Nat Hentoff, the most famous and influential jazz writer in the history of the music, died on January 7, 2017. He was 91, and his death was announced by his son Nick via social media. “He died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” Nick wrote on Twitter.
This interview with Hentoff by JT‘s publisher Lee Mergner was originally posted on June 9, 2010. It has been revised for current posting.
Nat Hentoff has been writing about jazz since before most jazz writers were even born. His Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, co-written with Nat Shapiro, is considered one of the most influential books written about the music. In addition to writing numerous books about jazz, Hentoff has long been an outspoken columnist about political and social issues, with an emphasis on the First Amendment. Named a Jazz Master by the NEA in 2004, the 85-year-old Hentoff has been writing the Final Chorus column for JT since 1998. His book At the Jazz Band Ball is an anthology of his jazz writing over the years, including columns written for this publication, as well as the Wall Street Journal and DownBeat.
Hentoff spoke with JT at length in 2010 about his life as a writer on jazz and American politics.
What was the first piece that you wrote about jazz?
I was at WMEX in Boston. I had started “The Jazz Album,” a weekly half-hour or hour show. They couldn’t sell the time otherwise. There was a guy playing at the Savoy, who was a sideman out of New Orleans—Al Morgan. He was a blues singer and bass player. I wrote a piece for Art Hodes’ magazine, The Jazz Record. I was about 19 or 20, I think.
Your current book includes writing from the early days as well as recent years. Both the music and the scene have changed dramatically. How do you think the jazz scene has changed?
One of the reasons for the book, I don’t even know if I articulated it to myself until I started writing, is that the scene changes, as inevitably happens. It’s like the business of the originalness of the Constitution, like Scalia. The scene changes, but the basic feeling and need for it and new people playing it and older people needing much more recognition, nothing changes that way. Do you mean do I see it as less popular than before?
I was asking in regard to how it was viewed publicly and also how the musicians communicate with you as a journalist. What’s different now?
I don’t see any difference that way. Fortunately, I’ve always been able to communicate with them. Nothing in that regard has changed. I wrote about 19-year-old Hailey Niswanger, the student at Berklee, and then the week before I was interviewing Moody at the Blue Note. I don’t see any difference in that. I see it as a continuous stream, if you like. Sure at various times, like at the big-band era, with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Duke and Basie, it was a more popular music. But in terms of the audience, there have always been some people, either here or in Germany or in Japan, who wanted or needed the music.
I remember I was worried at one point when rock really took over and that’s when the big-band thing began to disappear. I was talking with Teddy Wilson and he said, “Don’t worry, if a kid responds to rock music, that means he has an ear and eventually he may have an ear for good music.”
Well, he was talking about my generation, the baby-boomers who turned to jazz in large numbers in the ’70s. Jimmy Heath’s autobiography is called I Walked With Giants. Yours could easily be called I Talked with Giants. There are some who argue that the best interviews were the ones in the past because of the import of the music. Do you think that’s true? That all contemporary music pales in the face of the work of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s and that contemporary artists have much less importance in American culture?
Again, this may sound like I’m being ingenuous, but I think what counts is…that’s the thing I learned from Duke, don’t categorize, don’t talk about cutting-edge music or classic jazz or anything like that. One musician at a time. I don’t think in those terms. I think it’s important to interview people who have largely been forgotten and new ones who most people don’t even know, like the one I just did for the Wall Street Journal on Myron Walden. He’s known in the jazz scene now, but I don’t think he’s known much nationally.
But you interviewed John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and now we’re talking about Hailey Niswanger and Myron Walden. How can you not view them differently? These contemporary artists have to compare themselves against those giants whom you interviewed and knew well.
Some people have achieved so much more. Mingus, for example, as a composer, bandleader and bassist. It’s not that I’m less interested in them. It’s been a privilege. Mingus turned out to be a friend of mine. And Coltrane, I’d call him up and say, “Thiele asked me to do the liner notes for this new album.” And he’d say, “Please don’t do that. The music has to speak for itself, you know.” Then I’d say, “John, it’s a gig. I’m getting bread for it.” And he’d say, “Okay, what do you want to know?”
I only interview people who, from my point of view from the way I listen, want to be better known even if they’re known. That’s my thing. I am not a musicologist. I really can’t really tell one chord from another. I tried studying harmony for a little while, but I just wasn’t interested in it. The main thing is to tell who these people are. I’m not a jazz critic, so much as I am a reporter, the way I see myself. How did you get into this music? That’s the kind of question I ask.
You responded very emotionally when I wrote about your book recently in a piece for jazztimes.com and I called you a living primary source.
That meant a lot. It’s true. One of the advantages of longevity or being alive is that I was able to know them and to continue writing about them. In the book some of those interviews are from quite a ways back, but probably not widely circulated. I’m hoping that the book will be read by people who are new to jazz as well as people who dug the music all along.
I know that you don’t think of yourself as a critic.
My daughter Miranda said to me once when she was hitting the clubs as a pianist and vocalist, she’s now mostly a teacher and composer, “You don’t know music technically. How come you can affect somebody’s living?” That bothered me a lot. I was walking down the street where I live and I saw Gil Evans coming toward me. I knew Gil when he was in Claude Thornhill’s band and I got to know him during the Miles Davis session of Sketches of Spain. So I decided to make him my rabbi and I told him what was bothering me. And he said, “Look, I know musicians who know every note, every chord, everything. The only thing they lack is taste. I read you. I know what you like. I can tell whether you have an ear. So stop worrying about that stuff.”
Do you think there’s a place for pure jazz criticism, as there is in theater, dance, literature and film?
Yes, sure. Gunther Schuller is a perfect example of that. He knows the music cold, but he also has this extraordinary range of background. He discerns what’s important and what isn’t.
You seem pretty inured to criticism yourself.
In my other field as well as in this field, it is so continual and often so strong, that I figure, at least I’m reaching them. I do believe in that. You got a beef, then say it. What the hell.
You once described yourself as technologically challenged and said that you don’t do e-mail. But it seems like you’re reading pieces online now. What gives? What are you doing with computers these days?
I have to give my wife credit for that. I was initially reluctant to go on the internet. I read so widely and talk to people. But, my God, it saved me. I spend at least an hour or more a day, it’s just amazing what I can find out for leads in writing about politics, civil liberties and music too. That I do. I don’t use e-mail, however, because I like to talk to people. As a reporter I learned long ago that you learn a lot from somebody’s speech. You can tell a lot by the tone of voice. Canned messages don’t teach me much.
Way back when, you asked that we include your phone number at the end of your column for people to contact you with inquiries. Do you get many calls? How do you handle it?
I remember I had to fight for that. A lot of the calls are what you’d expect. I have a record out and I want to send it to you. Or I want to know more about that musician you wrote about. Or I have some old recordings, who can I sell them to? That sort of stuff. I tell you, what counts the most and it happens maybe two or three times a year, is that somebody calls, I don’t know the name, and the message is almost always the same: “I’ve got to thank you. You opened up my whole life to jazz. It would have been a different life without it.” That’s so rare to hear that you’ve had any impact, but to have that impact in a human being is really something.
As an equivalent of it in my other life, one of my sons Tom is a big-time lawyer in Washington, D.C. and is an expert on intellectual property and the First Amendment, and there was a big meeting of lawyers in New York and he invited me. At his table, about three young lawyers came up, they looked to be in their thirties and one of them said to me, “You’re responsible for why we’re here. We used to read you in the Voice and you made the law seem so exciting.” I’ve never forgotten that one.
What makes you decide to do a story? Is it the music, the person or the story?
With [stories about] music, it’s always the music. I’d never heard of Hailey Niswanger. Every once in a while I chuck the other stuff aside—the civil liberties, etc.—and listen to a bunch of records. And once in a while it hits me. And when it hits me, this may sound corny, I get up and shout. You know I always talk about jazz as the life force. A couple of Saturdays ago, I was very low for various reasons. I was writing about torture, that was part of it. I saw this James Moody recording that I had not seen before. I decided I knew what to do then. I put it on and a few bars after it, I started to cry. That happens to me when music hits me, cries of joy and pleasure. I should call Moody and tell him that.
As your longtime editor, I’ve gotten to know your “soft spots” and here they are. Health care and support of older musicians and the development of young audiences for jazz. True?
The piece I just did for you on Mick Carlon was one of the most enjoyable I ever did. You mean by soft spots, what I am most interested in?
Yes, that’s right.
I guess you could call it a soft spot, but when I first came to New York, I knew musicians through the radio show in Boston and through hanging out at the Savoy. I figured out that part of my job had to be the economics of the business. I’d talk to guys who were recording for Prestige or wherever, I’d say, “What are the royalties?” And they’d laugh and say, “The advance is all you ever see.” I got very much interested in that, how people can make a living at this and what happens when they get sick. That’s why I got so involved with the Jazz Foundation when it was started. I guess that’s a soft spot.
The Jazz Life, one of my early books, was one of the few at the time that went into how you make a living at this. I don’t mean critics. I mean musicians. That’s one of the things I started doing fairly often. I thought that even people who really love the music didn’t have much sense for who the musicians were and what kind of hassles they had as people. That got into my writing.
Many people don’t know that you’re a tireless champion of other writers, recommending them to book publishers and editors and encouraging them with praise and suggestions.
I call people I don’t know when I see something very good. It’s like when I hear good music, I like to tell the musicians. It makes me feel good. Just the other day, there was a wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal on a subject I had written about in the Voice last week. I’m back in there once a month and I’m mostly writing about schools.
You’re back at The Voice? [Hentoff’s column had been discontinued after more than 30 years at that weekly.]
Oh yeah. Tony Ortega called me and I guess maybe a few people missed me. The only thing I missed having been fired (I wound up at the Cato Institute which is great, they have a reservoir of information and facilities and they’re libertarian, which I am) is a New York outlet. I am very interested in schools. My next book is going to be about that. Tony Ortega said, “How about once a month?” And I said, “Yeah.” I’m doing mostly schools. There’s been this terrific fight in New York between the union, not only the United Federation of Teachers, but the whole state AFL-CIO, they’re so against charter schools, because though they’re public money, they don’t have to unionize and they won’t give anyone running for office any support unless that person says he’s going to be against charter schools. There was a wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal by one of their editors—in Harlem there are three schools now called Schools for Success or something like that…[Harlem Success Academy]
The Geoffrey Canada program in Harlem?
No, but I talked about him in the Voice. He was in North Carolina recently and he was talking to a bunch of parents and he said, “Nobody’s coming. Nobody is coming to save your children. Only you can save your children.” This woman Eva Moskowitz is doing that in Harlem. The regular black politicians are very much opposed to it, because they get the money from the unions. The same thing that was discussed in that Journal piece. So I called this writer.
Have you always done that?
That’s how I got to know George Frazier. Sometimes I call a writer when I’m very annoyed. George Frazier, who turned out to be a friend of mine, was about the only jazz columnist in Boston at the Globe and he wrote something about, of all things that made me mad, Tex Beneke. I liked Tex just because of his whole attitude. He wasn’t a bad tenor player. And his singing was kind of nice. But it was a vicious thing. So George took umbrage at that and we got to know each other that way. Sometimes I get to know people that way.
I felt that way about Stanley Dance. I rarely agreed with his opinions about jazz, but I grew to love the person behind the opinions.
Stanley’s son called me sometime after he died and he said, “You know, those books are out of print.” Some of them were on Da Capo, so I called the guy who ran it and some of those books got back in print. So I figure at least posthumously I’d do something for Stanley.
Who do you think was the best of your jazz-writing peers back in the day? What jazz writers did you most enjoy reading?
The first one, the one that really reached me was Charles Edward Smith. He and somebody named Ramsey [Frederic Ramsey] wrote a book called Jazzmen. That was the first book about jazz I read that was less about who the writer was and what that writer thought one way or another and whom he knew. Charles Edward Smith made these people come alive, like Sidney Bechet and Danny Barker and those people. I think that’s what started me on the kind of writing I did. Then on the other end, although I am not a musicologist, I always admired Andre Hodeir, the French writer, because he made me think in terms of technique so far as I could hear it, but he made it so clear that even a layperson could understand it. And of course, Gunther [Schuller] knows not only the history, but he knows the whole musical scene of all kinds. I’ve always appreciated him. And, if I may say so, Stanley Crouch, because not only the passion, but sometimes he points me to musicians I hadn’t paid attention to, like Wallace Roney. And one of the very, very best was Ralph Ellison. That book about him and his relationship with music, but he obviously wrote well and deeply, that I remembered things he said. There are many others as well.
So many, like Leonard Feather, Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern…
Martin was really superb. He was like the standard bearer. When you read Martin, you knew you better pay attention, because what he was saying is something, whether you agree with it or not, you better know about.
And your next book?
The book is called Is This America? and the beginning of it is going to be that the most dangerous president we’ve ever had to begin with in terms of the Constitution and our civil liberties and even worse than Woodrow Wilson during World War I is a fellow named Barack Obama. But then I’m going into how come this happened. How come there has been so little concern about what’s happened to the Fourth Amendment? We’re a surveillance society like we’ve never been before. J. Edgar Hoover was a piker. And this goes on and on and on. Part of the book is going to be the need for students and that means teachers to convey why we are Americans, to tell the stories. I was doing a profile of Justice Brennan whom I got to know pretty well. I was in his chambers and for once he looked very gloomy. And I said to him, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “How are we going to get the words of the Bill of Rights into the lives of students?” And he thought for a moment and he said, “Tell them stories.” Well, I’ve been doing that. Then I told him I was on my way to rural Pennsylvania to talk with middle school and high school students about the Bill of Rights and always it was like when I played jazz in a classroom, they come alive when they hear why we have the Fourth Amendment and what it is. So the book is going to be about how we keep what this country is supposed to be and that means how we’ve gotten to the point where even the most recent polls show maybe 50-60% say there’s nothing wrong with torture, that we’re dealing with people who want to kill us. Well, I disagree with that.
It won’t be a collection of columns in an anthology?
No, it will have a few of the columns but I’m writing at great length on how to teach what we are. I guess I’ll use my favorite Ellington song, “What Am I Here For?” If you’re going to be an American citizen, what does that mean? What are your responsibilities? I think my favorite quote of all time from what I feel is what Louis Brandeis said, “The worst danger to freedom is an inert people.” We got a lot of that.
Spike Lee said that Is This America? was the working title for his documentary about Katrina, When the Levees Broke.
It’s a good title. You can’t copyright a title. My second book of memoirs was called Speaking Freely. About three years later a book came out by Floyd Abrams called Speaking Freely. I called him and said, “Thanks for the publicity.”
Back in 2004, you were named a Jazz Master by the NEA.
That was the most stunning thing that ever happened to me. I get a call from a guy I never heard of, Dana Gioia [then director of the NEA]. He identified himself. Even before that, the first thing he said was, “This is probably the most welcome message you’ve ever gotten from your government.”
You probably haven’t gotten too many of those.
I used to say to people at least they didn’t ask me to play anything, [because] when I accepted that, this sounds so preening but Wendy Oxenhorn never forgot it, in my acceptance speech I spent most of my time on the Jazz Foundation.
Are you still floored by the fact that you’re a Jazz Master?
Yeah, what the hell. Obviously the music has meant so much to me. When I write that my life would have been a lot grayer without it, I’m not kidding. For example, when I wanted to get back into life again, I had to play Moody. But to be recognized as a Jazz Master, my god, it’s beyond my understanding.
Any plans to retire from the writing life and smell the coffee or maybe some gin?
You know that story. When I saw Duke on one of his days off and he looked so beat. He was in his late 60s or early 70s and the band then was doing about 200 one-nighters a year, jumping from Toronto to Dallas. I presumptuously said to him, “Duke, you don’t have to live like this, you could retire on your ASCAP income.” He looked at me as if I had gone bonkers. He said, “Retire? To what?” I’m going to retire right here at the typewriter.
No, you’ll expire at the typewriter.
Well, a guy I wrote a book about and I wanted to get his collected books together just before he died at least, he was 80 or something, was A.J. Muste, the guy who turned Martin Luther King, Jr. to non-violence. And A.J. died on the street right next to where I’m at now, talking to some fellow direct-action pacifist and he had his hand up in the air and he said, “And the next thing to do is…” And then he went.
Timing is everything. What is the accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
I get asked that a lot. I always have the same answer. It’s called The Sound of Jazz. I’ve always been so grateful that he [Whitney Balliett] asked me to be part of it. And then this wonderful, the greatest television producer who ever lived. If you look him up in the encyclopedias of television, they don’t even mention him—Robert Herridge, not only in jazz, but all kinds of things. I went to see Herridge with Whitney and he said, “Look, I want pure jazz. I want like my Partisan Review jazz.” I didn’t like that one, I don’t think he read it carefully. “I don’t care if there are names or whatever. I just want what you guys know about.” Then he made it clear that there would be no things like Timex All Stars. It’s going to be in a studio. That’s the set. It’ll be live. He proved this to be true. He said, “I’ve been at CBS a long time. I know the right camera people. I’m going to tell them, if they’ve got a good shot, do it. Don’t wait for us in the control room.” And that’s the way it turned out.
Billie [Holiday] was mad at me for awhile. Because we were doing another rehearsal or soundcheck, she says to me, “I just bought a gown for $500 to be on this.” That was a lot of bread then. I said, “Billie, look around, you see the guys have hats on, it’s like rehearsal, that’s the set.” Oh, she was steaming. After the show, after one of the best scenes in the history of music when Billie and Lester were talking to each other in their music, I came into the studio and Billie rushes toward me and kisses me. So I figure that’s a hell of an award.
Did you read in Robin Kelley’s Monk biography how Monk was chagrined by having Basie sitting right in front of him as he played?
I didn’t realize that. We didn’t set that up, you know. Basie was just curious. Well, Monk was very much into what he did, so I think he might have been distracted somewhat. I was in Monk’s apartment one day and Gigi Gryce comes bursting in and he said, “Monk, Monk, I just got into Juilliard!” And Monk, as usual, didn’t say anything for awhile, then he looked at him and said, “Well, I hope you don’t lose it there.” That’s what I dig about these guys. Just being with them. Most of the guys I’ve gotten to know, I enjoyed them as people as well as musicians.
That show was the best thing that could happen to me. I don’t know why Whitney got me involved in The Sound of Jazz. Boy, that was some experience.
That show really holds up. It’s of a time yet timeless.
Knowing in front that they were going to be shot as they were and it was all live. It was like backstage at a festival. Some of them hadn’t seen each other for a while. It was like a family. Sure, Roy was always trying to play the best he could. But it was a wonderful feeling all through that hour.
The biggest kick I had next to that isn’t writing, though I’ve had some. But to be able, for a short time to actually have something to do with getting music out at Candid. Like Booker Ervin. Mostly what really got to me was being to record Booker Little. He died so young. And of course to record Mingus the way we did that. It was like The Sound of Jazz. I never did anything but keep track of the tracks. And I sent out for beer and sandwiches. Once in a great while, somebody would bring in an arrangement that was so thick that they’d get lost in it and then I’d come in and say, softly, “Why don’t we play a blues.” But otherwise, I was just a spectator.
How old were you then? In your early forties?
Yeah, that was around 1959 or 1960.
I guess you get those big fat royalty checks from those.
You know I never even thought of that. It’s like the one book I’ve done that has done well all over the world. The one that Nat Shapiro and I did [Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya]. Neither of us thought of that. We never thought of foreign rights. Every once in a while somebody in Finland or Korea wants to do something and Nat’s daughter and I split something.
How many records and CDs do you have in your place? How many books? What do you do with all your stuff?
I live right next door to where I work. Where I work is so bad that my wife won’t come in any more because the last time some books fell on her. It’s terrible. I sometimes spend a lot of time looking for something I just had. The thing is, I have so many deadlines, I always want to take care of that and file, and then the time is gone. The only advantage is serendipity. Sometimes I’m looking for something and I find something I forgot I had. That’s fun.
Read Lee Mergner’s Farewell remembrance of Nat Hentoff. Originally Published