Nat Hentoff: The Never-Ending Ball
AAJ: Another musician with a very individualistic sound is Cecil Taylor; I was struck by a story in your book which describes Jo Jones showing his displeasure at Taylor's music one night at Birdland by throwing a cymbal onto the stage and gonging him off...
NH: That was amazing because I knew Jo very well and he loved the music and tried to encourage what he called his "kiddies." The story with Cecil was [when] Cecil was unknown; he was gigging wherever he could and he sat in at Birdland and sometimes the guys just wouldn't listen, and Jo did indeed take a cymbal and throw it across the stage.
This happened too, though not with a cymbal, to Ornette Coleman; the first time he came to New York he played a place called The Five Spot. Most of the older players came to listen to him because there had already been a fair amount of publicity about him. I was sitting next to Roy Eldridge one night and Roy was always open to all kinds of things and he said to me: "This guy's just jiving, there's no music in there." Even Coleman Hawkins, who was the first of the swing masters to have Dizzy [Gillespie] on one of his recordings, said: "I don't like to say anything negative about somebody but this guy needs a lot of seasoning." Ornette had already had the experience in Los Angeles when he came on the stage for some all-star thing where he was just sitting in, and all the other players walked out. He was hurt by that.
AAJ: Hardly surprising. People talk about the" Golden Age" of jazz, but these stories about the hostile reaction to Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman strike me as being ungracious in the extreme; there isn't that level of intolerance in the jazz scene today, is there?
NH: Well, it's like writers different people have different ways of reacting. One thing I learned from Charlie Parker about listening, when I interviewed him on the radio, and it's helped me a lot, Bird said: "I heard a [Béla] Bartók concerto and I didn't like it at all. Then I was in Paris and I heard the same thing and I thought wow, and I decided to write a concerto for jazz musicians like that." He said: "Never listen to something just once."
I think too many of us, including some musicians maybe, make the mistake of listening just once. Sometimes how you react to music depends on whether you've had a fight with your girlfriend the night before or you have indigestion.
AAJ: Your own credo has always seemed to be that if you've got nothing good to say about the music, then say nothing; you're very aware of the responsibility of being a jazz critic, aren't you?
NH: Gee, I don't see myself as a critic. I used to have to review a lot of recordings when I was at Downbeat and it always bothered me writing something that might help the guy lose some of his work. So, when I finally got fired at Downbeat and went over to The Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes, I decided to only write about those musicians who really get to me. I'm not a musicologist, I can't tell you what the chords are, what the polyrhythms are; and that bothered me for a while.
One day one of my daughters, Marindawho's a pianist, a teacher and a singerreally hit me once when she said: "How can you be negative when you're taking away the bread from somebody and you can't even tell what he's doing?" I brooded about that. Well, I was walking down the street where I live in The Village and I saw Gil Evans coming. I knew Gil when he was still with Claude Thornhill and I'd been with him at the Miles Davis sessions, and I decided I'd make him my Rabbi; I told him what was bothering me and he said: "Hey listen, I know musicians who can tell you everything that's going on technically but they don't get inside the music to the story the musician's trying to tell. I read you, you get there some of the time. Stop worrying."
I felt a little better after that, but I decided, to hell with all this, I'm only going to write about musicians that people will want to listen to because of what I write.
AAJ: I was a little surprised to read a JazzTimes article from '01, about Diana Krall and Jane Monheit, in which you basically discredit them as jazz singers...
NH: I'm not an absolutist; when something is so hyped, so publicized that it is way out of line with what is actually being sent out as jazz I had to say something. That's why I wrote that column about Monheit and Krall; they weren't in the same universe as Billie Holiday or Anita O'Day, or Carmen McRae, my goodness! So I have to say I broke my rule on that one.