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A Young Jazz Pianist Remembers His Biggest Champion: Nat Hentoff

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Shortly after moving to New York in the fall of 2007, I got an internship at the Blue Note Jazz Club. One of my first tasks there was to transcribe a few interviews that Nat Hentoff had recently conducted the Blue Note. We’d often fax the completed transcriptions to Nat, but occasionally on my way home, I’d swing by his building on West 12th Street and leave the transcriptions with his doorman.

Eventually word got back to me that he liked my transcription style, so I decided to share a recent recording of mine (my very first) with him.

I was nervous as I walked to his building. At that point, I had only shared my music with maybe one or two other people in the whole jazz business and knew that playing it for Nat, a dean of jazz criticism, was a risky move. So I was shocked when a few weeks later, I received a call from Nat. More shocking, however, was what he said: He loved the album, and said that he planned on eventually writing about it.

Back then Nat was still busy writing for The Village Voice, JazzTimes and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Whenever we spoke over the phone, he didn’t waste time with small talk. Without a hello, he’d immediately launch into his reason for calling. When the conversation was finished, he simply hung up. Very rarely was there a “bye”.

I was a naive twenty-something with little experience being around people I idolized, and Nat’s hurried, no-nonsense way of speaking made me quite nervous. But as we got to know each other better, I began to find his way of communicating both charming and refreshing. Nat’s old school way of conversation felt, somehow, like a connection to a bygone New York, a city of old school intellectuals with outsized personalities.

Sometimes he’d pick up the phone, say, “I can’t talk now, I’m trying to save the constitution,” or “I’m protecting your civil liberties,” and then abruptly hang up.

Over the next six or seven years, we spoke quite frequently, up to several times a week, and it stayed that way until this past spring, when his hearing made phone conversations difficult.

He told me amazing stories about Duke Ellington, who, Nat said, sent him a Christmas card in the spring of the year he died because he wanted to make sure to get his Christmas greetings out before his passing (as it turned out, Ellington died that May). He told me about Charles Mingus, who used to call him to play or whistle new compositions and melodies over the phone, and Charlie Parker, who told him he loved country music for the stories. Nat said Earl Scruggs once saved him from a beating down South, and that Malcolm X used to phone his house as “Mr. X.” He told me about Fats Waller treating him to his first steak dinner. He’d often tell me that he wished he could’ve introduced me to Willie “The Lion” Smith and said that he thought the two of us would’ve gotten along nicely. I always got a kick out of that.

Nat was a fighter, and a champion. He told me about working on “The Sound Of Jazz”, a wonderful hour-long program on CBS in 1957 that featured, among others, Count Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. Regarding Holiday, he told me that some of the CBS executives didn’t like the idea of having a black woman who had been in jail on the show and asked him to remove her from the program. In response, Nat threatened to pull the entire program if she wouldn’t be allowed on. Fortunately for us, they let her remain on the program, which turned out to be Holiday’s very last performance with Lester Young. Nat told me that Holiday gave him a big kiss on the cheek afterward and that that kiss had been the greatest award he ever received.

Nat’s work ethic was like nothing I’ve ever seen and will continue to inspire me throughout my life.

I remember calling to wish him a happy birthday on either his 89th or 90th birthday. He called me back the next day, apologizing that he’d missed me. “For my birthday present,” he told me. “I just wanted a day alone to write.”

Another time, I was volunteering at one of the luncheons for the NEA Jazz Masters Awards and, after lunching with Billy Taylor, James Moody, Gerald Wilson, Roy Haynes and so many other greats, I walked Nat to his car. He told me that he felt like he had just attended a family reunion, but when I asked if I’d see him later that night at the big awards ceremony, he said, “No. I’ve got to work.”

Around 2013, he started telling me about his deteriorating health, but it didn’t seem to bother him as long as he could write. For the next year or so, whenever I’d ask how he was doing, he’d simply say, “I’m still writing, and as long as I’m writing I’m okay.”

He never complained to me until his vision started failing, but he was determined to write for as long as he could. Even though he could barely read, he collaborated with his son Nick on articles in 2016, dictating his words to him; they even somehow managed to profile me again this past March, in what, I believe, was Nat’s final piece on Jazz.

I last saw him this past September when I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with him at his home. I brought along a copy of Invitation to Openness, Les McCann’s book of photography, and it was thrilling to watch him light up as he’d see the faces of so many of his old friends.

Having a champion in Nat Hentoff is something I will always treasure. I remember him calling all excited one day, just to tell me that, while listening to one of my albums, his neighbor, enjoying the music from the hallway, knocked on his door just to ask what he was listening to.

Nat taught me so much about music, writing and life in general. His words, attitudes and teachings have influenced my music just as much as the music of my favorite pianists.

I often used to make note of things he’d say after we spoke. Looking back through my notes to write this essay, I found one particularly poignant one. I don’t remember the context, but that doesn’t matter: ”You only have one life,” he said. “Why do something that doesn’t let you be you?”

Amen.