Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
AAJ: There are many great examples in your book of the power of jazz as a life-force; do you have a particular favorite from this collection?
NH: When Francis Sweeney diedshe was the woman in Boston who first brought me into reporting Boston, thenand this should have been documentedwas really the most Anti-Semitic city in the county, and if you were a kid in the ghetto and you went out at night you'd lose some teeth. People would be after you as a Christ killer and I lost some teeth. When I was fifteen or so this woman Francis Sweeney, a devout Catholic, ran a newspaper that exposed corruption in politicsthat was easybut she was also angry with the church because it said nothing about the anti-Semitism going on. She got me involved in some reporting on this. When she died I was very, very low and the only way I could do anything was to play Ben Webster ballads, all day long. My mother thought I was crazy, but that worked for me.
AAJ: One story from the book that really struck me was the story about Louis Armstrong in the Congo; where did you first hear that story? It sounds unbelievable.
NH: There was a big day at Queens, a borough of New York, when the Louis Armstrong home and museum was dedicated as a national landmark. I was there with people from all over the world, and all the kids from the neighborhoodthere's a Louis Armstrong Elementary School there, and a Louis Armstrong Intermediate School there. When Louis was there the kids would come see him and talk to him about the music. They also knew that when they were there and the ice cream wagon came along he'd take care of that.
As we're all gathered there in the street, all of a sudden, from way up high on a balcony beside Louis' den where he used to have his notebooks and play music, there was Jon Faddis playing a capella, all alone, "West End Blues."It was one of the most thrilling things I ever heard. Then Jon told the story; he said there was a fierce civil war in the Belgian Congo, this is in '53, and the two warring parties called a temporary truce because the leaders had found out that Louis was booked for a concert in the Belgian Congo. I thought it wasn't surprising to me that they stopped a terrible war to hear Louis.
AAJ: [laughs] That's such an amazing story.
NH: I'll tell you something else, Phoebe Jacobs, a close friend of Louis and Lucille , runs the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation which has done so many things; they have funded a Louis Armstrong Music Therapy Program at the pediatric center at Beth Israel Hospital in New YorkLouis always thought music was good for the health to help people recover. Phoebe was there on this big day and she says: "You know, people say Louis Armstrong is dead; Louis' not dead." That's true of all these people who are supposedly dead but their music stays very much alive.
AAJ: Absolutely. Another theme which is central to At the Jazz Band Ball is jazz as an educational force. Promoting education is something very dear to your heart but how do you think studying jazz can benefit young people today?
NH: In Sarasota Florida there's a very active jazz society and there's a woman who teachers in Florida, she grew up in Harlem, called Lucy White; she used to hear Chick Webb and all those people back then. When she came to Florida to be a teacher she was trying to get the schools to put jazz in the curriculum and she finally succeeded. Fifth grade classes in twenty elementary schools include American history intertwined with the history of jazzthe whole black migration from the south to places like Chicago, the role of New Orleans, the role of jazz in the Civil Rights movement, and all of this is part of the history of America as taught in the schools. One of the results, among other things, is that some of the kids in the classes began to form their own small combos. It's very infectious.
I received an invitation to a fourth grade class here in Manhattan and they asked me to play the kids some jazz and talk about it. So, one of my favorite musicians is the New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis, and I brought along one of his CDs, George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers (Blue Note, 1955). I played a few bars and the kids got up and they started to dance, and pretty soon the teacher got up and she started to dance. The music really gets to you. The music does bring life. You can call it American music and all that but it happens anywhere in the world.
I once got a smuggled message from a tenor player in Moscowthis was when Stalin was in charge in Russia and, of course then, jazz was banned. Somehow this tenor player in Moscow got this message out and it came to me a circuitous way. He had heard that I knew [John] Coltrane and had written some liner notes and the message was, could I send him some liner notes on John Coltrane. Well, I found out how to do that. Even under Stalin the music was so important to this guy he took a big chance.