Larry Blumenfeld on Nat Hentoff
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
The most resonant voice in the pages of “At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene,” the new collection of writings on jazz by Nat Hentoff, is that of the chazan—the cantor in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue Hentoff attended while growing up in Boston. It’s not that Hentoff is or was a particularly observant Jew (he calls himself “a Jewish atheist” in this book). But in shul, he found a captivating voice that provoked both visceral and intellectual responses that turned his head around, and that have lasted a lifetime.
“[T]he passionate, mesmerizing, often improvisatory singing of the chazan …, ” he writes, “sounded at times as if he were arguing with God.” At 11, when Hentoff heard “music blaring from a record store that made me shout aloud in pleasure” it was clarinetist Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare.” And though that particular keening A-minor melody of Shaw’s may in fact have been based on a cantorial theme (or so Hentoff says), a deeper connection with the music Hentoff would come to love and document—jazz—was thus forged. The cantor’s “soul cry of human promise, transcendence and vulnerability” was the same element Hentoff would home in on within the music of, say, Charles Mingus; his “depth of his witnessing to the human condition” an unbroken link for Hentoff to the blues at jazz’s base.
At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene
By Nat Hentoff
University of California Press, 272 pages
Hentoff has long channeled those sensibilities into what he calls his “day job—reporting on keeping the Bill of Rights alive,” reflected most prominently through his 50-year tenure as a columnist for The Village Voice and via his books. And those feelings have fueled his chosen labor of love: documenting and otherwise propagating jazz. The two endeavors dovetailed from the start. Hentoff, who was born in 1925, has lived through a good chunk of jazz’s history, including its heyday within American popular culture. He moved to New York to work as an editor for Down Beat magazine, which back then appealed to a much broader readership than it does today. In 1957, together with critic Whitney Balliett, he cast “The Sound of Jazz,” a landmark CBS program that brought the likes of Billie Holiday and Lester Young into American living rooms (Hentoff calls making that show “the most important thing I’ve ever done”—hyperbole, but also cause to consider the program’s impact). He wrote liner notes to groundbreaking recordings, including John Coltrane’s “Expressions” and Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” befriended musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, and produced some true classics, including “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.” Among his many books on jazz, 1955’s “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” (written with Nat Shapiro) was an early attempt to let musicians tell their own stories.
Hentoff is neither the first nor the last jazz lover to exalt the music as both metaphor and laboratory for whatever we mean when we speak of an American experiment. Ralph Ellison expressed all that with more literary distinction and greater connection to the context of African-American arts. But if Ken Burns’ 19-hour PBS series “Jazz” in 2000 offered something of a caricature of jazz as the symbol of American values and virtues, Hentoff’s body of writings has come closest to painting an honest working portrait of the idea. This comes clear when he describes momentous events, such as the making of the “Freedom Now!” suite, but just as well when he writes of fifth-graders in Sarasota, Fla., where a jazz organization convinced a public school system to teach history of jazz alongside American history. (“These little kids think Coltrane is cool,” he writes.) And if Hentoff lays it on a bit too heavy in discussing “the life force of jazz across the world, resisting banning even within Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia,” he’s also got disarming anecdotes like this one, about Charles Delaunay, who founded France’s Jazz Hot magazine:
“During World War II, while working undercover in Paris for the Free French, Charles was picked up by the Gestapo and taken in for interrogation. As the questioning was about to start, as SS officer looked hard at Delaunay and referred accusingly to a Fletcher Henderson record from the 1920s. ‘You didn’t have all the right personnel on that date,’ he said to Charles. Delaunay was not held for long.”
Chapter 10 of Hentoff’s book, “Is Jazz Black Music?” draws its question from the title of a “Jazz at Lincoln Center” panel discussion in which he participated. Hentoff could have—should have—delved more deeply into the implications of this question, not to mention what would constitute a satisfactory answer. And yet, here and there, he hints admirably at the complexity of the issue and the multiplicity of jazz’s responses. He writes early on about how trumpeter Clark Terry (who emerges as one clear hero throughout the book) walked away from a Harlem music education program he’d established when students refused to work with white teachers. He acknowledges the presence within jazz’s ranks of “reverse racism, as when Miles Davis was sharply criticized by some black musicians for hiring white pianist Bill Evans.”
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