The late Nat Hentoff was one of the most important jazz scribes from the era of greatness and the era of innocence. For a moment he was even a record producer, with his Candid label making several stone classics including Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus and The World of Cecil Taylor. As a magazine editor he helmed a few wonderful years of the Jazz Review, the glories of which remain surprising to those first discovering the archive. There are also several hundreds of liner notes and a few notable books. Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya with Nat Shapiro remains essential for historians and the young adult novel Jazz Country had wide circulation.
The Hentoff I know best is his summation and valediction, Jazz Is from 1976. These philosophical and metaphorical essays about various legends are liberally sprinkled with evocative quotes and photos. Mark Stryker still recommends it as the best gateway book into jazz.
There’s no good reason to be in this profession unless you have an essentially romantic relationship to the heroes of the music. In Jazz Is, the chapter on Charlie Parker is called “The Great Speckled Bird.” I was so happily verklempt poring over that title and that chapter while still a teenager.
Hentoff had riffs, and eventually those riffs might have become predictable. However, Hentoff had a right to those riffs, for he was there.
In Jazz Is and on many other occasions Hentoff told of being in the room the last time Lady Day and Lester Young played the blues together, for the television show The Sound of Jazz produced by Hentoff himself. Damn, that Pres chorus is simply unbelievable. But really everyone participating is wonderful.
For Nat Hentoff, one more time: