If you asked me what was the highpoint of my two year Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship at Penn (1957-59), I wouldn’t hesitate: the night Marshall Stearns invited me up to his Greenwich Village apartment to discuss with him and Nat Hentoff their plans to help George Wein field the first Jazz Critics Symposium at his Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. Captured for the eternally curious in Bert Stern’s film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (1960): the only historically comparable media event was Bob Herridge’s ”The Sound of Jazz” (CBS-TV, December 8, 1957), with the musicians chosen by “New Yorker” jazz critic Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff.
Up till now, before reading his second last book,”At the Jazzband Ball: Sixty Years of the Jazz Scene” (U of California Press, 2010), Nat was just a mental collection of jazz reviews. How serendipitous to encounter in the Franz Liszt Musical College this new view of his “autobiography” (in quotes , because the book is mainly about the jazz headliners he interviewed over the decades for their nonmusical views). But for the first time, I got to know the man behind the jazz reviews.
That, for example, he’s slightly older than me (b. June 10,1925). That he’s been married three times: though he proudly brags that the last still extant one has already lasted over 50 years—Four--two girls and two boys to show: the first girl, a circus performer, the second a performing, composing pianist teacher. The boys have bloomed into legal eagles. So his children reflect his two sides: the jazz reviewer and the First Amendment fighter. His most impressive act was risking losing his first big job: New York Downbeat editor in 1957 for hiring a colored associate, against the wishes of his boss. His journalistic heroes I share, George Seldes and Izzie Stone. They set his standards mighty high, and he measured up. Both his parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. He love to brag that he “was a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.” (p. xiv.)
His career in radio was a fluke. He had worked in a candy store with an announcer at a Boston radio station. When his pal graduated from a teaching job, he got Nat a slot as an announcer. Hentoff talked himself into a jazz interview show with the likes of Duke Ellington and Rex Stewart in dead airtime. Dead in the sense that it wasn’t yet sold, but Nat soon made it very alive, and nurtured his reviewing career with those contacts. His passion for jazz began at age eleven when he passed a record shop loudly playing Artie Shaw records. He then attended Boston Latin, long regarded as the best public school in the country. He got his B.A. with highest honors at Boston’s blue collar Northeastern University. In 1950 he spent a year at Harvard, followed by a Fulbright at the Sorbonne.He came back to a short-lived (1952-57) stint at Downbeat after a clash with his racist boss.
Then he worked on the Jazz Review with Martin Williams (1958-61). Soon he was into multiculturalism at WMEX. “There were regular Italian, Swedish, country music and Jewish hours—the last featuring renowned cantors, who I told Charles Mingus at the time, were the Jewish version of deeply resilient blues singers.” (p.97.) Saturday nights in one of the studios they celebrated with black gospel music performed by Boston church choirs. "The disciplined, often virtuosic fervor of this witnessing has often regenerated me from then on.” (Strange Jewish atheist!) “I collected gospel recordings; and one Sunday morning, during a Newport Jazz Festival (I was there that year!PDH), hearing Mahalia Jackson in a church in town, made this nonbeliever able to imagine rewards if I could ever make that leap into faith.” He never made that jump, but boy did that music civilize him deeply.
Sometimes he was reduced to announcing wrestling matches at the Boston Arena, but he never gave up his commitment to jazz which was (before his national influence) a decidedly minority fad. And I don’t mean black majority! I was amazed to learn during his interview with Ron Carter that black Howard University forbade the great critic Sterling Brown to use jazz in his lectures! The brass felt the music had crummy origins that would detract from the status of their college. (I think this was a general contradiction in colored schools influenced by W.E.B Dubois’s concept of cultivating the Talented Tenth to liberate the Negro of all classes and aspirations.” Brown got around the problem cleverly. He used pieces like Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for Eleven Instruments” as well as jazz-influenced music by Milhaud. Then Brown proceeded: “Now,I’ll show you where it came from;” and he put on some Lucky Roberts and Duke Ellington.”(p.196.)
Nat explored another aspect of this black blindness. ”Some years later Adam Clayton Powell had a paper in New York in competition with Amsterdam News. I knew the editor. He knew jazz—I saw him at Jazz clubs—but he never used Jazz, and the implication was that it wasn’t right for the image. So what you said in that interview was that the black press, the black media, has a great deal of responsibility in the lack of, and the possibility of, increasing the visibility and viability of jazz”.(p.197.)
What an unnecessary impediment! (Call out the Jewish Atheists to spread the Gospel!) Louis Armstrong was upset about how little the New Orleans Schools did to promote jazz to the black and white kids. It would take another generation for Ellis Marsalis and his capable jazz family to take the curse off of one of America’s richest contribution to musical culture. No single man did more than Nat to break this foolish barrier.
Nat’s autobiography is a perfect complement to his prose on the arts of jazz . Teachers have no excuse anymore to keep quiet about the historical and contemporary achievements of jazz as an art form. It’s all here. Fresh, lively, controversial. You’ll never have so congenial a guide.