Nat Hentoff’s childhood hero

July 17th, 2018

Nat Hentoff

 

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The topic of “childhood heroes” almost always makes a great conversation.  It is a highly personal discussion and often provides a revealing window into a person’s past and character development.  For many years, I have asked those I interview this basic question:

“Who was your childhood hero?”

The recently deceased jazz advocate and journalist Nat Hentoff was a frequent contributor to Jerry Jazz Musician, and an early admirer of the work of this website.  I had the privilege of getting to know him a little bit over the years, and interviewed him several times, as did my friend and contributing writer Paul Morris, who, during his 2001 interview with Hentoff, asked him who his childhood hero was…Here is that conversation:

 

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.

 

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Here are a few other interview excerpts where Jerry Jazz Musician guests reveal their childhood hero.  (Click on the image to be taken to the entire interview)

 

JJM Who were your heroes?

MT When I was growing up, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk were basically the people who inspired me on the piano. Later on, I found out about Art Tatum and others. Bud and Thelonious were the main people who inspired me. Bud Powell, fortunately, moved around the corner from me when I was about 15. It was in the mid 50’s, and his brother, Richie, was with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown band. Richie had an apartment around the corner and Bud moved in. I was very fortunate to have a gentleman that inspired me right around the corner, in my neighborhood.

JJM Was he your first memory of listening to a piano performance as a child?

MT I had an R&B band in junior high school, and some of the older musicians got me involved in the modern concept. I think Bud was one of the first, but I wouldn’t say he was the first. He and Thelonious culminated around the same time. I can’t say who I heard first.

 

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

DM  As a boy, I saw the films Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Robin Hood was a terrific movie – I must have seen it three times – and I still like it. As a result, I was an Errol Flynn fan, who I thought was a dashing figure. As for a musician I admired, I saw Fats Waller perform when I was not quite nine years old, and he made a huge impression on me. So, my hero would be a cross between Fats and Errol Flynn. (I also had a big crush on Olivia De Havilland at the time, but that probably doesn’t qualify her as a hero. She’s still very much alive and still looks great, so I had a good eye, I guess.)

 

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JJM Who was your childhood hero, Diane?

DM This may seem rather unbelievable. It was J. Edgar Hoover. In junior high and high school, I wanted to be an FBI agent. I wanted to break into that “boys club” because they didn’t allow women agents at that point. Hoover was a big hero in the south. I remember we had a family ritual every Sunday night, where we would all sit down together and watch the TV show The FBI, with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

JJM Your choice is especially amazing after having read so much about him in your book, it is hard to imagine why anyone would consider him a hero!

DM I guess the scales fell from my eyes!

 

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JJM Who was your hero, Joshua?

JR My musical hero?

JJM Well, that or your boyhood hero…

JR I think my mom was my hero. My mom took great care of me and she was a person I looked up to. I didn’t really have heroes like clear role models, like people or figures that I idolized…I think the first record I ever bought was a Sonny Rollins record, Saxophone Colossus, and from that point on Sonny Rollins became a hero of mine. I was nine or ten or so at the time, and my mom paid for the record…

 

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JJM Who was your boyhood hero?

GG Well, (Louis) Armstrong, from the time I was 15. Aldous Huxley is the other boyhood hero I have never let go of. I often think about writing a book about him. For years I went about collecting first editions of fifty some volumes of his. Dwight Macdonald had a huge influence on me as a critic when I was very young. Bach and his “B Minor Mass” really changed my life in a way, and it was in fact because I knew the “B Minor Mass” that I think Armstrong had the impact that he did on me, because that was the first music I had heard since the “B Minor Mass” that moved me in quite that way, that gave me that same kind of emotional excitement. It’s funny, it’s all kind of circular, because I got to Bach through Huxley. I had read “Point Counter Point,” and in the third chapter there is a description of the flute and strings “Suite in B Minor,” so I ran out to buy that and that’s what started me on Bach. I loved Gershwin, and got into “Rhapsody in Blue.” I heard some jazz live, bought Armstrong’s 1928 recordings and that was really the central religious experience of my life. Nathaniel Hawthorne was big for me, “The House of the Seven Gables,” which was the book that I think first made me want to be a writer. All my heroes were either literary or musical.

 

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

AM I have written about that. In the novel Train Whistle Guitar, there were various people I wrote about. There was a piano player, a guitar player who seemed like a legend to me, and there was the great Satchel Paige, who lived on the outskirts of Mobile. Baseball was a big thing there, and he was the greatest baseball player in the world. In school, in the third grade, I started studying geography, and was encouraged by the teacher to look upon school as a way to open up my world. That was the start of me becoming what I have become.

JJM Is there a book that you read as a child that was particularly influential in your life that made you want to become a writer?

AM I didn’t realize I wanted to become a writer until I was in college. I was an all-around student, interested in drama and very much into athletics and language. I was good in Latin and French, also. By the time I was in high school they started grooming me for college. We didn’t have any money or anything, but the whole thing about that school was to find the talented kids and encourage them to provide leadership and become outstanding citizens. At this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, people of this level, were making their first national splashes. I was trying to learn to come to terms with all of that and how I fit into being an American.

 

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

DA  Oh my. I would have to say it was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.

JJM  Why was she your hero?

DA  My grandmother was three-quarters Cherokee Indian, and that was the dominating culture in her life. Even though she was my grandmother, her background was so entirely different from mine. I remember her as being a little lady who lived on an incredible farm of about three hundred fifty acres. When I visited her as a little girl, I was struck by the fact that for as far as I could see, everything belonged to my grandmother. According to Tuskegee Institute, her husband — my grandfather — had been the most successful black farmer in the state of Alabama during the forties. After my grandfather died, she lived alone in her big house with a gorgeous wrap around porch. It was absolutely heavenly. Visiting her was always an amazing experience. It made me want to grow up and be a nature woman like my grandmother, and have land, animals, and a big farm on which I could grow anything and take care of everybody with what I grew on the farm’s earth.

 

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

SC I don’t know, different ones at different times. One time I was obsessed with Dizzy Gillespie and another time Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. They were mostly musicians as I recall. As for writers, I liked Yeats for a long time. During his pre black nationalist period I was really enamored with Leroi Jones as a writer, which I came to despise later, when, as far as I was concerned, he just sold out to clap-trap. I became excited about Ralph Ellison in the middle 60’s because James Cortez introduced me to both Shadow and Actand Invisible Man.

 

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To read all “childhood hero” interview excerpts, click here.

 

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