At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene by Nat Hentoff

“I expect that if anything I’ve written about this music lasts,” writes Nat Hentoff in his latest jazz collection, “it will be the interviews I’ve done with the musicians for more than fifty years.” Hentoff’s interviews-such as those with Jon Faddis, Ron Carter and Clark Terry, collected here-are informed and entertaining, casual but insightful chats.

But Hentoff, whose “day job” he says is covering First Amendment issues, is wrong. It’s essays such as those comprising the bulk of this anthology, previously published in JazzTimes, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, that will survive the writer, who is now 85. Hentoff, as much as any of the musicians he admires, has lived the jazz life; he understands the jazz mindset and the relationship of jazz not only to the larger culture but to the larger world. Not so much a critic as a chronicler, Hentoff is at home within the music, knows where it’s been and how it got here, and he revels in it. His gift is his ability to pass along his knowledge, wisdom and elation without sinking to condescension or verbosity. Reading Hentoff, who personally befriended many of jazz’s most legendary creators and has witnessed personally many of its landmark moments, is akin to listening to war stories from a still-sharp old uncle-except that Hentoff’s stories are better.

He’s got his prejudices, undeniably. Armstrong and Ellington (to whom he devotes a four-essay section), in particular, have been mainstays of his work, but who can argue with that? He seemingly has little interest in the avant-garde, beyond the unavoidably groundbreaking Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. But one doesn’t read Hentoff for that, or to learn about technique or theory or the architecture of a solo. One reads Hentoff to better understand the genius of Anita O’Day, to learn about the neglected Willie “The Lion” Smith and the impact of Coltrane on the Israeli-born Anat Fort. One reads Hentoff to get the backstory on Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and another angle on artists already so exhaustively dissected-Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Mingus, even Quincy Jones and Sinatra-that the most startling revelation here may be that there is still something new to be said about them at all.