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Final Chorus: Is Jazz Black Music?

In January, I was on a panel at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The subject, “Is Jazz Black Music?” is still a lively and even combative one in some quarters. When I was invited, what first came to mind was Duke Ellington telling me long ago that in the 1920s, he went to Fletcher Henderson and said, “Why don’t we drop the word ‘jazz’ and call what we’re doing ‘Negro music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Henderson took a pass. But years later, when Louie Bellson was in Ellington’s band, Duke said he was the most extraordinary drummer he’d ever heard.

We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call-and-response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music. On the panel, I proposed a line-obviously debatable-between the continuing originators of this music and those who were original musicians but hadn’t very deeply shaped the directions of jazz. Duke used to tell me it’s always been the individuals whom others followed, and he named Sidney Bechet as an example.

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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.