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Final Chorus: Jazz and Its Critics

Nat Hentoff weighs in on the legacy of jazz criticism

Long ago, in Miles Davis’ apartment in New York, some musicians—Miles, Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver, among them—were grilling some jazz critics, Martin Williams and me among them. The usually amiable Horace Silver asked rather sharply, “What are the qualifications for a jazz critic?”

“Anybody can be a jazz critic,” I said. “The standards are low.” Most musicians derisively agreed with that answer then—and many still do.

However, even back then, I should have gone on to cite writers who have enduringly illuminated the music. “The music has to speak for itself,” John Coltrane used to tell me. “Words can’t do it.” But in 1939, after I’d already begun a life-long immersion into the stories told in their music by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, et al., a book deepened my understanding of where jazz came from—the actual lives and backgrounds of the creators.

Jazzmen by Charles Edward Smith and Fred Ramsey made vivid the scenes as well as the sounds of New Orleans and other places where the seeds were being sown. Moreover, Ramsey and Alan Lomax—in their field recordings and reporting—illuminated the roots of jazz in field hollers, gospel music and the blues.

In the years after, some of the writing on jazz was by enthusiasts who told whether they liked or disliked certain musicians, but couldn’t tell you why in any ways that stayed in your head. But there have been an increasing number of writers whose work has lasted. Roughly, they fall into two camps: the critics with a sound technical knowledge of music who can still reach the lay listener, at least sometimes, and a group that is essentially biographers who—in articles as well as books—chronicle the lives and interrelationships from which the music comes. Stanley Dance was a premier example.

As for the first group, the initial work of André Hodeir helped set standards for those readers who wanted to know more than the adjectival writing of the enthusiasts. Hodeir explained how the music—improvised and written—was actually put together. In this country, Gunther Schuller, Martin Williams, Lewis Porter and some of the writers for this magazine have also set high standards for this genre of writing.

There are also critics who combine technical knowledge with the ability to connect the structure of the music with the structure of the musician’s life and memories. Whitney Balliett is among the most evocative practitioners of that mixed approach and it is a scandal that David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, has apparently sent Whitney off to pasture.

Other enduring combiners of the techniques and personal histories of the musicians are Mark Tucker, Gene Lees, Gene Santoro, the British Benny Green and Gary Giddins (who encompasses literature and classical music references in his analogies). I am omitting a good many additional writers, in this and other categories, on whom listeners continue to depend for deeper understanding. My space is limited.

One development in the writings about jazz that has been particularly valuable involves the musicians themselves. An early stereotype of the jazz player was that he was a primitive. He could surely express himself on his instrument but could barely keep up an articulate conversation. A corollary view was that these players just picked up a horn and blew. They couldn’t read music, and didn’t have to.

In 1955, Nat Shapiro and I published a book, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, which was the story of jazz up to that time as told solely by the musicians. And in 1958, Martin Williams and I started The Jazz Review, in which all articles and reviews were written only by jazz musicians.

There have been subsequent anthologies of highly pertinent musicians’ comments by Ira Gitler, Max Jones, Ben Sidran, Art Taylor and others and invaluable memoirs by Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Bechet, Charles Mingus, along with witty and revealing road stories by Bill Crow and Paul Desmond. Again, these are not comprehensive lists in this column.

At the beginning of writing on jazz, here and abroad (Charles Delauney, Robert Goffin, Hugues Panassié), there were few black writers on the music. But since, essays and books by Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraka have been among the more penetrating and challenging jazz commentaries yet.

Finally, a story about the power of jazz writing: Charles Delaunay, a pioneer jazz discographer, worked for the Free French during the Second World War and was picked up by the Gestapo in Paris. As the interrogation began, the first thing the Nazi officer said to Delaunay, whose picture he recognized, was: “You have the wrong personnel on one of Fletcher Henderson’s 1928 recordings.” Delaunay insisted on the accuracy of his research and they argued for a while. Eventually, Delaunay was released after only routine questioning. Conceivably, that particular Gestapo officer couldn’t bear to come down hard on a fellow member of the jazz community.

Writings on jazz can’t save lives, but the most valuable can bring light to sound. As John Coltrane kept reminding me, if the music can’t speak for itself, no writing can help it. But bad jazz criticism can hurt musicians, and therefore, serve to deny listeners the knowledge and enjoyment of their music.

Originally Published
Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.