The Magazine

All That Jazz

Why Nat Hentoff remains a great critic.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By TED GIOIA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

American Music Is

by Nat Hentoff

DaCapo, 320 pp., $16.95

MUSICIANS AND CRITICS go together "like a horse and carriage," as in the old Sinatra song. Unfortunately, they often pull in opposite directions. In a surprisingly candid discussion at a recent New York convention of jazz educators, pianist Arturo O'Farrill surprised no one when he pointed out that musicians often sneer at the writers who review them. Though I've learned a tremendous amount about jazz from people who never blew a blue note--and seen brilliant performers espouse narrow-minded views about criticism--the divide that O'Farrill described is all too real.

I can only guess how Nat Hentoff would fare on a musical-ear test. But I have no doubt that he, perhaps more than any other jazz writer active today, has earned the respect of musicians. He often gained their friendship as well: an even rarer achievement when so many divisions (color of skin being only the most obvious) tend to separate people in the worlds of jazz. Hentoff's close relations with Paul Desmond, Charles Mingus, and Cecil Taylor--the whole range of modern jazz, from euphony to cacophony, is summed up in those names--testify to the catholicity of his tastes and his ability to gain the confidence of some of the toughest figures in twentieth-century music.

Even before Kenny G wore swaddling clothes, Hentoff had established his insider credentials. His 1955 oral history, Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, written in collaboration with Nat Shapiro, still stands as the most fully successful attempt to let jazz musicians tell their story in their own words. For historians, this book is as close to holy writ as you can get, the essence of insiderness--a knowledge of the real workings of jazz that Hentoff also demonstrated repeatedly during the mid-1950s as associate editor of the journal Down Beat. He followed this stint with an even more dicey commitment to producing jazz records while running the Candid label. This phase of his career lasted only a couple years, but during this brief spell, Hentoff showed an unfailing knack for championing the right musician at the right time, even when commercial considerations dictated otherwise.

The same qualities that distinguished Hentoff's work as a record producer also stand out in his writing. In a world of expediency, he remains a man of conviction. This is most evident in his political journalism, where Hentoff has never hesitated to make enemies on the left or the right. But the same dedication shapes his music writing. I suspect Hentoff possesses a masochistic streak, and he has built his career trying to lay down bricks in a bed of mud. But in both arenas, he is always refreshing.

HENTOFF'S LATEST COLLECTION has the unpromising name American Music Is. Are we being asked to fill in the blank? Or perhaps the title is a mere existential statement. But after the enigma of the cover, general readers will find many familiar names: Hentoff offers his views (along with anecdotes drawn from personal experience) of Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson, and others. And even seasoned jazz cats could learn some new names from these pages: Sonny LaRosa, for instance, who in his mid-seventies teaches young children to swing as part of America's Youngest Jazz Band; or Scott Robinson, a young player who pledges allegiance to the
C-melody saxophone, a sweet-sounding horn, no longer manufactured, that fell out of favor before the flappers of the Jazz Age had even stopped flapping.

Hentoff has always been the champion of the outsider, the idealist, and sometimes the merely prickly. No doubt this explains his attraction to jazz in the first place. And for the same reason, Hentoff (despite his persistence) will never be convincing as a commentator on country music. He may love the Heartland, but the instincts of this "Boston Boy" (the title of his 1986 memoir) will always keep him beyond the pale.

There are a few minor flaws in American Music Is, but none that should dissuade the prospective reader. A little careful editing would have fixed the repetitions. We are treated to an interesting account of Hentoff's first reaction to Elvis Presley (he mistook him on the radio for Mississippi blues singer Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup). But then the very same anecdote is repeated a few pages later. A piece on Sinatra refers to his "current guitarist." Ol' Blue Eyes died six years ago and is currently making do without a working band. Readers will understand that many of these pieces were published a few years back, but even so, some scrutiny and updating might have been expected.