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Final Chorus: Jazz Musicians in the Public Square

In 1955, when the late Nat Shapiro and I put together Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz Told by the Men Who Made It—in which only musicians spoke—a primary reason was to counter the notion at the time that jazz players were only articulate on their instruments but otherwise had little to say of interest about public issues.

Since then, of course, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and others have spoken vigorously and publicly about controversies outside of music. Particularly notable was Louis Armstrong’s reaction to Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus’ blocking the integration of public schools in Little Rock. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” said Armstrong. And when President Eisenhower spoke of “extremists on both sides” of that conflict, Armstrong trumpeted: “The President has no guts.”

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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.