In the introduction to At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene, published by University of California Press, Nat Hentoff, who worked for The Village Voice for decades before being rudely dismissed in 2008, described how as an 11-year-old, he heard some Artie Shaw music emanating from a Boston record shop and was changed forever.
"It still makes me shout aloud in pleasure, as I did then," he writes. "Or, when I'm so far down nothing else can lift me up, Charles Mingus, Duke, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and so many other carriers of the life force bring me back alive."
As he admits, he was never a good enough musician (clarinet) to join his idols in the terrain of sound; but first through a radio show in Boston and then using his typewriter, he made many jazz greats his mentors. A sampling of his interviews, reviews and appreciations of these monumental artists is what fills this new collection.
But there's more to Hentoff than just music. As Lewis Porter, a pianist and professor of music at Rutgers University Newark, writes in the foreword, Hentoff was born on June 25, 1925, in Boston, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Simon Hentoff and Lena Katzenberg. After working at that Boston radio station for a short time, Hentoff set off for New York in 1953 to serve as the city editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat. He hasn't left Manhattan since.
It was at this time, Porter tells us, that Hentoff's second career — as a political reporter — kicked in, "notably during his 50-year tenure at the Village Voice."
In fact, it was Hentoff's very personal politics, explains Porter, that got him writing about such matters in the first place. "He was fired from Down Beat in 1957," explains Porter, "for hiring a staff person of color, against the rules of the then owner of the magazine (somewhat shocking to us today, for a magazine about music of black Americans!)." It took Hentoff a few months, but eventually he was approached by the Voice to write a column; he said he would — just as long as it was about something other than jazz.
So, politics became his focus.
Not that music was neglected. While he was writing for the Voice, he was also contributing music columns to The Wall Street Journaland JazzTimes. Throughout his career, he has published many books that reflect both sides of his writing life. Notes Hentoff: "The life force of jazz across the world — resisting banning even within Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia — energized my day job: from reporting on keeping the Bill of Rights alive here to genocide in Darfur. Another area of reporting I'm increasingly pursuing is that of individualizing education in this country — in the schools and in the public square — to enable more of us to know why we're Americans, each with the fundamental right to be as free in our beliefs and expressions as the jazz originals in this book."
There's a connection between the two sides of his life, Hentoff insists, and it was the late, legendary drummer Max Roach who pointed out the link. Roach happened to be teaching then at the University of Massachusetts, and between classes he told Hentoff: "What we do musically as we tell our stories is based on each individual's listening intently to one another, and thereby creating a whole experience that has its own identity. Isn't that how we and the Constitution are supposed to work together?
"Those of us who are musicians and lifetime listeners to jazz remember how the first discovery of this music, at whatever age, was so exciting and self-enlarging, that we had to become part of it."
Hentoff's first experience with jazz as a boy is expanded on in one of the earliest pieces in this collection. In "My Debt to Artie Shaw," the critic writes that before that transforming moment, "the only music that had affected me so viscerally was the passionate, mesmerizing, often improvisatory singing of the hazan, the cantor in Orthodox synagogues on the High Holiday days. The hazan sounded at times as if he were arguing with God, and the depth of his witnessing to the human condition later connected me with black blues."
There are other moments in this book when Hentoff delineates how Judaism and jazz overlap. In "Old Country Jewish Blues and Ornette Coleman," the critic discusses Ben Ratliff's book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, in which Ratliff asked 15 musicians for a list of five or six pieces of music he or she would like to listen to with him.
Writes Hentoff: "Ornette Coleman's first request startled me into freshly realizing … how central jazz has been to the unbroken circle of my life for more than 70 years. Ornette's choice was a recording by Josef Rosenblatt, a Jewish cantor (chazan) in a 1916 (that's not a typo) recording from the Sabbath services in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue (a shul). Ornette's selection jolted me back to when I was a boy, sitting next to my father, in a shul in Boston's Jewish ghetto.
"Ornette told Ratliff he first heard a Rosenblatt recording some 22 years ago when, in Chicago, a young man asked him to come by and listen to what he thought would interest Ornette.
"The reaction by Ornette: 'I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing, and praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those "notes." They don't exist.'
"That's what early listeners of Ornette's used to say," adds Hentoff.
The very next piece in the collection takes these points up a notch. Called "The Jewish Soul of Willie 'The Lion' Smith," it deals with the great stride piano player's indoctrination into Jewish music. It seems that Smith's mother was a laundress and her son delivered clean clothes to her customers, including a prosperous Jewish family who treated Willie like one of their own, "much like the Jewish family in New Orleans that brought young Louis Armstrong his first horn," writes Hentoff. "Every Saturday, when a rabbi came to the family home to teach Hebrew classes [sic], Willie was welcome to join in."
Hentoff tells us that later in life, the Lion of Judah "became a chazan himself at a Harlem synagogue of Black Jews!"
"What I would have given to have heard him there!" continues Hentoff. "Although I've been a Jewish atheist since I was 12, I would have become a member of that congregation. Had there been any objections, I'm certain Rabbi Smith [sic], with the vibrant force of his stride piano, would have told the objectors to learn the interconnectedness of us all — in music."
By stressing these references to Judaism, I may have misrepresented this collection. For Hentoff and his many subjects, jazz is unquestionably the indigenous music of African-Americans, though that doesn't mean the rest of us can't join in.
Hentoff's book mostly stays in a celebratory mood, especially when he's talking about his favorites like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Anita O'Day. He's an appreciator, a connoisseur, but he also makes room for some criticism of more current stars like Diana Krall and Jane Monheit; he doesn't quite think they make the cut as pure jazz singers.
The writer also introduced me — and perhaps you, if you're so inclined — to some new voices that I gratefully thank him for, among them Catherine Russell and Amanda Carr, both of whom he praises — rightly — to the skies.