Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
November 6, 2003 & December 17, 2003
Edited by Don Ball
Q: What was it like growing up in Boston?
Nat Hentoff: Well, when I was growing up in Boston, that was during the Depression, back in the ‘30s. It was, for one thing, the most anti-Semitic city in the country. We won an award for that, if you can call it an award. And Father Charles E. Coughlin used to broadcast the most popular Sunday radio program there in the country, not only in Boston. And he was given to equating Jews as being both on the Politboro of Stalin and also the leading capitalists in the world. And as a result of [Coughlin's] newspaper called Social Justice, some of the kids whose parents read it would go out at night looking for Jews to avenge the death of Christ. So I grew up an outsider.
I had to go at the high holidays to the local synagogue or my father would have been most upset, and I was already an atheist by then but what struck me was the singing. The cantors largely improvised and they used melisma, which meant you'd have several syllables on one note very much like a jazz player would do it. And in the course of their songs, their prayers, they were arguing with God at times and that gave you a certain edge of passion that jazz has.
Q: When did you discover jazz?
Nat Hentoff: When I was about 11 years old, I was walking down one of the main streets, and in those days the record stores had a PA system, and I heard some sounds coming out. I was so excited that I yelled out in pleasure, which was not what a Boston boy would have done then.
I rushed into the store, ‘What was that? Who was that?" It was Artie Shaw's "Nightmare." And that got me involved. And I was working already–it was the Depression. So with whatever I earned I would haunt the secondhand record stores and I would buy, oh, one Billie Holiday, one Count Basie, and one Howlin' Wolf for a dollar. And when I was 19, there was a place called the Ken Club -- Sidney Bechet used to come there -- and the Savoy. And the Savoy is where I practically lived when I wasn't working. That was the jazz place in town. And when I was 19, I'd gone into radio at WMEX, and I had a regular jazz show, because they couldn't sell that time. And we started to do remotes from the Savoy. So I got to know a lot of the musicians, both on and off the air. I interviewed a number of them and began writing, first for a very small jazz magazine.
Then I became a stringer for Down Beat, and eventually came to New York as the New York editor of Down Beat. But my grounding in the music and in the people who made the music started in Boston. That's how I got to know Duke Ellington, Rex Stewart, and, in fact, Charlie Parker. He used to play a place called the Hyatt. So I got to know the musicians and that's how I got even deeper into the music. Through the radio show I became friendly with a number of them, and some were very generous with their time, like Duke Ellington and his sidemen.
Q: Do any tapes of your radio show exist?
Nat Hentoff: Oh there are some, come to think of it, at the University of New Hampshire, which has a classic jazz collection. They have some tapes of that show, and the remotes from the Savoy. There were also some painful erasures. I once did a Louis Armstrong interview for the program. We did it backstage at Symphony Hall. He'd worked hard all night, as he always did, but he was very gracious and we talked for over an hour about Jim Crow, and his experiences with that. And when I got to the station the next day they had erased the disc to save some money.
Q: Did you only present jazz on your radio show?
Nat Hentoff: No. I had a folk music program, which almost got me fired because I had Pete Seeger as a guest and others whom the boss was convinced were not only crypto-Communists but probably spies. Fortunately I was the shop steward of the union, which I'd helped organize. So although he wanted to fire me he couldn't. And I did a classical music program. And I did that in a way that I had not done any music program before. I did not announce the composer or the piece until it was over because I knew that a lot of people -- including me -- had stereotypes, [such as] Tchaikovsky wasn't really worth listening to, he was sentimental, and Bach was too remote. I got some very interesting reactions.
Q: Why did you gravitate towards jazz?
Nat Hentoff: Well, I am very much involved with all kinds of music. But jazz, because of its immediacy; well, as Jo Jones -- who was for many years Count Basie's drummer¬ -- once said, "In that music you can't hide; you play who you are, who you've been, who your parents were, whether you had an argument with your girlfriend or your boyfriend the night before."
And the immediacy, it always struck me as extremely powerful. And then getting to know the musicians. I mean, later as a journalist I've interviewed politicians and Supreme Court justices and the like. But by and large I'd rather spend time with jazz musicians because they have a legitimate distrust of authority: bookers and club owners, and critics especially. They have spirit and knowledge; they travel a lot.
So I remember talking to Ellington once. At the time Walter Lippmann was the most respected pundit and columnist. And Duke said, "Yeah, I read him, but I've been there before he was so I know all those things anyway." They knew an awful lot. But the free spirit that they have, which is in their music and to me is part of the First Amendment, that is something I've been writing about for many years. I see no disconnect (quite the opposite, actually) between jazz and free speech, free conscience, everything else.
WORKING FOR DOWN BEAT
Q: Well, let's talk about your tenure at Down Beat. In 1953 you became the associate editor?
Nat Hentoff: Yeah. That was largely due to Norman Granz. Norman had a reputation for being brusque and abrupt, but somehow we got along very well. And when Leonard Feather decided to leave as the New York editor of Down Beat, he recommended me to the publisher, and I came to New York and actually went into Birdland, which I'd been thinking about for a long time.
Q: Had you spent time in New York before?
Nat Hentoff: Not very much. The kind of pay I had, despite the union at WMEX, didn't allow for much traveling. [Down Beat] was a dream job because I got to know many more musicians. I spent most of my nights at the various clubs. I often went to recording sessions. And that taught me a lot.
Q: Can you describe the scene in New York in the '50s?
Nat Hentoff: Well, in terms of jazz it was a very lively scene. There was not only Birdland, there was Basin Street East, and there were many other clubs. I wasn't there at the height of 52nd Street, when Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge would be playing in clubs next to each other and musicians would go from one club to the other. But in the course of any week I would hear big bands and small combos. I got to know Charles Mingus very well.
I left Down Beat because I was fired, and that's part of a subtext of all this. I began to write in Down Beat about the music business and the fact that most musicians were not savvy as to contracts, which is why the advances were all they often got for their records. Jim Crow was in the business. The fact is that there were practically no executives in the record business who were other than white. And in the course of this I looked around and here was Down Beat, which existed to a large extent on Black music. There were no Blacks on the staff anywhere [at] the headquarters in Chicago, or in Los Angeles, or in New York.
We needed a receptionist. And a young woman came in who was black, and I hired her. And this greatly antagonized the headquarters in Chicago because at the headquarters, the man in charge was, let us say, both anti-Semitic and racist. So I got fired for that. I was allegedly fired for doing some outside freelance work, but the reason was, I found out, that I had gone over his head and actually hired somebody Black. Years later, when I wrote about this in a memoir, the young woman, not so young anymore, called me up and said that she enjoyed the story but she was Egyptian, but dark-[skinned]. Well, according to identity politics in those days, that would still qualify her as being Black.
So anyway, having been fired from Down Beat I freelanced, and then there was even more of a jazz fan stream. For a while I was an A&R man. It started when Lester Koenig -- who had a very good label on the West Coast called Contemporary Records -- wanted me to do some sides in New York. And I went out there and saw how he did it. He was very musician-friendly. I did some sets for him, including Willie "the Lion" Smith and Lucky Roberts. This was '58 and '59.
THE SOUND OF JAZZ
Q: Tell me how The Sound of Jazz television series originated?
Nat Hentoff: Back in 1957, I think, Robert Herridge -- who was the most creative, original producer in the history of television -- asked Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker and me [to do the series]. What he wanted was a typical Herridge statement: "I want something Partisan Review pure." That was a very well-known-among-literary-circles magazine at the time. He said, "I don't care about names. I just want you people to decide who you think we ought to run."
The moment that I thought was the highlight of the program -- maybe we should have stopped it there -- was when Billie Holiday came on. Now Billie hadn't heard me say this when we were talking about the show, saying, "You're not going to have to worry about how you're dressed. The guys are going to come in, many of them as they do at rehearsals and record studios. They come in wearing hats. So you don't have to worry." She came in the first day, we did the sound check, and she said, "I just bought a $500 gown," and I said, "Billie, you're going to look out of place if you do that." She got very angry at me. Anybody who has seen the show, the first shot [is] of Billie, in slacks as I remember it, walking among the musicians exchanging hellos, because they didn't get to see each other that often. They were usually on the road. And when the show was over she came over to me and kissed me and that was worth a whole lot.
What happened during the Billie Holiday set is that [she and Lester Young] had been very close for years. Billie is the one who had given Lester his nickname, "Prez," the president of the tenor saxophone, and he had given her the name she was always then known by, "Lady Day." Anyway, they had been very close for a long time but for some reason had no longer been close and Lester, at the session, was not feeling well. He didn't live much longer after that. He was originally supposed to be in the same front line in the Basie band with Coleman Hawkins but he wasn't able to make it, so I said, "Look. You're going to be in the Billie Holiday section. Just sit down and play a chorus." Billie was singing "Fine and Mellow," one of the very few songs she wrote and one of the very few blues she ever sang, although everything she sang had the blues in it. She began to sing and Lester got up and he blew the purest blues solo I've ever heard and the camera got them both and you could see their eyes meet and Billie had a kind of a smile on her face, but more than that it was as if she and he were both remembering, he through the horn, she through her eyes and her voice, what they had been to each other, what they still meant to each other.
In the control room, I had tears in my eyes, so did the director, so did Herridge. It was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had, and I think a lot of the people who have watched the show had the same experience. It was live by the way. TV was live at the time. So when somebody says, "What's the most important thing you ever did?" it's very easy for me to say, "The Sound of Jazz."
Q: How did you end up working for Candid Records?
Nat Hentoff: Archie Bleyer, who was a very well known bandleader at the time, also had a record company called Cadence which specialized in pop music. He decided he wanted to do something for jazz. So he set up this independent label [Candid Records] and he financed it, and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. And I forewarned him that he wouldn't get many royalties for a long time to come. Because of jazz in Europe and, in Asia -- especially Japan -- the records did pretty well. But after about two and a half years he shut it down, not because of what I was recording but because the pop music business began to change. But during that time I recorded Mingus, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln -- all kinds of people.
Q: How did you choose who you wanted to work with?
Nat Hentoff: Well, people I respected and liked, and who were available. For example, I didn't think Max would be available, he was so well known. But he and Abbey and Oscar Brown Jr. had put together something called the Freedom Now Suite, which was at the time one of the first (there were many others after that) jazz expressions of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. And I asked Max about it and he said nobody wanted to record it. So we recorded it. And we knew we had validated it because it was immediately banned in South Africa. I also got to know an extraordinary young trumpet player and composer who died very young, Booker Little.
What I did as an A&R man, I did with very little involvement in the music itself. After all, I hired a musician who then wanted to hire his own sidemen. Most of the time, all I did was send out for beer and sandwiches and keep the timing going. And once in a while, if somebody came in with a lot of paper, a lot of manuscript, and they got stuck in it, I would come out from the booth -- I wouldn't yell from the booth, I hated that -- I'd come out in the studio and say, "Hey, why don't we play some blues?" It always worked. And sometimes we'd use the blues in the album. And on the final editing always, without exception, the musician did the final cut. I wouldn't have the nerve to do anything otherwise. And I recorded Cecil Taylor, who at the time (and ever since) was very, very controversial and very individual, to say the least. It was a great experience.
The closest relationship I think I had was with Charles Mingus. Every once in a while, about 8 or 9 in the morning, I'd get a call where I was working and I'd hear music, and about five or six minutes into it he'd get on and say, "Well, what'd you think of that? I just finished that early this morning." When I had a chance to record anybody I wanted for Candid Records, the way we did on The Sound of Jazz, Mingus came on and we did two albums with a band he had been with for a year in New York. They knew exactly what they were going to do, and then they kept surprising themselves. That session was, he thought, one of the best he'd ever done. I remember he asked at the beginning, "Turn down the lights." He wanted it to be like a nightclub.
I've been asked since then to go back into the studio. There were a few people I'd like to record now but I figured I might as well stay where I am because I don't want to do anything less than that.
THE STATE OF JAZZ
Q: What do you think about the fact that so many of the major labels have divested themselves almost completely of jazz. Is this a trend?
Nat Hentoff: Well, like much of everything else in the popular culture, they go by the bottom line. What [the major labels] have done -- because it doesn't cost them nearly as much money -- is put out an enormous number of reissues, like Sony Legacy, which is part of Columbia. That's very valuable. The problem, of course, is that the newer players who come can't get contracts with the big labels [and] don't have that distribution. But some of the smaller labels are coming through, and musicians are trying to sell their music online. I'm still depressed, though, by the low percentage of jazz records being sold. I think it's 3 or 4 percent of the total, or something like that.
That, to me, is hard to explain because there are now so many courses in jazz at colleges, and so many high schools have at least some kind of introduction to the music. You've got Lincoln Center with their Ellington competition for high schools.
One of the problems is not enough radio. And I blame National Public Radio for that, because not only have the commercial record companies been cutting out jazz, but National Public Radio -- which claims to be an alternative station or a network where you can get stuff that you can't get anywhere else -- they've been going by the numbers, and they've cancelled a number of their jazz programs, including Jazz Profiles. And I think that is false advertising on their part. But in some cities you do get all-jazz stations or pretty close to it, like WBGO in Newark, NJ. WGBH has some pretty good jazz. But if there were more radio, and more television -- I mean, Ken Burns' [PBS series Jazz], controversial as that series was, did a great service because there were millions of Americans who had very little idea, if any, of Ellington or Parker or whatever. But television has not settled its debt with jazz just by that series.
I've just done work for the BBC on a three-parter on Norman Granz and possibly may do a program on Max Gordon who ran the Village Vanguard, on Abbey Lincoln, and on Billie Holiday. You don't get that on television here, and it's because I think either they're ignorant of the music, which is quite possible, or the numbers aren't good enough.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supported in part by public funds, and the rest of it by sponsors; and also they say to a large extent by listeners. And I wish more of the jazz listeners would converge and protest at the paucity of jazz on public radio, and especially on public television.
Here is National Public Radio, as we talk, almost literally having gotten a $200 million grant from McDonald's, and where is that money going to go to? Will even 2 percent of that go to jazz programming? Not according to the statements by the people who run the cultural side of that. And while it's fine to have news -- and NPR does a reasonably good job of that -- if they're pretending also to be culturally not only involved but providing music and every other kind of culture that you can't get on commercial radio, then why do they keep acting like commercial radio when it comes to jazz?
Q: I want to talk a little bit about the complicated role that you have as a journalist where of course you have developed very close friendships throughout your history with musicians, but when you are writing about their music I'm sure that sometimes you can alienate people, and there's sort of a long-standing tradition of musicians being suspicious about writers.
Nat Hentoff: They certainly should be. In fact, I once wrote about Horace Silver, the pianist, who was a very amiable guy, commending him about his angular style. So he said to me, "Show me on the piano what that means."
I used to play classical clarinet, studied some theory, but I really am not by any means a musician's musician. And I used to brood about that. And finally one day, I was walking down the street, and Gil Evans was coming toward me -- Gil, who was the master arranger and composer of Sketches of Spain with Miles. So I decided to make him my confessor, and he said, "I wouldn't worry about, it because I know many musicians who can tell you exactly what the chords are, and what the passing chords are, and all that, but they lack a certain amount of knowledge and taste. And I know you, I know what you listen to, I know what you write, so I don't think you have to have the technical knowledge." That made me feel better; however, when I stopped writing for Down Beat, I stopped reviewing all the records that I had to review. Only since then have I written about -- either in The Wall Street Journal or Jazz Times -- records I think people ought to hear. That removes a certain amount of the concern. What I've done, more often than not, in terms of articles -- and liner notes, which I regard as articles -- is to interview the musicians. And I figure some of that information, not from me but from them, does get into biographies and books.
John Coltrane [and I], we used to have a ritual. I'd get a new set that he had done, I'd call him up and he'd say, "Gee I wish you wouldn't write the notes because if the music doesn't speak for itself, what's the point?" And I would say, "John, it's a gig." And he was a friendly fellow and he said, "Okay, what do you want to know?" So some of those notes contain some of what John had to say about his evolvement -- both spiritually and musically, which were the same thing with him -- that I think were of some value.
As for friendships, there was a very well-known jazz critic who used to tell me, "I will never get friendly with the musicians because that will color my writing, one way or the other, because some of them I might get friendly with and find out that they're very bad people." But then he began to write profiles and he said, "Well, I guess I can't keep to that principle."
I used to feel bad when I would write reviews that might cost a musician a gig or some money. I never, for example, liked Charlie Ventura's playing and I said so, and I was glad when I stopped reviewing records I didn't like. But in terms of friendships the only time that became a problem [was when] I became a very close friend of Paul Desmond, who was not only one of the most lyrical, romantic players, but a very witty man. But he did a set with strings, and I was writing for Down Beat then and I figured, "Look he's a friend of mine, but I don't like the record." That chilled our friendship for quite awhile.
You know, musicians are as sensitive as critics and as policemen -- they don't like to be criticized. But that is a problem when you get to know them. If something comes along that you figure is not their best work. Well, I don't have to do that anymore because I don't have to write that kind of a review.
For many years I [have only written] about what I like, when somebody has fallen out of favor and almost out of being talked about at all -- Dave McKenna comes to mind. He is not only a two-handed, but probably a three-handed pianist, an extraordinary musician, and I found out he was no longer able to play because of [carpal tunnel syndrome]. And nobody was recording him, but there was a re-release. So I did a profile of him for The Wall Street Journal, which made him feel, I hope, that he wasn't entirely forgotten. That could be a function of somebody who writes about the music.
Q: What about, for lack of a better term, the changing appreciation you might have for someone's music? When you first hear it maybe you're cold on it, but as you listen to it you change your opinion. Is that okay as a writer and critic?
Nat Hentoff: I think you have to. The best musicians keep changing. The classic example for me is that I grew up on the alto saxophone playing of Johnny Hodges. I was so in awe of Johnny Hodges. I played a little alto myself, and when I first had a chance to meet him at the stage door of the RKO Theatre, I was so in awe I couldn't speak.
And then Benny Carter, whom I admired a lot, and then came Charlie Parker. What were all those notes? And I was interviewing -- I think it was Coleman Hawkins -- while I was still in radio, and we had those turntables that could play 16 and one-third discs. And whoever it was, it was either Hawkins or Ben Webster, said, "Why don't you put the Charlie Parker on 16 and one-third?" So I began to hear what he was doing within my old anachronistic way. And then I heard him live, and I heard that passion coming out of him, and that torrent of ideas. So that changed me.
Q: What about with Coltrane?
Nat Hentoff: Coltrane. I think that it was Ira Gitler who talked about "sheets of sound," and that may have influenced my listening at first, although even then, at the beginning, he was playing ballads as well. So it was clear to me that he had a lot to say. And I remember Miles Davis telling me when Coltrane was in the band, Miles was not too happy with the solos that went on for a long time, and so he used to say to ‘Trane, "Can't you put that into a shorter frame?" [Coltrane] used to play at the Village Gate, and sometimes a set would consist of one number. So my way of hearing Coltrane evolved.
But then somebody named Don Ayler, the trumpet player, who was the brother of Albert Ayler, gave me an important lesson. Albert Ayler was even more controversial than Bird, when he first came on the scene. And his brother said, "Don't listen for the melody or where the rhythms are going, or the harmonies. Listen. Open yourself to the whole thing, the whole mosaic, as it were." And that was very useful, and that also helped in listening to the later Coltrane.
Ellington, there was a sideman who came into his band [and] he said to Duke, just before a set began, "Well, what do I do in this chorus? Where are the chords?" And Ellington looked at him and said, "Listen sweetie, listen." And he said to me once what he hoped would happen when people hear his music was that they wouldn't try to analyze it, that they would listen to the whole of it. And he said something at the same time that always stuck in my mind. He said, "You know, we listen. If Johnny Hodges is playing one of those very liquid, romantic solos, and somebody on the dance floor sighs, well that sigh becomes part of our music."
So listening is the whole thing, not categorizing, not labeling. I have very little patience with people who talk about modern jazz, postmodern jazz. Ellington once told me years ago that he was very annoyed reading critics: "They talk about modern jazz. What they're talking about I heard cats doing in the 1920s." When I recorded Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell for Candid, it was called A Jazz Reunion because in 1929 they recorded a song called "Hello, Lola," both Coleman and Pee Wee. So after we did "Hello, Lola" again after all these years, Hawkins said to me, "You know, back in the ‘20s they used to say Pee Wee played funny notes. They weren't funny then -- they're not funny now." So that's when I learned that you don't think in categories. Somebody like Clark Terry, how can you say he's not on the cutting edge? Anybody who plays with passion and swings and has his own sound is on the cutting edge.
I once interviewed Lester Young, who was, at the time, probably the hippest man around. And we had a long talk, and as I was leaving his house -- he was in Queens then -- he said, "By the way, do you like Dixieland?" And I said, "Yeah, when it's good." He said, "Me too." But, you know, there's a magazine called Mississippi Rag, which points out that this whole traditional jazz scene is pretty much ignored in most of the jazz magazines now. You hear it very seldom on the radio, yet some of it is great stuff.
THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
Q: Can you tell me about how you approach an interview?
Nat Hentoff: Well, what makes a good interview? In fact I was just saying this to the class I have at the NYU Graduate School of Journalism. You go into an interview knowing at least enough about the person, about the field of expertise that that person is in, so you can have a conversation with him in which he recognizes that he doesn't have to spend time filling you in on the elementals; otherwise most of the interview goes by and you have nothing that is of any real use.
Many of them I knew, but I'd try to find out even more about them. I would certainly, in terms of liner notes, or just their performances, listen even harder if I knew I was going to interview them. And so the conversation would be not among equal -- I was not their equal as a musician -- but we had a common frame of reference at least about that person and about the music that he had spent his life on. And then it was simply a matter of letting him talk.
I am not an aggressive interviewer, and I have, I guess you could call it a trick. I found out that Mike Wallace has been doing the same thing for years. At the end of an interview I will always say, "And oh, by the way, is there anything I've forgotten to ask that you think is relevant?" Sometimes nothing happens but sometimes you get the best part of an interview. But the interviews were conversations. And there are some beginning reporters, I guess, who come in with a list of questions and they want to make sure they get from one to five. Forget that, let the interview take its own shape, and let the interviewee decide where the interview is going. It doesn't mean you're passive but you learn a lot by things that surprise you.
Even though I didn't know all the technical stuff, if you'd listen long enough, and you know from that what else to listen for, then maybe you can do it and write about it. But again, I am very happy that I no longer affect anybody's gigs or income. I can interview them -- and that to me is the main contribution I've made, interviewing them -- and put those interviews into books like The Jazz Life and Jazz Is and Listen to the Stories and a new collection coming out of profiles called American Music, published by Da Capo. The title story of Listen to the Stories is about Charlie Parker. Bird used to hang out at a place called Charlie's Tavern in New York where a lot of jazz musicians went, and they had a jukebox. And for some reason there were some country songs on it, and that's what Bird always played. And the musicians didn't want to say anything; after all, this was Charlie Parker, but they thought why would he play all that corny stuff? So finally one of them got the courage one day to say, "Hey, Bird, why do you listen to that?" And Charlie Parker looked at him and said, "Listen to the stories." And of course the stories of humankind, that's country music too. I mean, Merle Haggard is one of the great songwriters of our time. And there's a lot of Black in country music, which a lot of people don't know about. Bob Wills -- who created Western swing, which was a lot of jazz -- when he was working on a farm, he used to ride 90 miles to hear Bessie Smith sing somewhere. There's a lot of interrelationship there.
I was talking to Merle Haggard -- who by the way knows an awful lot about jazz, and he has a band that can play jazz, when the venue is right -- for example, his favorite guitarist was Django Reinhardt. And Merle himself mentioned some New Orleans people I'd never heard of. I was embarrassed; I had to go home and look them up. But he himself is a man of moods. And he said, "You know, there are some times when I get so down that nothing can lift me up but music." And that's been true of me and jazz for all my life. I mean, I get burnt out writing about the Constitution and what's happening to it, or something personal, and I'll put on Billie or Ben Webster or Wycliffe Gordon, and it lifts you up. It's more than therapy; it's the life force. Jazz is the life force for the musicians and for the listeners, and that's why it's invaluable.
Q: Last question: Do you feel like a Jazz Master?
Nat Hentoff: I am -- humbled isn't the word because I figure I do some pretty good work in that I get musicians to talk about themselves and that becomes part of the record. But not being a musician, I am still somewhat stunned to be called a Jazz Master, and that may be to some extent false labeling, but I'll leave that for the musicians to decide, and I'm sure they will one way or another.