Let Freedom Ring 

On his latest collection of writings, groundbreaking music critic Nat Hentoff remains true to his populist heart

On his latest collection of writings, groundbreaking music critic Nat Hentoff remains true to his populist heart

Nat Hentoff

American Music Is

(Da Capo Press, 318 pp.)

As he approaches the age of 80, Nat Hentoff is as true to his principles as he's ever been in over 50 years of writing about music and social issues. His criticism speaks with an authority that's unmatched among not only music writers but also among advocates of human dignity. Hentoff was an A&R man for the Candid jazz label at the height of the post-bop period, about the same time he was making his mark as a pioneering journalist for Down Beat and what he'd proudly call the liberal press, including the Village Voice when it became the nation's first alternative weekly. When he reminisces about Dizzy and Mingus, you know that it's the product of many a barside conversation and relationships built on empathy and respect.

Hentoff's latest collection, American Music Is, consists mostly of music criticism and profiles published during the past four years in his regular columns in the Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes. One can only hope that the running title of the latter, "Last Chorus," is ironic, as Hentoff writes with greater enthusiasm for his subjects than many who are two generations younger. This collection celebrates the life of jazz (and other forms of roots music), rather than bemoaning its supposed "death."

Hentoff is a populist at heart, one who is particularly adept at finding local and under-the-radar signs of musical innovation, living history and cultural vitality. His story about America's Youngest Jazz Band, a well-honed outfit of swinging 6- to 12-year-olds based in Clearwater, Fla., is not a piece of fluff, but a testimony of faith that jazz can speak across generations. In the same vein, Hentoff sings the praises of Howard Bankhead, whose Jazz Education in the Schools program, based in Huntsville, Ala., should be emulated by local jazz appreciation societies everywhere. Grade-schoolers dancing in the aisles to Gershwin, counting out waltz time with local musicians, and even composing some rudimentary blues can't be a bad sign for the future.

A self-described "Boston boy," Hentoff comes across as an unflagging champion of the underdog, defending the rights of jazz musicians to fair business practices and, as they age, decent medical support, living conditions and the opportunity for regular gigs. This is of a piece with his call for greater representation of women instrumentalists in cultural institutions like Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and for wider recognition of African American contributions to early country music.

Never forgetting the indignities suffered by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other major artists whom later generations disparaged for being too conciliatory during the Jim Crow era, Hentoff is a living bearer of our nation's civil rights ideals when they counted most. Though the cultural contributions and racial integrity of these titanic but earthy figures shouldn't need any defense, Hentoff's profiles insistently set the record straight, reminding us, for instance, that Satchmo canceled a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 because President Eisenhower was dragging his feet on integrating schools in Little Rock.

True, Hentoff directs his righteous indignation towards several easy targets. Besides taking racists and musical segregationists to task, among those he also goes after are sellout Nashville producers who've driven away the folk spirit of country music; Irving Mills, Duke Ellington's manager who could never have co-written "Mood Indigo" in his spare time, though he profited from this legal fiction; and NPR suits who've supplanted much jazz and regional musical programming with "market-driven" news and business segments.

That said, there isn't an ounce of bitterness here. Only an old-school diplomat like Hentoff could compliment New York Times critic Ben Ratliff for keeping him posted on the "cutting edge" of jazz while gently correcting his critical grandson. When Ratliff uncritically accepts one of Wynton's pronouncements that the future of jazz will minimize soloing and emphasize the artier avenues of composition and arrangement, Hentoff, the defender of individualism and free speech, finds that the "cutting edge" has come too close to cutting the heart out of what makes jazz live—its spontaneity and the resourcefulness of soloists.

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