Riverwalk Jazz Interviews Nat Hentoff


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Author and columnist Nat Hentoff is one of America's most revered commentators on jazz. This week on Riverwalk Jazz, host David Holt caught up with the 85-year-old at his home in Greenwich Village to talk about the people and personalities covered in his new book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene.

Riverwalk Jazz is a weekly hour-long show distributed nationally by Public Radio International and heard on Sirius/XM's “Real Jazz" channel, as well as streamed from the show's website here.

You've likely read Hentoff's columns in The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice or Jazz Times. His books number in the dozens. The latest, At the Jazz Band Ball, is packed with stories he's collected over the years. He writes about rubbing shoulders with early icons of jazz—then turns on a dime to talk about hearing “the real thing" in today's up-and-coming artists.

Nat Hentoff will tell you that his love affair with jazz began when he was 11 years old, when he first heard Swing Era clarinet legend Artie Shaw. It launched a lifetime love of jazz —music that gave him, as he puts it, “ceaseless reason to shout out loud in pleasure."

Hentoff knew stride piano legend Willie "The Lion" Smith as a friend, and produced a record with him and Luckey Roberts in the late 1950s. Only much later, after the Lion's death, did Hentoff discover that the pianist was also a cantor (khazn) at an Orthodox black synagogue in Harlem. Hentoff finds no contradiction in this. As he notes, cantorial singing in the Jewish liturgical setting involves a great deal of improvisation. He goes on, ..."[cantors] are telling stories and that kind of intense sound...that's all through the history of jazz." Hentoff reflects that the Lion often had that “sort of meditative, often exalting feeling" in his playing and composing.

Onstage at The Landing, pianists Dick Hyman and John Sheridan capture this with their spectacular duet performance of The Lion's “Echo of Spring."

Hentoff is just as quick to recognize newly discovered talent in jazz. For example, he has high praise for recent Riverwalk Jazz guest artist Catherine Russell. He says, “I didn't even know the name Catherine Russell and as soon as I heard three or four bars— I shouted out loud! She has it—and what she has, is the 'pulse of life.'"

In this wide-ranging interview, Hentoff talks about his being mentored by Duke Ellington, and Clark Terry's passion for mentoring others, as well as the importance of “space" in jazz as exemplified by both Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. And, Nat tells us why he so admired the late clarinetist Kenny Davern, who graced the Landing bandstand a number of times.

Nat Hentoff was the New York editor of Down Beat magazine from 1953 through 1957. In 1955, Hentoff co-authored with Nat Shapiro Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It, a landmark book in jazz with excerpts from interviews, letters and autobiographies from many jazz icons, including—Louis Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Hoagy Carmichael, Jelly Roll Morton, Mary Lou Williams, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker. Hear Me Talking to Ya has become an invaluable resource for historians, and has been referenced in almost every jazz book written since its publication.

About this remarkable work Nat says, “We decided we'd put together a book written by the musicians themselves, and the history of this music, and that had not been done before." Asked, if in the process of editing the book he discovered a common trait among jazz musicians, Hentoff says, “Most of them are very honest. The music comes from inside them and I guess this is part of a totality, a Gestalt if you'd like. They tell you what they really think."

Nat says, “The most important thing I've ever been associated with was a television show called The Sound of Jazz.“ The live, hour-long 1957 broadcast was one of the first on American network television to feature jazz. Nat and writer Whitney Balliett were responsible for booking the all-star line-up of musicians, which included, among others; Count Basie, Henry “Red" Allen, Thelonius Monk, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Milt Hinton and Ben Webster.

Particularly memorable was the performance of “Fine and Mellow" featuring Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Although closely associated with each other early in their careers, the two artists had drifted apart over the years and were reunited one last time for the TV broadcast.

Nat remembers that moment of over 50 years ago. “Billie was singing a couple of her own songs and it was something to watch in the control room. You could see in that sequence how they were talking to each other in their music and in their eyes. I've never had that experience before. They were communicating, long ago and in a private place...it is so moving that in the control room there were tears in our eyes."

Nat shares with us this parting thought, “I sometimes imagine what my life would have been like if it weren't for jazz. Once you get into it, you can never get enough of it. I'll leave you with this—every once in a while writing about my day job I get so down I have to stop. I literally stop and put on a recording, and then that sound, that feeling, that passion for life gets me up and shouting again and I can go back to grim stuff of what's happening in the rest of the world."

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