June 10, 2012
One book, Jazz Is (1976), hooked me on jazz as image. The argot of the nightclub, the squalor of addiction, cats in shades battling keyboards or blowing silent cacophony through fat saxes. A spine or two away on the library shelf sat another book by the same author, NAT HENTOFF (born 1925): Jazz Country (1965), a young-adult novel about a white teenage trumpeter who seeks the mentorship of Moses Godfrey, an enigmatic genius seemingly modeled on Thelonious Monk. It taught me as much as any book has about race, guilt, friendship, and music. In one scene, the narrator finds Godfrey sitting alone in Washington Square. The two are harassed by racist punks. One tugs at Godfrey’s goatee, another knocks off his shades; then another recognizes his face, and respectfully halts the attack. Even when his glasses fly off, Godfrey doesn’t blink. He only muses on the oddity of having been saved by a fluke, and then weeps a bit. It took time to understand why the scene did not play out as I’d wanted it to — cool and violent, like a Billy Jack movie.
That I was not a fan of jazz as music didn’t seem to matter when I read Hentoff, because for him jazz was never simply music, it was life. If life’s most basic tension is between image and reality, enticement and truth, the thing we want and the thing that is, Hentoff showed me both. He introduced me to an image of cool, and then to what lay behind the jazz cat’s shades. I don’t get jazz and it doesn’t get me. But Nat Hentoff gets it, and I get Nat Hentoff.
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