Interview: Nat Hentoff (Part 1)


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By any measure, Nat Hentoff is a giant of jazz journalism. It's impossible to write about the music or interview jazz musicians today without thinking of Nat and the print trails he has blazed since the early 1950s. Before Nat, jazz writing consisted largely of publicists banging out pun-riddled notices and articles that had more in common with promotional copy than modern reporting. Growing up in Boston in the 1940s, Nat saw the enormous sensitivity and energy required to perform jazz well. By adapting both traits, Nat helped to invent the new jazz journalism--a modern style rooted in intellectual thought, reportorial skill and insider anecdotes. His approach was a radical change from the cute phrases and partisan hype favored by many of his early peers. To pull this off, Nat needed to win jazz musicians' trust, which came in short order once they saw in him an honest and impartial champion.

Author and editor of more than a dozen books on jazz (and even more on his other passions--liberty and education), Nat has written hundreds of jazz album liner notes, magazine articles and columns. His hallmark has always been fluidity with the language mixed with an insider's perspective wrapped around juicy stories of jazz. Nat's gift also has been the ability to make all readers understand why jazz matters. Today, Nat is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, JazzTimes and Jazz.com.

In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Nat, 83, the legendary jazz writer talks about growing up in Boston, how he landed a job at Down Beat in 1953 and what he did to get fired in 1957:

JazzWax: Do you listen to jazz while you write?
Nat Hentoff: It's very interesting you ask that. Most of what I write these days is so depressing, like the continuous genocide in Darfur and all kinds of other stuff, that I find I must stop once in a while and listen to jazz. Otherwise I'd be in a booby hatch. I always remember what Merle Haggard [pictured] told me. Merle knew a lot about jazz and could play it when the venue was right. Merle once said. “Sometimes I get so far down that nothing will pick me up except music."

JW: What were you just listening to?
NH: John Pizzarelli. I'm interviewing him soon for a series of TV interviews that are being recorded at the Blue Note club in New York for eventual broadcast on PBS. I get the transcripts of my interviews so I can write about the subjects. I had heard John in the past, but I had no idea how good this guy is. You want a definition of swing? Just listen to John Pizzarelli. He lifted me way up just before you called.

JW: So which came first, Nat Hentoff or jazz?
NH: [Laughs] The music that came first for me goes back at least 2,500 years. That's the cantorial music I heard when I was a kid. Back then I had to be in our orthodox shul on the Jewish high holidays, and I was so taken by the sounds and the passion of the cantor. I knew something of what he was singing. Most of the time it seemed like he was arguing with god. Later I learned that what he was doing was undertaking the practice of taking one note and singing variations on it. That got to me.

JW: When did jazz hit you?
NH: When I was 11 years old, I was walking down the main street in Boston. In those days, record stores had PA systems so you could hear the music outside the stores. And I heard something so striking that I shouted out loud. You didn't often do that in Boston back then. I rushed in and asked the clerk what was playing. It was Artie Shaw's Nightmare. Years later I found out that Artie got that theme from a theme a cantor used.

JW: You hung out at the Savoy Cafe on Massachusetts Ave. when you were still in your teens, yes?

NH: Yes. The people who ran the Savoy were very kind. I was underage, but they let me in. That's how I got to meet so many jazz greats. Eventually, WMEX, a local radio station, let me announce live broadcasts there and play records on the air. But I was a regular at the Savoy even before I was on the station. Once I started on the radio, I used to interview jazz greats. One time I was interviewing Coleman Hawkins [pictured]. I told him that I understood the feeling in Charlie Parker's playing but that I had grown up with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and didn't quite get Bird's approach.

JW: What did Hawkins say?

NH: He asked if I had one of those Charlie Parker records. I did. So we put it on in the studio, and he made me listen to everything Bird was doing. When Hawk was finished, I completely understood why Bird was special. It was a very valuable lesson.

JW: You were a bright kid. After graduating from Northeastern University in Boston, you studied at Harvard.
NH: Well, I didn't study at Harvard long. I enrolled because the university had started the first major curriculum in American Civilization. I was fascinated by the subject, and there was a wonderful professor there who initiated the program. But something was drawing me away. One day when I was in Widener Library, another professor of mine came up to me. He had listened to me regularly on WMEX.

JW: What did he say?
NH: He said, “What are you still doing here? It seems what you care about most is the music and that you'd be better off doing it."

JW: Did you take his advice?
NH: Not immediately. That came soon afterward. While writing a paper on James Fenimore Cooper, the 19th century historical novelist, I found out that the guy had never even met any Indians. I liked what Cooper had written in his fiction, but he seemed like a fraud. I thought, how could this guy write about a subject with which he had no first-hand knowledge? Sidney Bechet was playing at the Savoy Cafe that night, so I closed my books and went down there to hear him. That marked the end of my Harvard ambition. I decided there and then that I had to have a day job that involved writing about jazz.

JW: Soon drummer Jo Jones befriended you and became your mentor whenever he came to town. Do you think he sensed that jazz's story was in your hands?
NH: Oh, I think Jo was smarter than that [laughs]. Jo was a missionary about the music, like Art Blakey later. Jo figured it was his job to keep jazz writing and the music itself free of imperfections. He didn't like people who were on junk, for example. He knew I was beginning to write seriously about jazz. So he sat me down one night at the Savoy and gave me a lecture. He said, “You gotta be careful about what you do. Know what your doing and get to really know the musicians, because that's what the music is all about." His comments were invaluable. He was telling me that for my writing to be accurate and credible to my audience, I had to get close to the participants and involve them and their stories. [Photo of Jo Jones in 1944 by Gjon Mili for Life]

JW: Jo was quite a role model.
NH: Oh, yes. My favorite Jo Jones story was one Max Roach told. Jo was notorious for showing up suddenly at other drummers' gigs when he wasn't working. Max was playing one time in Chicago, and when he looked out in the audience, there was Jo. “Oh my god," Max said to himself. So he played everything he could think of on his drums. Afterward, Max waited for Jo's magisterial response. Jo came up to Max and said, “All I could hear was your watch." [laughs]

JW: Eventually you returned to your studies, this time at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950.
NH: That was on a Fulbright Scholarship. What I wanted to do was study the contrast between T.S. Eliot and Paul Valery. They both looked at everything in life in such a different way and so brilliantly.

JW: How did it go?
NH: I must confess that I never wrote about them. When I got to Paris, I did go to the Sorbonne. But I also went to the jazz clubs and the movies. That's how I learned to speak bad French. Of course, I never got to the subject that brought me there in the first place. I was too captivated by the jazz and overwhelmed by the beauty there. I was in Paris for about a year.

JW: When you returned to the States, who gave you your big break as a jazz writer?
NH: I started out as a stringer because I was hanging around at the Savoy and other Boston jazz clubs. A stringer is someone who writes regularly for many different publications. During this period I got to know producer Norman Granz. He'd call me often to let me know when he was bringing Jazz at the Philharmonic to Boston. We eventually became friendly. Contrary to general knowledge, Norman wasn't brusque. He actually was very nice to me. At one point in 1953, Leonard Feather who had been the New York editor of Down Beat, decided to leave the magazine. I don't remember why. So the magazine was looking for a replacement. Norman knew the publisher and had enormous pull since he advertised in the magazine.

JW: What did Norman do?
NH: He called the publisher and said, “Why don't you try this guy Hentoff?" That was the big difference, and I was hired.

JW: Was Down Beat a comfortable fit for you from the start?
NH: Yes--until I did a terrible thing in 1957.

JW: What did you do?
NH: First let me give you some background. It was a jazz fan's dream to work at Down Beat. I spent all my time on the music and in the clubs. I'd interview the guys and hang out with them as far as I could. Eventually I got to be close friends with many of them. I grew very friendly with [Charles] Mingus from the first days he came to Boston with Billy Taylor. Duke [Ellington] also was very kind to me. He was another one of my mentors. I learned something very interesting about interviewing through Duke.

JW: What?
NH: Duke was always very helpful when I was writing about him and his band. But one time I was too sick to come to an interview we had scheduled and asked if we could do it by phone. So we did, and I encountered a very different Duke.

JW: What changed?
NH: When we had met face-to-face in the past, Duke had always been “on." He was an entertainer and a huge personality, so that was to be expected. But over the phone, there was a transformation. Without having to be “on," Duke was very serious and open. Duke was such a profound guy. He knew so much history, not just about the music. That's how I got a lot of the material for my books.

JW: Did your phone experience with Duke motivate you to interview others on the phone?
NH: I don't do all my interviews by phone. But I prefer it when the person I'm interviewing tends to be “on." Using the phone reinforces what I'm trying to do--get to the truth.

JW: So what did you do wrong at Down Beat?
NH: Everything was going well. By 1957 we had offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But we did not have any blacks on staff in any capacity. And much of what we were writing about originated with these folks. One day we needed a receptionist or someone who did more than that. A woman came in. She was very bright, and I hired her. She was black. The boss in Chicago, the owner, was furious.

JW: What did he say?
NH: He never said anything. But when I came in on Monday after I made the hire and after working all weekend on copy, I received a message it was to be my last week at Down Beat. I had hired the woman without consulting headquarters.

JW: So you left.
NH: I didn't leave. I was pushed. The same thing happened after 50 years at the Village Voice recently. I was fired. I was so surprised by the move by the Voice. Afterward I was reading my own obituaries in newspapers and magazines. But the Voice firing turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

JW: How so?
NH: It led to a senior fellow position at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. The bread isn't the same but it's pretty close. It's very stimulating place to be for a libertarian and strong civil liberties advocate like me.

JW: How did you get jazz greats to trust you early on?
NH: [Laughs] I don't think there's a formula for that. I was always so surprised they were willing to open up and talk.

JW: What do you think your secret was?
NH: For years I'd see reporters come in with lists of questions to ask. They had to get through that list, no matter what. You'd never do that with jazz artists. Forget the questions. Listen. Duke used to say to me, “I don't want people listening to my music to analyze what the chords are or what we're doing with the rhythms. I want them to open up to the music." It's the same thing with interviewing. I just listen, and the questions come from that.

JW: So musicians felt you were laid back, without the outward pressure of an agenda?
NH: I don't know what the reason is, but I'm grateful for it. If they hadn't been so eager to tell me what they really felt about the music and their lives, I never would have written anything worthwhile.

JW: Did you ever write something that caused an artist pain?
NH: I used to do record reviews for Down Beat and was very pleased when I no longer had to do that. I often had to review a lot of stuff that I didn't like. It bothered me that I was affecting some people's livelihoods when I was unhappy with a recording. What I've done ever since leaving Down Beat is to write only about recordings that move me. That makes me feel less guilty.

Tomorrow, Nat talks about Benny Goodman, Charlie Ventura, Thelonious Monk, Don Byas and the benefits of becoming close friends with jazz greats.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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