1925 – 2017
Paul Morris is a longtime friend and contributing writer of Jerry Jazz Musician. He currently writes “Cover Stories with Paul Morris,” a frequent column about classic record album art and design.
Paul shares a memory of the legendary jazz writer and journalist Nat Hentoff, who died on January 7 at the age of 91.
In the late 1970’s I was a jazz fan who liked reading about the music as much as listening to it. My next music choice often came from a recommendation from a jazz critic’s liner notes or articles. Nat Hentoff proved to be a reliable guide in his early jazz books and the occasional article.
These years were the heyday of the Village Voice, where Hentoff was a regular. He concentrated on First Amendment issues in his Voice column, but from time to time he would mention jazz. One note that especially intrigued me was a mention of a biography of the tenor player Ben Webster. Hentoff did not mention the author’s name, but said he’d read it, and it was being considered by a university press.
I was crazy about Webster and would be thrilled to read a biography. In these pre-Internet years it wasn’t easy to research jazz musicians. A few paragraphs in a jazz encyclopedia, some liner notes, a chapter here and there in books found in the library: this was about the limit of useful sources.
Something about Hentoff’s familiar, conversational style made me think I could write him to ask about this book, and off went my letter from Portland to New York.
I was thrilled when this prominent writer took the time to send me a reply. It was a postcard on orange stock printed with his name and address (25 Fifth Avenue) set in trendy all lowercase. Dated 12/5/79, it read, “The possible publisher of the Ben Webster biography is the University of Illinois Press. I don’t know yet what they’ve decided. It’s a first-rate biography. Best, Nat Hentoff.”
I’ve saved this postcard in a scrapbook, which I turned to when I heard of Hentoff’s death. I’m not sure if the book ever was published. Two biographies have been published, both by European writers. Most likely Hentoff would have reviewed them kindly, as he normally did.
Paul Morris is a graphic designer and writer who collects album art of the 1940’s and 1950’s. He finds his examples of influential mid-century design in the used record stores of Portland, Oregon.
In November, 2001, Paul interviewed Nat Hentoff at the time of the reprinting of his 1986 memoir Boston Boy. You can read that interview by clicking here.