When I was a teenager starting to buy my own jazz records, rather than borrowing my parents LPs or making cassette tapes of my siblings, my father took note and bought me a copy of Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is. I read it and reread it almost immediately. He was capable of lionizing jazz greats *and* analyzing them. I was fascinated as previously I had thought that the act of scrutiny inherently reduced the subject. It made me want to write like that too.
About 25 years later, I began writing for the Wall Street Journal, I knew that Hentoff wrote for the same section of the paper but I couldn’t imagine that he might read my pieces. Then about two years into my time there, my editor emailed me the day a review of mine ran, and I cringed. I feared I’d botched a detail. Nope, my editor was writing to convey Hentoff’s praise. Then about a year later, it happened again, and a couple of years later, again.
Each instance put me on cloud nine for weeks, but what also impressed me was which articles he commented upon. The stories about Sonny Rollins or Duke Ellington, artists that Hentoff had written beautifully about, weren’t the ones that impressed him. He was a big fan of the 2004 story about the then up-and-coming Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. He liked the 2009 article about Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone and Tomas Fujiwara. In other words, his ears were still open and eager for information on new music. It made me that much more interested in finding new and exciting musicians. Impressing my editors wasn’t easy, but impressing Nat, now that was the gold standard.
Nat’s gone now, but I’m not going to stop trying to impress him. That’s what Jazz Is, right? He taught me with his words and his actions.