In this collection of short pieces about jazz written over the past several decades -- one of which, "Giants at Play" (December 10, 2007), first appeared in these pages -- the veteran journalist/critic Nat Hentoff tells hundreds of interesting stories, some happy, some less so.
One of the sadder sagas is about the 1965 decision of the Pulitzer Prize board to revoke the music jury's grudging award to Duke Ellington for "the vitality and originality of his total work product." The 66-year-old Ellington was publicly gracious about the snub -- "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young" -- but in private was infuriated by the insult to jazz, and rightly so. Hentoff reports that the Pulitzer board has since mended its ways, announcing in 2004 that it would revise its music award rules to reflect "a broad view of serious music" (presumably to include jazz) but I fear wisdom comes too late. This probably means that the Pulitzer board will, once again, overlook jazz and begin rewarding members of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Which is probably just as well. Jazz began in a decidedly informal musical setting -- downscale New Orleans and other Mississippi River cities -- and has never enjoyed anything approaching mass appeal. Even in the Swing Era, when the jazz and pop worlds briefly cohabited, jazz was a comparatively rarified taste. It is Nat Hentoff's great good fortune that he came of age as a listener and writer when the great names of jazz were still playing, and the jazz audience in America was at its zenith. He heard the aging ragtime pianists in his youth, produced television shows featuring Count Basie and Lester Young, was once kissed by Billie Holliday, was on friendly terms with such disparate characters as Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell, and Anita O'Day. He wrote about everybody from early pioneers to Swing masters to beboppers and beyond. No one has been so exhaustive a chronicler, or shrewd an observer, of America's classical music as Hentoff.
The great pleasure of this collection is not so much the music -- which, of course, language hardly begins to convey -- but the personalities Hentoff befriends and re-creates. We may have a certain idea of jazz musicians, but the musicians themselves are a varying lot who approach the burden of their gift in several ways. Some, like the aforementioned tenor saxophonist Lester Young, seem to have been consumed and defeated by the jazz life; others, like the pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, seem impervious to time or disappointment. Some are resolute bohemians, others equally resolute solid citizens. They play in anonymous dives, Carnegie Hall, pretentious clubs, and outdoor bandstands. Hentoff is especially skilled at describing their instrumental techniques and conversational manner.
Above all, Hentoff, like any good jazz musician, has its giant repertoire knocking around in his head, knows jazz when he hears it, and knows what he likes. In defining jazz singing, and who qualifies as a jazz singer, he is more enthusiastic than I am about Frank Sinatra, but joins me in claiming Bing Crosby as a jazz singer, "by my criteria, whenever he wanted." All the more fun, then, when he ponders the well-publicized Diana Krall and Jane Monheit, and stops them at the door. "Diana Krall's time is, at best, sluggish," he writes. "If you wanted to tap your foot to her singing, it would fall asleep."