Six Decades Of Jazz With Nat Hentoff Hentoff was 11 years old, strolling along a Boston street, when he first heard jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw's famous composition "Nightmare" and was hooked. He has spent roughly six decades covering the world of jazz, and he's collected his thoughts and memories in a new book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene.

Six Decades Of Jazz With Nat Hentoff

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GUY RAZ, host:

Nat Hentoff was 11 years old strolling along a street in Boston when he heard this through the open door of a record store.

(Soundbite of song, "Nightmare")

Mr. NAT HENTOFF (Jazz Critic): And I - just showed all the love. It was so - it just reached inside me. Anyway, I rushed into the store. What was that? Oh, it's "Nightmare" by Artie Shaw. That was his theme song then.

And that made me realize that the only other music that had really hit me that hard was when I was even younger in an Orthodox synagogue and I heard the cantor, and they used to improvise very passionately.

Years later, I found out that Artie had based "Nightmare" on what was called a nigun, N-I-G-U-N, that was one of the melodies that the cantor sang.

RAZ: Hentoff played the clarinet back then, but he knew he wasn't going to be the next Artie Shaw. So he joined the staff of the music magazine Down Beat as a columnist and eventually its New York editor.

And from that perch, he witnessed many of the greatest moments in jazz history. Nat Hentoff's collected those stories in a new book. It's called "At the Jazz Band Ball: 60 Years on the Jazz Scene."

Just mention Dizzy Gillespie to him, and the memories come pouring out.

Mr. HENTOFF: I've never known anybody like Dizzy who had such generosity of heart. The guys he used to play with used to call him the teacher. He would just make sure they knew what they were doing, and then he helped them learn it. And he always was so generous. We got to be very good friends.

And I hadn't seen him for some months, and he was rehearsing an all-star band to play at the United Nations. I came early to the studios, and I was standing outside where they were going to play, and Dizzy comes along on the corridor with a friend of his, and he sees me - we hadn't seen each other for a long time - he comes over and gives me a big bear hug.

And then he said to his friend, gee, it's like seeing an old broad of yours you hadn't seen for a long time. Nobody gave me that kind of compliment.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: What was the most memorable gig you ever attended? Who was playing, and what was it that you were hearing?

Mr. HENTOFF: It was at Symphony Hall in Boston, where ordinarily, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played. Duke Ellington, for the first time, went on the road with his full orchestra, playing what he had spent a lot of time about, although there was plenty of improvisation of it. It was called "Black, Brown and Beige."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HENTOFF: It was the history of black people in the United States from slavery to the present, and it was so extraordinary. At the end, it was people were so moved, they could barely applaud, and so they got a standing ovation.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, dear Lord of love. God almighty, God above. Please look down and see my (unintelligible).

Mr. HENTOFF: And there was one other event that was very much like that, and it ties right in. I was, for a time, I produced records for a label called Camden. This was during the Civil Rights Movement, when kids, black kids in the South would go into a restaurant, they were thrown out because they were sitting where they weren't supposed to be sitting.

Max Roach, the master drummer, wrote something called "The Freedom Now Suite," and I asked Max if we could record it. And in the studio was Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins, Max, et cetera, and it was just like what I heard that time at Symphony Hall in Boston. The music just became part of you as you heard it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HENTOFF: People began to have that same feeling about him that I had when I heard Duke Ellington playing "Black, Brown and Beige."

You know, it's not a matter of white and black. It's as Clarke Terry once said, jazz is a gift. If you have the ears, and you open yourself to the musicians, then you hear everything.

RAZ: Now, in 1957, you helped put together this landmark program on CBS. It was called "The Sound of Jazz," and I guess it was really the first time that mass audiences in America, especially mass white audiences, were introduced to jazz. What was it like for you to be part of that?

Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I'll tell you something. When people sometimes, students sometimes say, what's the most important thing you think you've ever written? I said, it's nothing I've written. It was a TV special on a Sunday afternoon on CBS called "The Sound of Jazz."

The producer was Robert Herridge, and he came to Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker and me and said, look, I want to have a pure jazz program. I don't care if the viewers know the names of these people. I want you to get together the best of all these players you know. And that's what we did.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Sound of Jazz")

Unidentified Man: Again, Studio 58, "The Sound of Jazz." Billie Holiday is one of a handful of really great jazz singers. Her blues are poetic, highly intense. Playing with her here today are some of the musicians who accompanied her back in the '30s on some of the greatest jazz records ever made. Billie Holiday.

(Soundbite of song, "Fine and Mellow")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) My man don't love me. He treats me oh, so mean.

Mr. HENTOFF: Toward the end of the show, Billie came into the studio, and she was surrounded by a small combo, including Lester Young. Billie and Lester had been very close, but they drifted apart. They were talking to each other in their music, and they were looking at each other in a way that made you feel that, well, like you were in something that was a very private space and time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HENTOFF: And that section was so utterly moving that in the control room, all of us had tears in our eyes.

So after the show was over, I went down to the studio, and Billie came running after me and gave me a big hug, biggest prize I ever got. And it was wonderful the kind of reactions that the show gave from the audience.

Robert Herridge got a letter a couple of days later from a woman saying it's just wonderful to see people doing what they love to do. And that's their whole lives. You can tell it in what they're saying in their music. And that's what this music called jazz is.

(Soundbite of song, "Fine and Mellow")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Love is like a faucet. It turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it's on, baby. It has turned off and on.

RAZ: That's the dean of jazz journalism, Nat Hentoff. His new book is called "At the Jazz Band Ball: 60 Years on the Jazz Scene."

Nat Hentoff, thank you so much.

Mr. HENTOFF: Well, thank you for swinging with me.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We'll be back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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