Sunday, January 08, 2017

Man of (more than) words: Thank you, Nat Hentoff

"'Man of Words' is, I'm told by Booker [Little], dedicated to this writer. Whether the dedication is pejorative or not, the piece may indicate. Actually, it is Booker's description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop, and after rereading what he's already done, he's spurred — sometimes — to go forward. Eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer know he's solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music, such as Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, this work to my knowledge is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker's performance is an impressive display of sustained invention — and sustained clarity of line and feelings." —Nat Hentoff, from the liner notes to Booker Little's Out Front
I'm not a Nat Hentoff expert. Outside of his extensive liner-notes catalog, which any jazz fan knows well, I can't say I'm that familiar with his body of work. But I have to put down a quick note of gratitude for the series of recordings he produced in the early '60s for the Candid label — and more specifically for Out Front, which is simply my favorite jazz album of all time. It's very possible that this masterpiece would not have existed without Hentoff.  Also from the liner notes:

"I had been impressed by Little's playing, first on records and then in a series of night club appearances with Max Roach, because of his strong-lined lyricism and highly individual, thoughtful conception. His originals and arrangements for Roach were also uniquely free of ornamentation and were directly emotional. Finally, I asked Booker to write and organize an album of his own with complete choice of side men. The result is the fullest realization so far on records of Booker's scope as a writer and a player."
And, as Little would die only six months after sessions for this album concluded, at the shockingly young age of 23, Out Front would stand for all time as that fullest realization of what he was capable of. (Booker Little and Friend, a.k.a. Victory and Sorrow, the one post–Out Front studio LP Little made under his own name, is a strong record but not, to my ears, the immortal classic that Out Front is.)

To me, it says a lot that Little would dedicate a piece to Hentoff. Let alone a piece of such profound emotional depth. "Man of Words" is, simply, a complete and utter killer, a dirge-paced shot of pure pathos. (Any experienced writer will know well that feeling of facing, as Hentoff puts it, "an appallingly blank page," and though I can't say that a writer's private anguish is the first thing I think of when I hear the piece, I find it pretty damn fascinating that Little felt so moved as to musically illustrate that sensation!)

Phil Schaap once told me that Little learned he had terminal illness between the two sessions that produced Out Front (on March 17 and April 4, respectively, of '61). "Man of Words" was, perhaps unsurprisingly, recorded at the latter of the two. Is that terrifying moment at 3:45, where the band rests and Little fills the resulting abyss with two searing yelps — absolutely one of the handful of most intense musical events I've ever beheld on a record — really an embodiment of what the trumpeter perceived to be the writer's fear and uncertainty? Or is it a cry for help in the face of his own impending mortality? A little of both? Either way, I mean, Jesus... you don't hear that kind of crushingly naked emotion captured on tape that often.

(N.B. Little's own words from Hentoff's liners: "My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should be are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all you want." A-fucking-men, sir.)

The rest of the album is, of course, a masterpiece. "Moods in Free Time" is staggering and, in my mind, basically unparalleled as an example of episodic small-group composition and arrangement. Another mega-dirge section in this piece inspiring a volcanic Eric Dolphy eruption, one of his most violent on record. And Roach's monumentally badass drum break leading back into the head. Just a phenomenally assured and personal sound oozing out of every pore of this recording. I thank Hentoff from the bottom of my heart for clearing a path by which this creative act could occur and be documented for all time.

And of course the rest: Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger's New York City R and B, Jaki Byard's Blues for Smoke, the fascinating Newport Rebels comp. Nat Hentoff was right there in the mix at this crucial jazz moment. I'm not trying to elevate his role above that of the musicians; I'm just saying that his behind-the-scenes role was pivotal. He clearly believed in what was going down in jazz, specifically in the mecca of NYC, at that time, and he wasn't going to let potential masterworks slip through the cracks. (I doubt very much that many others were lining up to arrange carte blanche record dates for, say, Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy in 19-freakin'-60.)

So, yes, critic, columnist, commentator, "man of words," call Nat Hentoff what you will. But it's clear that he was a guy who made serious real-world moves on behalf of the art that he so dearly loved. And for that, we all owe him big time.

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