Civil Liberties and Jazz — Past, Present and Future
A conversation with journalist Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff, a prolific author and journalist whose work has been published for many years in, among other publications, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, and Jazz Times, has been described by one of his publishers, DaCapo Press, as “a man of passion and insight, of streetwise wit and polished eloquence — a true American original.” This “passion of insight” is particularly apparent in his lifelong devotion to the chronicling of jazz music — a pursuit that began even before he became editor of Downbeat in 1953 — and in his steadfast defense of the Constitution.
His success is evidenced by the awards he has received, including the National Press Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Journalism, the American Bar Association Certificate of Merit for Coverage of the Criminal Justice System, as well as the Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Cause of Civil Liberties. In January, 2004, he became the first jazz writer ever named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Now in his eightieth year and as passionate and eloquent as ever, Hentoff joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita. in an October 6, 2005 conversation about civil liberties and jazz — past, present and future.
“I know of no one in the country who has been more consistently vigilant in reporting dangers to our precious freedoms, or who has done so with such clarity, intelligence, and passion.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, on Nat Hentoff
“Even though he has gone far afield from jazz, his column in the Voice is a unique journalistic triumph. For forty years, he has had one central theme, the First Amendment, on which he has riffed thousands of variations, staying vital like a great jazz musician. It’s an extraordinary achievement.”
– Gary Giddins
photo Lee Tanner
“I’ve written about Duke a lot, including what he told me about being a black man in America. All he’d tell me about ‘the process’ was how he wrote the parts for each person in the orchestra. ‘I know their strengths,’ he’d say. I do not in the least undervalue those who write about ‘the process.’ Within my limited capacity in that regard, I learn from them. But if my work is to have any value, if comes from what Charlie Parker said: ‘Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’ What I keep trying to do is learn and write about those lives because they’re in the music. Gary Giddins once accurately and generously characterized what I do. He said I’m ‘a chronicler.’ Critics who can authentically describe the structure of the music know more about ‘the process’ than I do. I want to know the musicians, and my life is fuller for having known so many. Duke said in one of his songs, ‘What am I here for?’ I can answer that.”
– Nat Hentoff
JJM Dizzy Gillespie once told you, “It makes me feel really good to belong to jazz, to that part of society.” You are the first jazz writer ever named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Is belonging to the society of jazz at the level of your membership your proudest career achievement?
NH I was amazed at that award, and I was especially glad that they didn’t ask me to play anything when they gave it to me, because I put my clarinet away long ago, which was a great blessing all around. Students will occasionally ask me that question, and I tell them that my greatest achievement was my involvement with Whitney Balliett in Robert Herridge’s The Sound of Jazz on CBS Television. That may be the most extraordinary jazz program ever filmed, featuring the likes of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and so many others.
JJM How did the program begin?
NH It was part of a series called The Seven Lively Arts, which was sponsored by Revlon, if I remember correctly. At the time, Herridge — who I think was the most creative person in the history of television — was doing all kinds of things, and since this program appeared on Sunday afternoons, the network let Herridge do whatever he wanted. In the middle of one of the lighting sessions, a page came over from the sponsor’s booth and handed a note to Herridge, which he read and then tore up. He told me later that the sponsors wrote him that he couldn’t have a woman coming into people’s homes on a Sunday afternoon — in this case Billie Holiday — who had been arrested on a drug charge.
JJM I spoke to the jazz writer and historian Dan Morgenstern recently, and he told me that he didn’t like the term “critic” when describing his role in jazz, and preferred the word “advocate.” Do you consider yourself a critic?
NH I have to say that I am very grateful to you and Gary Giddins, because in one of your conversations Gary said something I consider to be exactly the truth about me, and that is that I am a chronicler. I am not a critic. I consider a critic somebody who could tell you what chord someone is playing, and although I studied harmony briefly, I can’t do that.
What I have done — which Gary understood — is chronicle the lives of the players as reflected in their music. The liner notes I have written are almost invariably interviews with the musicians, who talk about their own music more than I do, and many of the books I have written, like Listen to the Stories and American Music Is, are attempts at letting the musicians talk about who they are — and who they are is what they play.
JJM You have written that jazz musicians are unusually perceptive …
NH Something I learned early on is that anybody who spends his career traveling to where the work is, and who takes risks musically and is constantly improvising, knows a lot about life. These people experience an awful lot. Duke Ellington once told me that he often read Walter Lippman — who at the time was the newspaper columnist of great importance — and felt that he had already seen much of what Lippman wrote about as a result of his travels.
JJ M A lot of people know you from your work writing record album liner notes. Are there liner note jobs that stand out as being particularly memorable?
NH One of them would have to be Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. I was in the studio when he and Gil Evans recorded this album, and I was most interested in the interaction between the musicians. What happened in the studio was ultimately very revealing, and deepened my appreciation for the music when I heard it. As I said earlier, I am mostly interested in letting the musicians speak, especially those who have either been forgotten or deserve more attention — Dave McKenna is an example who immediately comes to mind.
JJM Were there liner notes jobs you didn’t get that you wish you had?
NH I haven’t thought of it that way. I have turned down jobs simply because I can only write liner notes if I am enthusiastic about the music. Occasionally I receive test recordings from musicians I don’t even know, and I always tell them the same thing — let me call you back after I’ve heard it.
JJM Of performing live, a bass player once told you, “It is like going out there naked every night.” Can that be said of being a writer as well?
NH Not really, because a writer can always revise. It is possible to improvise as you write — particularly if you are writing fiction — but in terms of writing about music or other topics I cover like the courts and civil liberties, it is not the same because I am able to revise as I write. I never send in any copy until I have read it two or three times, and then the editors will go over it. So, writers don’t take nearly as many chances as a musician who is improvising at night.
JJM But, even after you revise, have there been times when you wished you could have incinerated a particular column, or gone back to rewrite it after it was published?
NH Because I have so many deadlines and so many different places where I write, if I think of something I should have said I just put it in another column.
JJM Charles Mingus once told you that “ a critic had written that I had never pinned myself down so that anyone could say, ‘This is Mingus.’ He doesn’t understand that I don’t want to be caught in any one groove.” How does a critic avoid being caught in a groove?
NH By taking each performance or recording as it comes. Whether it is on topics like politics or music, everybody has preset ideas. When I taught journalism, I would tell students that one of the things they needed to be very careful about is to watch what their preset is. I used to do a classical music show on a Boston radio station, and I never named the composer or the conductor or the other performers until after the recording was over. Often, people would listen to a piece and then call me and ask who the composer was, and Tchaikovsky-haters, for example, might be surprised to hear a piece of his that wasn’t so syrupy, and that it was something they liked.
I approach every record I put on with anticipation, but very often it doesn’t work out so well. I learned something from Charlie Parker, who once told me during a radio interview that he could listen to a piece of music for the first time — in this case a classical piece by someone like Bartok — and often his enjoyment of it would depend on when he listened to it, and what kind of mood he was in at the time. If he didn’t like it the first time through, he may enjoy it under different circumstances the second time. That is why when I do choose to write about recordings, I listen to them more than once. When I was at Downbeat, I had to review many recordings, and it bothered me when I would have to write about not liking one because I didn’t like taking any money out of a musician’s pocket. Ever since I was fired from Downbeat, I only write about music that I like, and that is a great relief.
JJM What are the last five recordings you have listened to?
NH Well, I didn’t like them so I don’t want to say.
JJM Are you able to devote as much time listening to music as you would like?
NH No, because I spend so much of my time writing on civil liberties, on the genocide in Darfur, and on the torturing and abuse of detainees. To write on topics like the law requires a lot of research, and it takes time away from my other interests. I am not able to get out to clubs nearly as often as I used to, which is a great regret of mine. However, I do try to listen to music whenever I can, at all times of the day and night, although not as much as I did while working at Downbeat, when, between hitting the clubs every night and then spending the weekends listening to recordings, that is all I did.
JJM Your career path provides readers with an interesting connection between jazz and the Constitution. How did you go from writing about jazz to writing about civil liberties and the Constitution?
NH Because jazz, to say the least, is free expression, and this ties right in with the First Amendment, although in retrospect I don’t think I made this connection immediately. I once asked Justice William Brennan the corny question, “What is your favorite of the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights?” and he said it has to be the First Amendment because out of that come all of the other liberties. If you can’t speak, if you can’t dissent from government, then all other liberties are eventually dissolved.
While I was still living in Boston, through my interest in jazz I got to know a number of black musicians who talked about what it was like to live under the various dimensions of Jim Crow, which then got me involved in writing about education and civil liberties. The First Amendment came into play for me while I was attending Northeastern University. I was the editor of the school paper, and many of us on the staff fancied ourselves as muckrakers. When we did some reporting the president of the university didn’t like, we got the ultimatum of stopping it or leaving the paper. All of us left except for one — there is always one scab — and this experience got me involved in researching the First Amendment, which led to an interest in all the other parts of the Bill of Rights.
JJM You write about a wide range of topics, and no matter the forum or the article, you are a steadfast egalitarian, not only for the living, but the unborn, which probably surprises many readers …
NH Whether the topic is music, the Constitution, or anything else, my main job is as a reporter. I actually never thought about abortion until the eighties, when an infant was born on Long Island with spina biffida, which is a lesion of the spine that can be taken care of by putting a shunt in the brain to take on some of the excess fluid. But the parents didn’t want to deal with the problems that go along with this, and wanted the child to die. They had a very effective lawyer who convinced practically everyone in the press that they were doing the compassionate thing. Since I always get suspicious when everyone in the press agrees on something, I did some research and talked to three or four of the leading pediatric neurosurgeons in the country, who each knew the case and unanimously said that if the parents agreed to having the shunt put in the child’s brain, at the very worst it would have to wear braces for a while. So I wrote about that. Then I heard the head of the reproductive rights unit of the American Civil Liberties Union give a speech in which she said that this decision was the parent’s prerogative — that the parents and nobody else should decide whether their child should live or die. That got me to thinking — they are saying that a living human being can be disposed of by a parent — and I began interviewing doctors who specialize in pre-birth, and then doctors who actually operate on a fetus to correct certain conditions, which quite logically led me to being pro-life. I am an atheist pro-lifer, which seems to throw some people off, but it all seems connected to me.
JJM In your book Speaking Freely, you write about being invited by a pro-life group that was made up primarily of Republicans …
NH Yes, that was outdoors in a field, for some reason. Ronald Reagan was the president at the time, and he had cut the funds for the Women, Infants and Children program that provided sustenance for pregnant women, and I pointed out to the audience that this was hardly something someone who claimed to be pro-life should be doing. There were rumblings of dissent from the crowd, and some even began to advance on the makeshift stage. As I wrote in the essay, I told the guy next to me that I really didn’t think that I wanted to turn this mission into something that would lead to my demise.
JJM The idea of egalitarianism is clearly a major part of who you are. You are in constant pursuit of fairness, yet jazz was hardly an egalitarian business. Was that a major source of frustration for you?
NH What do you mean?
JJM For example, inequities in the way black musicians were paid.
NH Oh, yes. When I got to the New York office of Downbeat in 1953, I heard all kinds of stories from black musicians, about how they would, for example, sign a contract and receive their advance, which would be the only payment they ever saw. It became quite evident to me that bias existed throughout the music business. The artist manager John Levy, who managed the careers of people like George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley, wrote in his book about how there were often two kinds of contracts — a black contract and a white contract.
JJM Cannonball once said that he wanted to stay away from record companies who had a “plantation owner’s attitude toward black musicians.”
NH Yes, that’s right.
JJM You had a record company, Candid Records. During that time did you have an idea that you would be able to pay the musicians more equitably than the other record companies?
NH No. Candid was an offshoot of Cadence Records, which was owned by Archie Bleyer, a musician who had the band on the Arthur Godfrey Show. He decided that since he was making so much money with pop music stars, he owed it to the music to have a jazz label, and he asked me to run it. I had complete control of the label. I don’t think Archie liked a lot of the stuff that we did, but he kept out of it until his income from Cadence dropped, which is when he put an end to Candid. But, to answer your question, we paid whatever the musicians commanded from their managers or their booking agents. We never had a different lower scale for any musician.
JJM So, it isn’t like Candid pursued a different method for paying musicians …
NH No, nothing like that. Also, I was the kind of A&R man who let the leader make the decisions on who to hire and what to play. My main function was to keep the times and to send out for beer and sandwiches. Only once in a while, when a date would get stalled, I would go into the studio and softly suggest that maybe we should try to play some blues. That almost always worked, and sometimes the piece became one of the cuts on the disc.
JJM How did you imagine that Candid would evolve politically?
NH I didn’t. We did one piece that I guess you could call political — and I have my political views — but I think music is music. There are occasions when somebody legitimately has some strong feelings about politics, and if it becomes part of the music, that is fine, which is what happened when Max Roach, Oscar Brown, Abbey Lincoln and Coleman Hawkins recorded the We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite for Candid. We were all very pleased when that was banned in South Africa. But, using any kind of music as just plain propaganda isn’t music anymore, it is propaganda. It is legitimate, however, when it comes out of an organic feeling.
JJM So, you didn’t really imagine that had Candid stayed in business longer it may have been a place where musicians could express themselves politically through their music?
NH They didn’t need Candid for that. Sonny Rollins recorded Freedom Suite, and the Jazz Messengers recorded some of that stuff as well. That type of thing was burgeoning all over the place at the time.
JJM Concerning the Constitution and young people, in an essay entitled “The Liberty Stuff,” you wrote, “The ‘liberty stuff’ will never come alive for most of the young if the Constitution continues to have as much personal meaning to them as the average rainfall in Wichita.” How do we make learning about the Constitution a more meaningful part of a child’s early education?
NH This has become an obsession of mine. While most schools around the country have what used to be called civics classes, an ignorance about the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution remains that I consider to be very dangerous. There are various attempts to do something about that. The Freedom Forum people have a series of First Amendment high schools where the kids not only learn the First Amendment, but they practice it. For example, in some of those schools the principal will have a press conference every week during which time the kids can ask him or her questions. But by and large, students remain ignorant about their rights. The Knight-Ritter syndicate recently conducted a big poll of students and the results showed that most of them had very little idea what even the First Amendment was about. However, I must say that because of the Patriot Act and some of the other invasions of the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution by the Bush administration, people are becoming awakened to their rights. That is why, to me, the amendment passed by John McCain insisting that we stop torturing and abusing so-called detainees is a great victory for America because it indicates a resistance from all across the political spectrum to an infringement of our rights. Some of the strongest opponents of the Patriot Act and some of the other abuses of the Constitution that have followed it are conservative libertarians in and out of Congress, so it gives me some hope.
JJM The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” How does the Fourth Amendment survive in a world dominated by technology amid constitutional ignorance?
NH The only way it will survive is if enough people get exercised about their right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment is the most detailed of all the parts of the Bill of Rights. I like to tell a story to young students that wakens their interest in American history. In the colonies, the British customs officers used to come into the homes and they would write their own warrants, turning everything upside down looking for contraband — there was no right to privacy at all. At one point, a Boston lawyer, James Otis, argued so passionately before the King’s Court about this that one of those in the courtroom, John Adams — who later became president — wrote in his diary that night, “Today, the fire of independence was born.” By this time, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others had begun committees of correspondence that informed people all up and down the seaboard about this issue. So, I think Justice Brennan was right when he told me that he thought that the right to privacy was one of the precipitating causes of the American Revolution.
Today, there are people in Congress, including, I must emphasize, conservative libertarians, who are trying to change the Patriot Act — although it isn’t likely to work because the Republican leadership in both Houses is under very tight leadership. Because of the advances in high technology, it is going to be a big struggle to maintain what they call in the law an “expectation of privacy,” because so much of it has been eroded since 9/11. All kinds of new technologies are going to be used by the administration, but it is not only the Republicans who use it — Clinton was no big champion of civil liberties, either. A good deal of the background for what John Ashcroft was able to do was a bill that Clinton signed called “The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” which started the use of secret evidence that Ashcroft eventually pyramided on. Defending our Fourth Amendment rights is a constant vigil, and it is why, in a sense, the growing resistance to what Bush and Company have tried to do to the Constitution is the one hope we have.
JJM Most of us probably assume we have very little privacy today because of technology, and how little we know about how it works. While in the days of McCarthyism people were suspicious of the elevator operator or the doorman or the bartender, today we seem to be suspicious of the invisible “Internet police.” It could be people feel the Internet is an impossible environment in which their right to privacy can be maintained.
NH There is certainly a feeling among people who are aware that when they are using the Internet, and they leave what are called “cookies,” that they are leaving chronicles of much of their lives, and that kind of recognition does have what they call in law a “chilling effect.” But I am hoping that as more and more people begin to resent that, there will be enough changes to protect their privacy. It is up to Congress and the courts, but the problem we all face is not just with the Republican leadership but with the so-called opposition party. I am very disappointed with the Democrats because none of their leaders like Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Hilary Clinton focus nearly enough on this lowering of privacy and other invasions of our liberties and rights. There are some good Democrats who are aware of this and fight it — Pat Leahy in the Senate and John Conyers in the House, for example — but the face of their Party rarely gets involved in this. While there are Bill of Rights committees around the country fighting to protect our rights, it is a long struggle that requires leadership to awaken people, and I don’t see any in the Democratic Party.
JJM It is as if they are content watching Bush self-destruct, and don’t want to get in his way.
NH Well, he can self-destruct, but who is the next leader going to be? While I don’t always agree with him, I have some faith in this area in John McCain because he has some pretty clear principles of his own. It is my hope that he is on the Republican ticket. As for America’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, I know him very well, and when he was mayor of New York he had even less understanding of civil liberties, if this is possible, than the current president. But I don’t see anybody that is likely to get the Democratic nomination having any passion about this stuff.
JJM Not to mention anyone who can carry any red states out there …
NH But the point is that the opposition requires leadership, and the media needs to stay on this issue — which is difficult because there is always somebody being kidnapped or there may be another hurricane to report on. This is not about “red state” or “blue state.” One of the things I have learned since 9/11 is that some of the most vigorous opponents of what is going on regarding our rights are not only so-called liberals. Once people become aware of what these laws and executive orders are doing, people get angry, which is why you need a public face of some importance to keep telling people about what is going on. That is what some of us reporters do.
JJM Does anger and rage fuel your writing?
NH Oh yes. One of my mentors was I.F. (Izzy) Stone. Tom Wicker, who was then with the New York Times, once gave a tribute to Izzy in which he said that what keeps Izzy going is his sense of rage, which was very true. Every morning I read the paper and, as a result, find myself angry enough to write.
JJM Back to the topic of music, you once quoted the writer Pete Hamill as saying that Fred Astaire “epitomized the virtues of a free country, with his grace and elegance, his humor and his ease, and his utter lack of vanity . No other nation could have produced him.” Do you have an example of a musician who epitomizes the virtues of a free country?
NH One of my favorite performers who had all those attributes was a French singer and composer named Charles Trenet. In retrospect, we certainly don’t have a monopoly on these virtures, and I wish I didn’t use that quote because it sounds jingoistic. Trenet’s songs are just marvelous, and he was the kind of performer who could sing to a large audience but left you with a feeling that he was singing directly to you. Although his music may not have been known as jazz, it certainly had a jazz feeling. He could really swing.
JJM On the subject of jazz musicians, you wrote in Jazz Is, “As a boy, they seemed to me a different species. I could ask a ballplayer or a movie star for an autograph, but I was speechless when Johnny Hodges or Lester Young walked by. I was in awe of jazz musicians because of their power, because of the mystery of the sinuous but overwhelming power. Nothing else in my experience was so exhilarating, so utterly compelling.” Have jazz musicians lost this power?
NH When I wrote what it was like for me to first become aware of jazz, I was one of a very small number of people even writing about it. Ralph Ellison did it better, and described wonderfully what it meant to him as a young black kid in Oklahoma when the Ellington band came through.
Regarding your question, I don’t think it is really a matter of losing power — the image of the jazz musician is indeed diluted among some of the young people who listen to music. However, I am very encouraged because all of the attempts at jazz education — some of which misfire, of course — are beginning to create not only great respect and admiration for jazz musicians, but near envy for the kind of expressiveness the music inspires. When I went back to my alma mater, Boston Latin School, I heard the school’s band play Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” which was wonderful. It is very hard to play Ellington’s music because he wrote for the individual musicians, so it was a challenging program. I told the students afterwards how Duke would have enjoyed their performance, and when one of them asked me if I had really met Duke Ellington, I could see that he was already a legend to them. I have no patience with people who say that jazz is dying or that it is moribund. I think the audience is going to grow again as a result of the jazz courses being taught in schools, and because of all the school bands. I don’t give up at all on jazz.
JJM I spoke with the critic Terry Teachout recently about his work on a Louis Armstrong biography, and during the conversation he made an interesting comment that jazz scholarship has become sort of a cottage industry. Are you pleased with the jazz scholarship you are seeing?
NH It is true that, despite the fact it is currently very difficult to get “mid-level” books published, there are a number of publishers willing to put out important — as well as not so important — books on jazz. These will not sell very well, and certainly won’t be on the New York Times best seller list, but it indicates that there is an audience for the subject. Now, as for the quality of scholarship, I think Gary Giddins is absolutely first-rate, and so is Mr. Teachout. There are a lot of good people writing about jazz now.
JJM What do you yet want to accomplish in your life? What are you looking forward to next?
NH Along with the music, what keeps me going is being able to write what I want to write about without having anyone telling me that I can’t. There is always something that I want to do. My great regret is that I don’t have time anymore to write fiction. I have written a number of novels, including young adult fiction (among them Jazz Country). Otherwise, as long as I have a typewriter — I don’t use anything else — and a place to get published, I am happy. Writing is a great life, but it can be hard at times because, as you pointed out, I write about a lot of different things. This requires a lot of research because if I don’t I end up looking like a schmuck. I feel lucky to have been able to do what I wanted to do. One of my favorite songs is Ellington’s “What Am I Here For?” and I feel as if I know what I am here for, which is to write about what I most enjoy, as well as what I most detest.
My other regret is not living out the fantasy I had when I was a kid. I was pretty good on the clarinet and soprano saxophone — although I couldn’t improvise — and I dreamed that maybe one day I would get a call from Duke, asking me to play in his reed section. But that all disappeared. I learned that my day job wasn’t going to be as a musician when I was about thirteen, when a kid down on the street heard me practicing and asked if I wanted to go to a session with him. I figured that since I could read any kind of music I could probably hold my own. However, when the kid picked up the trumpet and played, I knew from that moment on that jazz was not going to be my vocation. The kid’s name was Ruby Braff. He was twelve years old.
JJM Well, he could play …
NH Yes, even then he could play. I saw Ruby later when he was fifteen. I snuck into a place called Izzy Ort’s to see him, which was a terrible joint right next door to the RKO Theater, and where Benny Goodman was playing for the week. As Goodman came out of the stage door one night, he heard this horn coming out of this joint and was very much taken with it. He went in, listened to Ruby, and asked him if he wanted to play with the band. But Ruby had a good Jewish mother, and she said that he had to finish school.
JJM That’s a great story…
NH The things I love about this music — aside from the music — is that there are so many stories, and so many great people who make up the family of jazz.
JJM And there are many connections for all of us …
NH I will leave you with one last story. When I was made a Jazz Advocate, the National Endowment for the Arts had a luncheon that was attended by many musicians, many of whom hadn’t seen each other for years. It felt like a family gathering. The drummer Roy Haynes was there, and I was telling him how, when I wasn’t doing my radio show in Boston, I practically lived at a place called the Savoy. They had Sunday jam sessions there, and one day the leader was Edmund Hall, who was a very kind and generous man. During the session this kid came in and wanted to sit in on drums, and Ed said that would be fine. Of course the young drummer was Roy Haynes, who not only remembered that time, but also proceeded to tell me that he used to listen to me on the radio when I had the jazz album show, which is a great reminder of how history connects people in unexpected ways.
Music is made by men who are insistently visible, especially as in jazz, when the players are their music Through telling something of where they came from and how they live, I hope their music, too, has become less disembodied.
– Nat Hentoff
About Nat Hentoff
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
NH I grew up during the Great Depression, and at the time my father was a traveling salesman who would often come home with five bucks in his pocket after working all week. At least Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed to be doing something about these tough times, and because of that, I would have to say that he was my childhood hero.
I used to listen to the radio a lot — Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was among my favorite shows — and I remember the day that the guy from the finance company came and took our radio away because we couldn’t make the payment. I figured F.D.R. could help out.
JJM That must have been a devastating experience.
NH It was sobering, yes, but what devastated me was how badly my parents felt.
Nat Hentoff was named editor of Downbeat in 1953; contributor to the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Jazz Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the New Republic; author of countless books, including The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance, American Music Is, The Jazz Life, and Speaking Freely. He lives in New York.
This interview took place on October 6, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read Remembering Dizzy Gillespie, a Jerry Jazz Musician hosted conversation with Nat Hentoff and James Moody
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