Nat Hentoff and I talk often but usually in quick bursts, since we're both always chasing a deadline. What I love most about the dean of jazz journalism is his locomotive energy and kite-flying spirit. Nat, of course, penned some of the most insightful jazz essays and books of the post-war period, including Jazz Is, Listen to the Stories, Journey Into Jazz and Boston Boy. Each time I speak with Nat, I find him enormously optimistic, infectiously excited and ferociously protective of the music and musicians. He's a throwback to an era when people were urgently passionate. Since the late 1940s, Nat has worked tirelessly to elevate the craft of jazz writing and illuminate the genius of the music and artists.
When Nat began in the business, jazz in print was largely a publicist's playground awash in Broadway hacks and shameless conflicts of interest. Nat helped bring a new sobriety, integrity and intellectualism to jazz writing that for the most part didn't yet exist. His writings celebrated the personalities and art of the individual rather than the music's cartoons lingo and double-pleated hipster mystique.
Nat's latest book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press), is out today and features 64 White Castle-like essays on topics ranging from "Who Owns Jazz?" and "Playing Changes on Jazz Interviews" to "Satchmo's Rap Sheet" and "Billie Holiday, Live." As always, there are many revelations.
Last week Nat, 84, and I spoke about his book and jazz in general:
JazzWax: What four words best describe how you feel about jazz?
Nat Hentoff: [Pause] Essential, regenerating, a life-force and soul music.
JW: In your new book you talk about jazz and its influence on the civil rights movement. What was the connection?
NH: In Ralph Ellison’s book, Living With Music, he talks about being a kid in Oklahoma City and seeing jazz musicians in their band uniforms and how they spoke, looked and conducted themselves. It was a world he wanted to be in. There was something about the music early on that reached people—and not only black people. Everyone was affected. Jazz had this power to unify people of all races. From the artists’ side, of course, the music leveled the playing field. If you could play inventively and exceptionally, you stood out—no matter who you were. Audiences picked up on that egalitarian quality of jazz, and a new awareness of fairness emerged.
JW: Jazz also became symbolic of freedom and individualism, yes?
NH: Yes, absolutely. Jazz was always about the right to be yourself at a time when the country was still in social turmoil. But jazz's unifying was unsettling for some. Phil Woods tells a story in my book about Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey kidnapping him in the early 1960s. It was a down period for Phil in New York when Dizzy and Art threw him in a cab and took him to Dizzy's house. They asked Phil what his problem was. Phil moaned he wasn't getting any gigs, that he was playing for strippers and hadn't seen the front of a woman in years. Dizzy told him if he cleaned up his act, his fortunes would change. Phil then said he was at a disadvantage because he was "a white guy."
JW: What did Dizzy say?
NH: Dizzy told him to hold on, that Charlie Parker didn't play his alto saxophone just for black people but for the world. Then Dizzy said, "You can't steal a gift." That one phrase, Phil says, woke him up.
JW: Your writing style, starting in the 1950s revolutionized the way jazz journalists cover jazz and jazz artists.
NH: In what way?
JW: In a straightforward, non-academic way, you brought a new depth and caring to the subject, and your essays treated the musicians as bona fide artists.
NH: After I left Down Beat in 1957 and co-founded The Jazz Review in 1958, I was liberated from reviewing records, it was obvious that the lives of jazz musicians had everything to do with the music. If I’m writing about jazz, I want to know more and more about the lives of those who created the music. So in this regard, I became a reporter.
JW: A reporter, in that you set out to develop a full understanding of your subject by letting your curiosity drive your thought process?
NH: That's it. I wanted to know who these people were, what are they were thinking, and what happened to them in their lives to shape who they were as human beings and artists.
JW: When jazz legends you’ve known intimately have died, do you become lonely or are they always in your head?
NH: It’s sad, of course, a terrible loss. But their music is always with me. The people I really knew well—like Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington—fortunately recorded extensively, so I have plenty to listen to. The big advantage of being a reporter is getting close to people you wouldn’t have known otherwise. That’s a privilege, as you know.
JW: Is it possible to write about jazz and jazz musicians without addressing the drama and the music's history?
NH: That’s an interesting point. I don’t think so. With jazz, the history and creative struggle, what we call drama, are integral. What you’re hearing directly and immediately in the music are human feelings and biographies. So you’re hearing people who have presence. Some are annoying. Others regenerate you. But it's who they are. I learned so much about music and life from these people.
JW: So the music, the artist, the creative struggle and the history are all one?
NH: Oh sure. The music is the person. Whenever I hear a jazz recording, I’m never fully familiar with it even if I’ve heard it 100 times. I hear the recording differently each time. That’s the miracle of jazz. It’s always new to our ear. And when the music is especially great, I find I have to stand up, and sometimes I shout.
JW: The music moves you to that extent?
NH: Oh, sure.
JW: You stand and shout when you hear jazz you enjoy?
NH: Absolutely—if it’s good [laughs]. There’s adulation because the music is making my life livelier. Sometimes I even try to dance. When Duke saw me dance, he said that he wasn't a good dancer either [laughs].
JW: For those who find Duke Ellington antique, explain why he’s essential and special.
NH: There is an enormous sense of adventure in Duke's music. Duke is special because of his range of feelings and what he is saying in his music about America and American history. It was Duke’s nature when he traveled to absorb the culture of other places, and he made that all a part of his music. For Duke, music was a constant learning process. He knew that the basic goal of education was to create lifelong learners. For those who are curious, there’s enormous pleasure in learning new things, and Duke was that way.
JW: When we say that jazz played today is "great," aren’t we being polite compared with jazz created in the 1950s?
NH: I don’t think so. Jazz, ultimately, is about feelings. The first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie, I felt a burst of humanity. I still feel that humanity today. I don’t compare the two periods. I’m happy to have people in my memory and in the present.
JW: Is seeing music live still an important component to jazz appreciation?
NH: I think so. Hearing the same music over and over again also is important. Charlie Parker taught me something about listening to music and the flaws of first impressions. I was interviewing him once on the radio. He said, “You know, I heard a Bartok piece a few months ago and it didn’t do anything for me. But when I heard it live, it got to me.” The message there was clear: Don’t go by what you hear the first time. A lot of what you hear the first time isn’t always it.
JW: Which jazz musician taught you an especially valuable writing lesson?
NH: I think Ben Webster. At the time, in the late 1940s, he was touring and clubs wouldn’t pay the additional cost for his working rhythm section. So Ben had to make do with the musicians he could find in the cities where he played. In Boston, he found he couldn’t lift up the quality of the trio with his playing. He was sitting at the bar on a break when I spoke to him and pointed this out. Ben said, “You know, kid, if the rhythm section isn’t happening, you go for yourself.”
JW: Meaning, do your thing your way if you can’t get the support you need?
NH: Exactly. I’ve done this with editors and others throughout my life. If what you’re depending on for ballast isn’t there, you have to do it yourself, set your own standards and rise up to meet them.
JW: Why are jazz musicians so wise?
NH: They’ve had experiences that most people haven't had. Musicians would come back from a road trip and tell me about the different towns they were in, the people they met, the characters they encountered and the human behavior they witnessed. That whole way of living and expressing yourself is dependent on studying human nature and the human condition. These musicians were emotionally camping out, living in the wild by their wits. [Photo of Louis Armstrong on a band bus in 1960 by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Through experience and human interaction comes wisdom?
NH: Exactly. When you make your living communicating how you feel now based on past experiences, you are more likely to be perceptive about what goes on around you. This includes experiences that have nothing to do with music. Ornette Coleman told me once that he had been to Radio City Music Hall to see a performance with acrobats and that he found it fascinating. I asked him why. Ornette said, “They knew what they were doing and what they wanted to do.” What struck him was the formality behind the seeming informality of the act.
JW: In your new book, you talk about Dizzy Gillespie in Turkey at the American embassy and the ambassador's efforts to keep out the local kids. Dizzy insisted that the kids be allowed past the fence to attend the concert, saying that it was the kids he wanted to reach. After a back and forth, the ambassador relented and said to his associate, “Let them all in.” That sums up jazz, doesn't it—"let them all in?"
NH: Yes. As soon as I saw the image of Louis Armstrong we used on the book’s cover, surrounded by kids in Cairo, I knew that’s how I felt. You look at the faces of those Egyptian kids in 1961 and you realize that the music has the same impact on people everywhere, especially children. It goes back to what Duke [Ellington] once said to me: “I don’t want people analyzing my music. I want them to open themselves up to what the music is.” By opening yourself up, you quickly realize you're alive and not just lost in daily routines.
JazzWax pages: Nat Hentoff's At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene is available here.