December 2004 By Nat Hentoff
Beyond the Process
The only negative review I’ve seen so far of my new book, American Music Is (Da Capo), was by Don Heckman in the July 4 Los Angeles Times Book Review. He titled it “Grabbing Music by the Tale.” I’m grateful because Heckman got exactly right why I have presumed, all of these years, to write about this music that never ceases to be a large part of my life.
“More often,” Heckman wrote, summing up the book, “Hentoff’s worthy perceptions are swallowed up in his emphasis on the artist rather than the music, on the personality rather than the process…. Lost along the way are the musically knowledgeable insights that gave such credibility to his early influential writing about jazz.” Actually, from the beginning, my emphasis has been on the person rather than the process. I began a 1961 book, The Jazz Life, (reprinted in 1975 by Da Capo), with what W. H. Auden said of music in In Praise of Limestone: “It can be made anywhere, is invisible, and does not smell.”
But, I wrote under that epigraph: “Music is made by men who are insistently visible, especially as in jazz, when the players are their music…. Through telling something of where they came from and how they live, I hope their music, too, has become less disembodied.” In truth, although I studied harmony briefly and clarinet much longer before I began writing about the music, I’m not at all qualified to analyze “the process” as, for example, Gunther Schuller does so impressively. Yet as Gunther reminded me recently, when Thelonious Monk first began to record, a number of critics very knowledgeable about “the process” largely regarded him as exotic, hard to label and difficult. But in Down Beat, where I wrote many of the record reviews, I kept trying to indicate how joyously and challengingly original he was as a pianist and composer.
I heard Monk in clubs but also got to know him—as well as his wife, Nellie, so essential to his life, and therefore his music—in his apartment. Monk, usually known for his silences, would speak to me at length about where he came from and where he wanted to go in his life and music. In writing about what he said, I think I may have helped listeners go more deeply into the music. And, as Gunther noted, I helped Monk’s record sales.
Still, I sometimes felt fraudulent because I couldn’t describe what chords or inversions someone was playing. This disquiet intensified one day when my younger daughter, beginning a professional career as a pianist and composer, said accusingly: “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?” Brooding about this while walking on the street one day, I saw Gil Evans coming toward me. I’d known him since interviewing him when he was arranging for Claude Thornhill. I decided to make Gil my rabbi, and told him what my daughter had said.
“I’ve been reading you for years,” Gil began, “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.”
I didn’t stop worrying, but I felt better. And I remembered when I was not yet 20 and plunged into Beethoven’s late quartets, I was also reading about the discords in his life. I couldn’t tell you then, or now, about the “process” of that galvanizing music, but knowing something of the life that Beethoven was impelled to put into his music deepened what I got out of it for my life.
As I’ve written before, John Coltrane would ask me not to write the liner notes for his albums because, he’d say, “If the music can’t speak for itself, what’s the use?” But since he was a kind man and knew I had this gig, he’d talk at length with me for the notes. He never got into “the process.” Instead, he spoke of his constant search for meaning, for connections between his life and the cosmos. And about how widely he listened to all kinds of music of other cultures to expand his horizons.
That’s what I wrote about Coltrane—not about “the process.” Also, as a writer on this music, I’m indebted to Don Ayler for what he told me long ago: “Become part of the whole. Don’t fix on the parts: the chords, the rhythms, the timbres.” And Duke Ellington: “I don’t want people listening to how my music is made. I want them to open themselves as they hear it.”
I’ve written about Duke a lot, including what he told me about being a black man in America. All he’d tell me about “the process” was how he wrote the parts for each person in the orchestra. “I know their strengths,” he’d say. I do not in the least undervalue those who write about “the process.” Within my limited capacity in that regard, I learn from them. But if my work is to have any value, if comes from what Charlie Parker said: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” What I keep trying to do is learn and write about those lives because they’re in the music. Gary Giddins once accurately and generously characterized what I do. He said I’m “a chronicler.” Critics who can authentically describe the structure of the music know more about “the process” than I do. I want to know the musicians, and my life is fuller for having known so many. Duke said in one of his songs, “What am I here for?” I can answer that.
Originally published in December 2004