May 21, 2013
Larry Blumenfeld on Nat Hentoff
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
And Hentoff takes up the perhaps tougher and certainly less popular issue of gender bias. Admitting “it took me too long to realize the vital creative force of women in jazz—instrumentalists, not only singers,” he notes that Wynton Marsalis has yet to select a female musician for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra he directs. “Since Wynton does have big ears, I remain puzzled at this omission,” he writes. “As a challenge (one I’ve issued the trumpeter before): why doesn’t he try a blind audition, for once?” It’s a challenge all the more pointed because Hentoff knows well the story of the bassist Art Davis, who filed a discrimination suit against the New York Philharmonic, and which some (including bassist Ron Carter, as revealed in an interview with Hentoff quoted later in the book) feel helped usher in the practice of blind auditions for symphony orchestras.
The subject of jazz education, especially as expressed through the many university jazz programs that have cropped up during the last two decades, gets two-sided consideration through the interviews included here. “It’s the only way,” says Clark Terry, about the mentorship and history offered through jazz studies programs. But saxophonist Phil Woods disagrees. “Let’s get jazz out of the schools and put it back on the streets where it belongs. You know what I mean?... Too many lawyers is a drag, but they always get a gig, but too many tenor players is uncontainable. I mean, there’s 3,000 tenor players a year for three gigs and two of them are playing for the door at a Ramada Inn playing Britney Spears medleys.”
At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene
By Nat Hentoff
University of California Press, 272 pages
The chazan of Hentoff’s childhood shows up again, twice, in ways that pay off nicely in narrative terms: when Hentoff discovers that the great pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith studied Talmud and became a cantor himself in a Harlem synagogue; and when he reads a piece in The New York Times, part of a series in which critic Ben Ratliff asked jazz musicians to pick musical selections to share and discuss, and saxophonist Ornette Coleman chooses a 1916 recording by cantor Josef Rosenblatt. There’s cultural history revealed in these moments, but they’re more valuable for the author’s sheer joy.
Given the power of Hentoff’s focus, the fascinating insider life he’s led, and the wealth of information collected here, the presentation of this collection—drawn from a rage of previously published pieces—does not rise to the level of its contents. When, after 60 pages of first-person narrative, the introduction to an interview drawn from JazzTimes magazine refers to “veteran journalist Nat Hentoff,” it’s jarring, and not in a good way. And it’s interesting to learn—the first time, but not the third—that drummer Roy Haynes used to listen to Hentoff’s jazz radio show when he was a kid. Likewise even for the revelation upon hearing the chazan, rendered thrice in oddly overlapping fashion.
And yet some repetitions in this book function like a saxophonist returning to his theme again and again within a solo, refining his point. The most potent of these is Hentoff’s commitment to his role as what critic Gary Giddins has called “a chronicler.” In one of the book’s more fascinating essays, Hentoff cites Don Heckman’s negative review in the Los Angeles Times of one of his previous books, the main criticism of which was his “emphasis on the personality of the artist rather than the process” (read: a lack of critical or musicological analysis). At one point, Hentoff admits to sometimes “feeling fraudulent” for lack of knowledge about, say, chord substitutions. That feeling grew more intense when his daughter, then a budding musician, asked: “How can you dare affect the income of a musician when you give him bad reviews since you can’t say technically what you think he’s doing wrong?”
Hentoff cuts to an encounter with the arranger Gil Evans. “I’ve been reading you for years,” Evans said, “so I know what you listen to and how you listen. I also know musicians who can tell technically everything that’s going on in a performance, but they don’t get into where this music is coming from inside the musician—the story he wants to tell. You can do that some of the time. Stop worrying.”
Hentoff either stopped worrying, or went ahead anyway. Without discounting the value of or need for such critical analysis based on musical knowledge—how could he?—he argues for the narrative of jazz as a succession of stories of men and women who have shaped and lived the music, and does so effectively. And yet—well, Nat, you needn’t. By now, you rate as one of those men. And you documented each step, in a prayerful way.
Larry Blumenfeld writes on jazz for numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal.
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