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
What Am I Here For?, by Duke Ellington
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.