Take It Easy, But Take It

Nat Hentoff is stalking me.

First I saw his American Legacy article on women in jazz.

Then he pops up in this Lenny Bruce book I've been reading, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography.” While on the stand at the comedian’s obscenity trial, Ralph Gleason reads an excerpt from one of Nat’s articles about Lenny.

Finally, last night, I’m minding my own business, reading “Beneath the Underdog.” It’s an autobiography too, sort of. The book begins when Charles Mingus turns two-years-old and splits his head open on a dresser. “I found myself outside him for the first time,” the narrator tells us. Later at the hospital, he decides to go back in. “I climbed up on the white table where Baby was laid out and materialized myself into the big hole over his left eye.” From there on, the spirit, for lack of a better term, takes us through Mingus’ life, calling him “my boy.”

Much later in the book, Charles meets a DJ in Boston who “turned out to be one of the few white guys you could really talk to.” You guessed it. Nat Hentoff. Nat and Charles strike up a friendship that includes the occasional letter back and forth. One of Nat’s is included…

“The reason for hating others is hate of oneself, feeling the self is inadequate in some vague or specific way, and projecting that to other objects. Hate is a destructive emotion incapable of doing any good or creating anything and destroys the man who hates more painfully and thoroughly than the man he hates.”

He goes on to describe his view of man’s meaning…

“He must use what time he has creating now for the future and to utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor union song I liked a lot when I was a kid: take it easy, but take it.”

Utilizing the past in a positive way is easier said than done. Later in the book, Charles is interviewed by a critic who asks him about British jazz. He acknowledges they can be as good as anyone in terms of technique and musicianship, “but what do they need to play jazz for? It’s the American Negro’s tradition, it’s his music. White people don’t have a right to play it, it’s colored folk music.” He goes on, “You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo, but we came up with jazz.”

A provocative soundbite, but not the whole story. In yet another article (a very interesting one titled Is Jazz Black Music?) Hentoff notes that Mingus believed, as Bird said, “Anyone can play this music if they can feel it.” Towards the end of the piece, Nat broadens the question, bringing to mind a lot of the issues raised in the Democratic primary campaign. He suggests that the next big leader in jazz might not only be of any race, but also of either gender...

“He or she hasn’t broken through the jazz firmament yet. And it certainly could be a she. As of now, that female person isn’t in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra because Wynton Marsalis hasn’t yet found a woman musician, of whatever nationality, color or age, who meets his standards for being a regular member. Since Wynton does have big ears, I remain puzzled at this omission. As a challenge (one I’ve issued the trumpeter before), why doesn’t he try a blind audition for once?”

More stuff to think about as you scan the faces of the performers, or just close your eyes and listen, during the Rochester International Jazz Festival.