Perfect Day (2008)

Nat Hentoff

I often had perfect days when I came to New York to live in 1953. I did not anticipate the energy of the city then, or in the years ahead, climaxing in the 1960s. Before my new life in New York, I was out most nights in Boston—in jazz clubs, union halls, and political gatherings, but nothing there compared to the intellectual tumult of the Village, where I lived and worked (starting at the Voice in 1958).

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy
At the WHITE HORSE TAVERN on Hudson Street, by the time you got to the bar, you'd be involved in an argument about the prospects for democratic socialism with Michael Harrington (who was to "discover" poverty in a book, The Other America, that started the unfinished "War on Poverty"). And at the bar, Herbert Hill, the fiercely committed labor secretary of the NAACP, would be detailing plans to strip the craft unions of their endemic Jim Crow practices. What especially irritated opponents in that sector of the labor movement was that Herb was white.

During the day, these kinds of debates would continue with the customers, many of them writers, and the clerks, at the EIGHTH STREET BOOKSHOP, run like an open forum by Ted and Eli Wilentz. In the years since, I have been in bookstores in many cities, but they were nothing like this place, where you were continually challenged to find out how much you didn't know in your "fields."

Some of the clerks anticipated the Internet by being walking search engines, and I did all my research for The First Freedom, a history of the First Amendment, from their bonanza stock of paperbacks. Long ago, a shoe store took the place of that cornucopia of ideas. At least there ought to be a plaque.

Still alive is Max Gordon's VILLAGE VANGUARD (178 Seventh Avenue South, 255-4037). With Max gone, Lorraine Gordon continues to make it the one jazz club where, even if you don't know who's playing that night, you can't go wrong. There, Charles Mingus kept changing forms, musical and physical, always larger than life. And Lenny Bruce, with the pulse and daring of a jazzman, would look at the multiply integrated audience and stun them by asking: "Any spics here tonight? Any niggers? Any kikes?" Then he'd ask them why words had such paralyzing power over them. What were they afraid of in themselves? He got busted and broken for that.

In CAFÉ BOHEMIA, on—as I remember—Barrow Street, there were not only the sounds of surprise of such intractable searchers as Miles Davis, but, one night, a sudden ascent to renown. A large young man from Florida walked in with an alto saxophone and asked to sit in. The leader, the often fiery Oscar Pettiford, set off a racetrack tempo through which the amiable stranger sailed with lyrical aplomb, all the while telling his own story.

Shortly afterward, the visitor, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley—the word of his debut having spread—got a record contract and went on to work with Miles Davis and, later, his own joyous combo.

The cabaret scene in the Village was as brilliant and protean as the jazz milieus. The magisterial Mabel Mercer—from whom Frank Sinatra learned how to get inside lyrics—presided like royalty in various small clubs. So did the more enveloping, earthier Sylvia Syms, who can hardly be found anymore in the chronicles of that era.

In addition to these waking dreams of what I had barely imagined New York life could be like, I miss a series of evenings of conversation. It was called the Theater for Ideas, organized by Shirley Broughton, a dancer. Meeting for informal, and often vigorous, discussions, such thinkers as Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paul Goodman explored the meanings of our lives.

We discussed politics; philosophy; prejudices; fascism; Communism; police surveillance of American "subversives"; Herbert Marcuse's double standard of free speech; "repressive tolerance"; and the participants' own works. Why can't those sessions be held now?

For me, the person who most exemplified the spontaneous pleasures of those years was the Village Vanguard's Max Gordon. A cosmopolitan of ceaseless curiosity and of a generosity of spirit that made the Vanguard homelike, Max befriended me when I came to the Village, a stranger from the provinces. Between the jazz sets, he began to introduce me to the expansive spirit of the Village, which still exists, when you happen upon it.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >