Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

h and m

All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Two: Jazz, Featuring Wayne Shorter (Revisited)

Wayne Shorter is about to turn 80.

He continues to record, play and inspire.

Of the many musicians I admire and seek in some way to emulate (as artists, as people), Shorter is near the top of the list.

His dedication to his craft, his modesty and the astonishing body of work he continues to produce make him a natural source of good natured envy.

How does he do it? A recent piece in the New York Times sheds some excellent insight (check out the article HERE).

Shorter is always a peaceful, yet powerful force (in his playing, in his life) and his meditations on mortality and musicianship are never trite or typical:

To me there’s no such thing as beginning or end,” Mr. Shorter said. “I always say don’t discard the past completely because you have to bring with you the most valuable elements of experience, to be sort of like a flashlight. A flashlight into the unknown.”

A quote like that goes a long way to elucidating some of what moves this amazing man, but as usual, we need only to listen to the sounds to be reminded what some of us are capable of achieving.

6/8/2010:

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner in crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than half a century.

It was only last week, while talking about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet, i.e., the best working band to ever make music, that I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

It occurs to me that while I occassionally wax ecstatic about jazz music (in general) and some of my all-time musical heroes (in particular), I have recently and with good reason invoked both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realize, when it comes to sax players and accessibility, perhaps I’ve been remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did –even the stuff like late-period Coltrane which you may never even listen to but you still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Two: Jazz, Featuring Wayne Shorter

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner in crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than half a century.

It was only last week, while talking about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet, i.e., the best working band to ever make music, that I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

It occurs to me that while I occassionally wax ecstatic about jazz music (in general) and some of my all-time musical heroes (in particular), I have recently and with good reason invoked both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realize, when it comes to sax players and accessibility, perhaps I’ve been remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did –even the stuff like late-period Coltrane which you may never even listen to but you still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

 

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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