Two of my main passions — in work as well as in the rest of my life — are jazz and the Constitution, which interact. Jazz, banned by Hitler and Stalin, is America’s great contribution of free expression globally, and, as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once told me, “The First Amendment’s freedom of speech protects all the rest of our liberties.”
I’ve been writing about jazz for more than 60 years, while getting to know many of the musicians personally. One of them, Ben Webster, was Duke Ellington’s powerfully swinging tenor saxophonist and also a romantically tender balladeer. After he left Duke to become a leader, Ben worked the nation with his own rhythm section. But when club owners wouldn’t pay for extra personnel, Ben had to depend on local swingers — if they knew how to groove.
One night in Boston, when I was 19 and just starting to write on jazz, I was sitting next to Ben at the bar in a club between sets; the local players he had hired couldn’t match his deep, infectious swing.
“Listen, kid,” Ben suddenly said to me, “when the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself!”
That has stayed with me all these years — whether I’m arguing with one of my editors, or with a federal official threatening to get the FBI after me if I keep trying to pierce government secrecy.
So I break free and do what I have to do.
I also learned a valuable life lesson from Charlie Parker, a key icon of “modern jazz,” although all jazz that lasts is permanently contemporary.
I was interviewing Bird, as he was called, on the radio when the conversation turned to Bela Bartok. I’d recently been excited by a concerto of his, based in part on the Hungarian folk music of his youth. As I told Bird this, he started to lecture me.
“Listen,” he said. “The first time I heard a Bartok concerto, I didn’t dig it at all. Couldn’t stand it. It said nothing to me. But a couple of months later, I heard the same Bartok concerto, and it got way inside me. That’s what got me started on writing a jazz concerto.
“So don’t be misled by first impressions,” Bird warned. “Whatever it is, open up to it again. Otherwise, you could be missing a lot.” I took Bird seriously, not only when it came to music, but across the board. Like, I’d be interviewing somebody on a very serious issue, and he wouldn’t open up to me. He was new to me, so I figured he was hiding something. But then I remembered what Bird said, so I did some more research on the issue, went back to my source with more knowledgeable questions and learned enough from him to file a story.
And now that I’m 88 1/2, I’ve learned something else that is very important. As my jazz articles and books make clear, I knew Duke Ellington for years, and became concerned as he was getting older and he and his orchestra were playing a lot of one-nighters, covering long distances each year.
On one of his few days off in New York, he looked very beat, and I presumptuously said to him, “Duke, you don’t have to keep going through this. You’ve written a lot of classics. You can retire on your ASCAP income.”
Duke looked hard at me, then looked again. His tone suggested I had lost all my marbles as he shouted at me, “Retire? To what?”
During my octogenarian years since then, I’ve become familiar with different prescriptions for pain relievers and other medications provided by doctors I go to. But I research and write continuously and, very fortunately, I greatly enjoy my work, tough as it often is. I can attest to the conclusion by some medical specialists that one of the best therapies for the problems of aging is the satisfaction of working at a vocation that keeps absorbing and invigorating you.
The late, controversial reporter Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew and respected, was writing his challenging columns amid considerable pain until the week he died. As he liked to say, “I live to work, and I work to live.”
Me too. Were I ever to falter, I’m sure I’d hear Duke Ellington saying resoundingly, “Retire to what?”
One of the closest friends I’ve had, in or out of jazz, was Charles Mingus, the nonpareil bassist and the most original multidimensional jazz composer since Duke Ellington. He didn’t call his music “jazz.” Too limiting. It was “Mingus music.”
“People are getting so fragmented,” Mingus once told me, “and part of that is that fewer and fewer people are making a real effort anymore to find out who they are. Most people are forced to do things they don’t want to most of the time, and so they get to the point where they no longer have any choice about anything important, including who they are. “But I’m going to keep getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music.”
And though he and Duke and Bird and Ben Webster are no longer here, Mingus keeps helping me answer Duke Ellington’s song — performed far less often than his other classics — “What am I Here for?”
I’m here to keep finding out who I am — and to act on that. Presently, that includes trying to take the Constitution back and encouraging a still insufficient number of students who are also doing this in their classes. I will also continue to encourage these kids to be involved in how their schools, neighborhoods, states and nation are being governed.
Their individual liberties don’t need the jazz pulse to keep swinging, but I do in order to get their attention.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.