“Civil Liberties and Jazz — Past, Present and Future” — A conversation with journalist Nat Hentoff




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.




photo R. Andrew Lepley



Nat Hentoff receives the NEA Jazz Master Award, presented by George Wein


Jan, 2004




“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




“You Showed Me the Way”, by Frankie Newton and His Uptown Serenaders




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.




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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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