistically. Your sweet and generous loved ones shared a personal divine miracle with all of us. Weeks before your passing you had three dreams in which God came to you. The message was to accept and believe in Him and before you passed you did embrace a belief in a higher power.

Nat, jazz music and its profound teachings help me get through each day as it did for you as well. You wrote that Charles Mingus once told you most people do create their own slavery, do spend their working time at being smaller than they could be. You always encouraged people including me to live uniquely and fully. Remembering that you told me Duke Ellington's song, "I Know What I Am Here For" related to my laser focus on my work in education, gives me oxygen in the rain. You stated I absolutely knew what I was here for.

Although Trane said he plays Trane, and was not fond of labels, the broad category which is called jazz, is indeed a source of raw truth. You wrote that "Jazz is a continual autobiography, or rather a continuum of intersecting autobiographies, one's own and those of the musicians with whom one plays." Coltrane told us that it is the whole question of life itself. You also wrote, "John Coltrane, for instance, was perpetually examining and reexamining his life; and since there was no division between his music and his life, the recordings he has left-and the memories of his live performances-are a fascinating odyssey of perhaps the most philosophical (in music, not in words) of all the jazz musicians so far." So, the treasure stays with me as your fortified spirit and brilliance empower, and I am guided by and learn from other Coltranian human beings as well.

Nat, your dedication to educating people about the Constitution of the United States of America and the importance of understanding the Bill of Rights will always be part of your legacy. I have been thinking of the First Amendment heavily in the last few months, and I know you would be very concerned with the present political environment. I know you believed deeply in free speech. It is disconcerting to me to hear racist sentiments spewing up more and more in our current social and political atmosphere. I know you believed when people are allowed to speak their beliefs that is how we can get at the truth in a democracy. This political rhetoric is quite challenging to me. The children are listening. Is this the standard they will learn from? Will it make them demand more from our country? Will they dig deeper and develop critical thinking and a democratic fight back or live in a world that becomes fascist? Your fight against racism and prejudice of all kinds is the foundation of your service to humanity. One of my favorite Wall Street Journal articles written by you is "How Jazz Helped Hasten the Civil-Rights Movement."

Nat the love you have for children of the United States of America and the battle against certain stifling elements in the educational system are part of what brought our lives together. Indeed, one has only to read your 1966 book Our Children Are Dying to know this is part of your legacy. What are the children being exposed to in 2018 America when they must hear the battling and hypocrisy from the leadership of our country? What will the young have to compare it to if this is what they know to be a standard at such a tender age? I remember your book was an eye-opening journey which you took with the principal, Elliott Shapiro, and his students attending Public School 119. In fact, you were present when the students received a visit from civil rights leader and award-winning thespian Ossie Davis. As he walked around the school with you he assessed a need for all black children to learn their grand culture all through the year. He stated, "First you need knowledge of and pride in your own culture. And then you go on to discover that at the core of every distinct culture are the common imperatives of all men." Principal Shapiro wrote a paper for educators on this vital topic. He stated, "The history of Africa's earlier civilization has been virtually omitted from textbooks and curricula of schools at every level from elementary to college, everywhere in the world." It was clear he felt Africa did not get its due in our school curriculum.

We can all ask why the curriculum was so limited in this area and still is. I shudder when I remember the words of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin on education. He answered a question posed to him about public education specifically in reference to black children. Baldwin's response to a question about education in the United States was, ..."You can't talk just about schools, you know they're talking about cities and the cities are in the hands of financiers... and education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of an industry is a child. I think this is criminal but this is the way it works. Now the public education in the city in which I grew up you know is enough to break the heart... and when we try, and again we try it over and over and over again to educate our children ourselves, to be responsible for the teaching this curriculum, for the books. We did that for three years in New York some years ago and the experiment succeeded...and because it succeeded it was crashed, it was smashed by the Board of Education, the Teachers' Union, and Albany. You know so that's what you're up against..."

The capitalist system itself has produced a series of rewards and punishments for students, teachers, schools and the institutions that train educators. We discover as the veil moves from our eyes that the nation state is moralizing ignorance to achieve the goals of the capitalist structure, this may be intentional or through untended consequences. Whatever, the answer we must do better for our children and the future of this country. By bringing this into view for our own journeys in education we can grapple with the questions of happiness and freedom. By examining structures in place like standardized testing and a flat curriculum one wonders is this all leading to terminal reality fostering the ideals, views, and mission of the nation state and not what the Greek call eudaimonia which is flourishing happiness and paideia which is deep education. Ultimately, educators must find a way through the darkness by touching souls. We must bring to our youth paths to happiness, and unsettling education to help foster a world in which students examine their lives courageously.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles