January 8, 2017

Nat Hentoff, 1925-2017

Nat Hentoff, in 2007

The nation lost a unique voice, and the Fillius Jazz Archive lost a supporter with the passing of Nat Hentoff on January 7. Mr. Hentoff died at the age of 91 at his home in Manhattan. In a career that spanned seven decades, he excelled as a jazz critic and as an astute observer of our nation and its politics. The Associated Press opined, “Nat Hentoff enjoyed a diverse and iconoclastic career, basking in the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects.”
Nat was interviewed for the Fillius Jazz Archive in New York City on January 12, 2007, almost ten years ago to the day of this blog.
As a child Nat loved jazz and had aspirations to pursue a career as a musician.
NH:  I was taking clarinet lessons from an alumnus of the Boston Symphony and I was about 13, 14 years old. And I could read anything. And I was playing scales one day near an open window, it was a summer day. And all of a sudden I hear a shout from downstairs. “Hey kid, you want to go to a session?” I look down, there’s this short kid and I figured well I can read anything, so I went. And when we got there this kid took out his horn and began to play and I knew then that I’d have to find a day job that wasn’t in jazz. It was [jazz cornetist] Ruby Braff. He was about my age. He was already playing extraordinarily beautiful stuff.
Due to his passion for the music, Nat still found himself in the middle of the jazz scene. As a co-producer for the 1957 “Sounds of Jazz” Live TV special, he witnessed a poignant moment between Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Here is a link to that moment, seen in this clip at 1:25.
NH:  The background of that was Lester was not feeling well. He was supposed to be in one of the big band sections with the all-time sax section: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, I forget who else we had there. I said look, you don’t have to do that, and when you do the small combo thing with Billie, you can just sit down. And then she came on in a circle with Roy Eldridge and Lester etcetera. He got up and in the control room, people, as this was unfolding, had tears in their eyes. It was such a moment. Because they were looking at each other, as Lester played. And they had been very close and then not so close, and it was so personal and so intimate, and I was so glad we got that for the ages.
Like the musicians he so admired, Nat was required to wear multiple career hats which seemed to suit him well. I asked him about making a living as a writer/critic.
MR:  Was it tough raising a family of four kids as a freelance journalist?
NH:  It was tough for a while because I got fired. My one gig was at Down Beat when the first child was coming along and I committed a wrongdoing. We were writing essentially about black music. We had no black employees, no black writers in either New York, Chicago where the headquarters were, or in Los Angeles. The boss wasn’t interested in the music at all; he ran a printing shop but he owned the paper. He did not like Jews, he did not like blacks. And one day a woman came in. I thought she was black and we needed a sort of a receptionist so I figured okay we can start with that. I didn’t check with him. He found out about it and I was fired. Years later when I wrote about it she wrote me a note and she said well you know I’m not black, I’m Egyptian. Well some of the theorists today would say yes you are. But anyway that left me in a hole, and Norman Granz was very helpful. He gave me a whole bunch of liner notes for a hundred bucks apiece, and that paid the rent for a while. But I had to freelance. And the Village Voice was very important. They didn’t pay us at the time. But I went there on one condition, that I didn’t have to write about jazz. Because in terms of the newspaper and magazine editors, I was stereotyped, talk about categorizing. So I could write about anything I wanted to: education, the laws, civil liberties. And that got me started as a freelance writer.
Nat was highly attuned to the sharing of accurate information. Even though our interview took place ten years ago, the proliferation of instant Internet access was a concern to him.
NH:   This is an extraordinary paradox. There’s never been a time in human history when there’s been so much instant access to information — or what appears to be information. The 24 hour news cycle is such that the idea of reporting in teams or a reporter getting months to do a story, that’s very rare now. So what you get are, if not sound bites, quick stories. And once something else happens — when I was growing up in Boston the reporters had a phrase, follow-up. You all had to follow-up on the story. But there’s not much of that either. And this cacophony of information, it’s increasingly on the Internet. Most of the newspapers, to stay alive, are going increasingly on the Internet, and they’re being contested by bloggers and they’re multiplying. But there’s no filter as to what you’re hearing from the bloggers. Is it information or just unvarnished biased opinion? So in a time when we have access to all this information I think there’s more confusion than ever before.
Nat Hentoff wrote supportively of the oral history project that is the Fillius Jazz Archive, and his opinions about our effort appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and Jazz Times. We shared a love for the music and personality of singer Joe Williams, and Nat wrote glowingly about our 2005 release of the CD “Havin’ a Good Time” culled from reel to reel tapes from Joe Williams’ estate. At the end of our interview, Nat evoked Joe’s name:
MR:  I’m very appreciative of you giving me your time today.
NH:  Oh look, as you can tell I enjoy talking. But one of your friends, I was once in Joe Williams’ dressing room and we were talking about players who are no longer here, some because of their own damn fault. And Joe looked at me and said, “You and I are survivors.” And I felt like I’d been knighted, that Joe would put me in his company.

December 30, 2016


There is a long list of things I could resolve to do in 2017. After giving it some thought I have concluded that improving my speaking skills takes precedence. I am referring to eliminating extra words when I speak; words and phrases such as you know, I mean, so, at the end of the day, right, okay, ad infinitum. When did these meaningless inserts become ubiquitous in our everyday speech patterns? We hear them in ordinary conversation, and we note their constant presence with broadcast professionals.
Coincidentally as this resolution became an idea, I was reminded of the succinct beauty of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln delivered his 272 word reflection after sitting through a 2 plus hour speech from then-noted orator Edward Everett. Lincoln paid tribute to the casualties of both the North and the South, and marked the significance of the Gettysburg Battle in our history, without one wasted word. In a convoluted fantasy I began to speculate on what Lincoln’s message would have sounded like if it included the omnipresent verbal tics we have come to expect in English language today. With apologies to Lincoln:
So four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, I mean, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Well now we are engaged in a great civil war you know, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. So we are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. I mean it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, I think, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground okay? The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. Here’s the point. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. Right? At the end of the day, it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Well, it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion you know, to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth, you know what I mean?

The function of this exercise is to remind myself to edit my speech as I would edit my writing or my playing. I can make an analogy to my improvisation style, which I believe is economical and devoid of pointless flourishes. Several veteran jazz improvisers acknowledged that it took them decades to determine what not to “say.”

December 20, 2016

Jingle By Request

This blog entry was prompted by a request from Fred, a loyal blog reader.
Holiday recordings typically live out their lives as background music. Every store at this time of year pipes in the familiar tunes by a multitude of artists. Even in the home, holiday music is usually turned on to provide ambiance. I’m happy to say that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Jingle All the Way” CD rises far above that level of listening. If you choose just one holiday recording to actually sit and listen to, you can’t go wrong with “Jingle All the Way.” We spoke of this inventive release in our blog in December of 2014, and the constantly shifting arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
The album opens with “Jingle Bells” and employs the arranging scenario of “everything, including the kitchen sink.” This 3-1/2 minute version of the standard of holiday standards, includes the sound of a galloping horse, a flute, a rather disco-ish repetitive bass line, synthesized percussion, bluegrass banjo picking, and (best of all) Tuvan throat singers vocalizing the lyrics to “Jingle Bells” in what I assume is their native Tibetan language. If you put this cut on at the typical background music level, your curiosity will draw you to the volume control so you can give a good listen to what is actually going on. Highly recommended.