Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Roderick Nordell - Essay

Roderick Nordell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two centuries after Shakespeare, not to mention ten times as many after Homer, people still did not know what "poetry is."…

So it is hardly surprising that, after the mere 75 years in the history of jazz, this latter-day art form still tempts the definers. In "Jazz Is" a long-time social critic and heart-on-sleeve jazz specialist throws the latest lifeline to a laity left floundering by such wry semi-truths as the one attributed to jazz's Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."

Nat Hentoff is a kind of prototype of the white kid who hung around the dancehall door and never got over the sounds of the black musicians and their musical descendants, now of every color. Today he's in that middle-aged generation which can still look around and find what he calls "survivors of every one of the campaigns" waged by "thousands of fiercely individualistic players" during the dramatic changes from ancient New Orleans to modern international (yes, even "third-world") jazz. Mr. Hentoff is particularly, and searchingly, responsive to those occasions when the generations meet and swing to gether; when the elder statesman recognizes a link to the raucous newcomer and vice versa; when an individual, such as "mainstream" saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, seems to have absorbed everything and can play the right thing at the right time with any generation….

Objections might be made to Mr. Hentoff's own sometimes inflated prose. How many uses of the word "nonpareil" can one book take? But he does masterfully convey a sense of jazz in its broad human and artistic context.

Roderick Nordell, "'Jazz Is': Insiders' Definitions," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1976 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 1, 1976, p. 23.