(Photo: Charles Mingus with Nat Hentoff early 1960s)
Nat Hentoff had many interests as a writer—both within and outside the music industry. He authored over 30 books as well as a myriad of articles for various magazines, newspapers and online sources. However, his 50+ year career as a writer of liner notes for records and CDs is one area of his distinguished career that, as a body of work, has been somewhat overlooked, though his over 600 sets of liner notes, written for not only jazz but for rock, blues, folk and classical albums were, collectively, among the best written and most informative of the liner note genre.
This isn’t surprising given that the generation of music buyers raised on 1960s-70s pop and rock albums were fed a steady stream of rather vapid liner notes written by either disc jockeys or in-house record company public relations people who were well paid to tell a rather young and gullible buyer just how great the album was as well as occasional hyperbole about how wise and “hip” purchasing that record would make them. So, the work of those writing liner notes, talented or otherwise, was often thought of as informative at best and rarely as inspirational or thought-provoking. After all, was there ever a published set of liner notes that didn’t heap praise on the artist or their music?
The history of comprehensive jazz liner note writing began with the introduction of the 12” long-playing album, first introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, which gradually, over the next eight years or so, replaced the 10” record at all the major record companies. (Interestingly, Blue Note records was one of the last labels to switch over to the 12″ long playing record—in 1956.) These new 12” records provided a rather expansive back cover which demanded to be filled with something of added value to the purchaser. Record companies utilized this space for liner notes as well as promoting other releases on their label.
This need for liner notes provided many talented writers with second careers. Among those employed to do so was a young Nat Hentoff who joined with other jazz critics, whose collective writings during the bebop and post bop era of the1940’s and 1950’s, helped to legitimize jazz as a true art form. Jazz was serious art and critics writing the liner notes generally treated it as such. In the second half of the 1950s, Hentoff emerged as arguably the foremost craftsman of the art of liner note writing for jazz albums.
In reviewing a cross-section of liner notes that Hentoff wrote for jazz albums, his most prolific and absorbing output was the cogent and well-crafted work he provided for his friend, Charles Mingus.
“… There are nights when Mingus hovers over his (side)men like a brooding Zeus making up the final scorecard for eternity. His own moods are unpredictable. When he is buoyant, the bandstand becomes a picnic ground in Elysium. When he is angry, the room contracts and is filled with crackling tension of an impending electric storm. At these times, Mingus’ bass begins to mutter like a thunder bolt on the way. This huge cauldron of emotions at the center of a band can be taxing to a sideman; but if the latter has his own center of emotional and musical gravity, he can survive—and grow.”
Without knowing the source, one might assume that this evocative and thought-provoking quote would be sourced from academia—perhaps an MFA thesis or a doctoral dissertation. Actually, this wisdom came from the liner notes of a record album which could be had for $3.98 at your local record store in 1963.
This example of Hentoff’s work appeared in the liner notes to Charles Mingus’ 1963 album, redundantly entitled, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. This writing is indicative of the style that Hentoff brought to liner note writing, as well as displaying his willingness to do a deep dive into the human element of music making. On many albums, Hentoff’s notes are so well written as to occasionally qualitatively transcend the music within the record jacket.
“Mingus is verbally articulate as well, and it’s illuminating to follow the one immovable, uncompromising line of continuity that connects his development through the years—the line of personal and musical integrity and relentless self-searching. He may have a reputation for being an Avant- garde composer but he knows where he’s come from.”
From: The Clown – 1957
Hentoff’s style of writing liner notes was rather unencumbered by the need to show off his knowledge of music. Hentoff was not a trained musician and showed little desire to unlock the technical mysteries of the music he was so passionate about. In many ways this freed him to write liner notes which dug into the artist and their aesthetic make-up.
As previously stated, his liner notes (as well as those of others), helped to legitimize jazz as an art form. He did this not by asserting in bold proclamations that the albums we were holding in our hands were terribly important because, as other writers were quick to state, they were examples of “America’s only native art form,” or even by proving their importance through a musical analysis of what we were about to hear. Instead, Hentoff often accomplished this through serving as our personal escort through the mind of the artist who created the music, offering up a rich, multilayered understanding of the contextual socio-economic factors and the uniquely human traits of the artist. In the process he demonstrated how these factors melded together to create art. This dynamic approach served to humanize the artist and their art and in doing so encouraged the listener to further explore their music.
As an 18-year-old, new to the mysteries of jazz and eager to learn more about the music and its practitioners, I would devour liner notes in an effort to fully grasp why the music stirred such deep emotions in me. Many of the notes that I found to be particularly informative were signed by some guy named Nat Hentoff. As my modest record collection expanded, and even though I was struggling to understand the music and its powerful hold on my emotions, I sensed in Hentoff’s writings that I was being moved not by the rather ephemeral and “guilty pleasure” emotions of the rock and pop that many of my generation were listening to, but by something that burrowed deeper into my soul. In retrospect, this was my first inkling of what the power of art to move one’s emotions felt like. I now realized that the music produced by Ellington, Monk, Davis and Coltrane was indeed very special. I furthermore recognized that I had found something unique, something that was very adult, possessing magical qualities; something that I felt made me a rather special consumer of music among my teenage peers.
Most importantly, I realized that I wasn’t just a poser trying to set myself apart as a young sophisticate. There was a basis-in-fact for my musical choices.
I further realized that Hentoff’s liner notes were but an aperitif—so much more remained to be learned about the music’s practitioners, history and musical structure.
It was at this point that I became aware of Charles Mingus and realized the connection between his albums and Hentoff’s liner notes.
“Charles Mingus’ Workshop is fueled by his motions. These are not primarily exercises in form or attempts at “absolute music.” All of Mingus’ writing is forcefully intended, as is his playing, to tell a story. For Mingus, music is his primary, essential means of communication with others. He tells in his work of his fears, his loves, his inflammable conflicts, his night-to-night battle to find and be himself.” From: East Coasting- 1957
Hentoff was very close to Mingus and knew and understood this complex person as well as any jazz critic ever did. Because of this close relationship, Hentoff could do, in his liner notes, what he did best—view his subject more through a socio-psychological prism than through musical analysis or biography. This approach yielded some of his best work in the medium of liner note writing.
A clue as to why Hentoff, the non-musician, avoided the temptation to venture onto the slippery slope of opining about the technical nature of a performance as other jazz critics and liner note writers such as Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler did—both of whom were trained on an instrument—can be found in a story that Hentoff told in a Jazztimes interview:
“My daughter Miranda said to me once when she was hitting the clubs as a pianist and vocalist; she’s now mostly a teacher and composer, “You don’t know music technically. How come you can affect somebody’s living?” That bothered me a lot. I was walking down the street where I live and I saw Gil Evans coming toward me. I knew Gil when he was in Claude Thornhill’s band and I got to know him during the Miles Davis session of Sketches of Spain. So, I decided to make him my rabbi and I told him what was bothering me. And he said, “Look, I know musicians who know every note, every chord, everything. The only thing they lack is taste. I read you. I know what you like. I can tell whether you have an ear. So, stop worrying about that stuff.”
Hentoff’s friendship with Mingus began in 1952 when Hentoff was working at radio station WMEX in Boston and Mingus was in town as a sideman with Billy Taylor. Hentoff’s first interview with Mingus took place at WMEX. In 1953, Hentoff moved to New York City to become New York City editor for Downbeat and the daily routines of the aspiring bassist and the journalist often brought them together.
Eventually, their relationship evolved to the point that when the ever-insecure Mingus would place calls to friends at all hours and play the piano or an audio tape over the phone, explaining the work and asking those at the other end for their opinion, he included Hentoff as one of his sounding boards.
In 1958, when Mingus signed himself into the psychiatric wing of Bellevue Hospital and, after a few days, discovered that it wasn’t as easy to sign oneself out, he called Hentoff who arranged for Mingus’ on- and- off again psychoanalyst, Dr. Edwin Pollock, to vouch for Mingus, which ultimately led to his release.
Eventually, Hentoff managed, better than most in Mingus’ orbit, to understand Mingus’ contradictions, insecurities, fears—which bordered on paranoia—and wide-ranging views on a myriad of other topics. Foremost being the views he held on the pervasive racism he faced as a Black artist in the United States, as well as Mingus’ thoughts on the process of losing one’s identity in a rather crazy world.
“This album is another stage in that self-discovery, and in many respects, it reaches emotional depths in Mingus that are more revelatory of the marrow of his struggle than anything he has yet recorded. What turns this raw introspection into art is that Mingus is also a singularly creative composer- leader. He has hammered out an unmistakable personal language through which he stimulates, disturbs, and re- energizes his listeners more consistency than most contemporary musicians in or out of jazz.”
From: Mingus Oh Yeah- 1962
In 1963, Mingus recorded two of his most highly regarded albums: The Black Saint and the Sinner Woman and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. For the liner notes for Black Saint, Mingus shared the back cover with Dr. Edmund Pollock, his psychoanalyst. As was generally the case with Mingus, the motivation for this rather unusual arrangement was only known to him. Whatever the motivation, it is evident that Mingus left Pollock to his own means in structuring the notes. It appears that Pollock possibly had a record collection because his approach to writing the notes utilized as its model the rather typical annotated approach of listening to each selection and briefly offering analysis, the difference here being that the analysis that Pollock offers is not musical analysis but a rather bizarre selection-by-selection psychoanalysis of Mingus, the person, as viewed through his music. In essence, a music critic’s liner note format but with psychoanalytical content. It approaches a level of liner note parody which could only work on liner notes for a Charles Mingus album.
“In the first track of side 1, there is heard a solo voice expressed by the alto saxophone—a voice calling to others and saying ‘I am alone please, please join me!’ The deep mourning in tears of loneliness is echoed and re-echoed by the instruments in Mr. Mingus’s attempt to express his feelings about separation from and among the discordant people of the world. The suffering is terrible to hear.” From Pollock ’s liner notes: The Black Saint and the Sinner Woman
Hentoff was employed to do the liner note honors for Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus.
In contrast to Pollock’s work on Black Saint. Hentoff also offers his take on Mingus’ state of mind but does it in a much more straightforward manner.
“Mingus’s musical autobiography is a molten mixture of many elements. Among them are the daily exacerbations in the toughening of the spirit which comes from being a negro in this country. His music also addresses, however, the essential problem of every man—how does one live to the fullest of one’s capabilities?… Mingus has found a more self-liberating answer to this question than have most of his contemporaries. He is one of the most alive men I have ever known, and it is this commitment to living rather than only existing which makes his music so energizing and so insistently provocative.”
In the early 1970s writer John F. Goodman began a series of far-reaching interviews with Mingus. In the instance where Goodman brings up the topic of jazz writers/critics it appears, from Mingus’ response, that his relationship with Hentoff might have soured somewhat:
Goodman: Nat Hentoff used to write some good stuff, used to know the music well, was very involved with it, very involved with you, I guess you were friends with him…
Mingus: Very good friends, I thought.
Goodman: I think that he writes for the Village Voice (on political and social issues) it’s not only bad writing, but…
Mingus: Well, I’ll tell you this, man, and you write this down, man. I’ll tell you about Nat—he married a rich girl, a leftist. So, to keep her interest in him, and to keep his job as a writer…
Goodman: And she’s a better writer than he is, incidentally.
Mingus: …here’s a guy that leaves the guys and the thing he loves. And when you leave the thing you love, man, you ain’t got much left. Put that in the book.
Notwithstanding that Goodman, in this situation, hardly acts as an impartial interviewer, apparently Mingus felt betrayed that Hentoff, in a period where jazz was losing market share to rock music, had abandoned the sinking jazz ship. In actuality, Hentoff had, for some time, diversified his writings into areas well beyond music.
The reality here is that these comments were simply “Mingus being Mingus” because during the time that these interviews were being conducted, Hentoff continued to write liner notes for such late period Mingus albums as Changes One and Two and Cumba and Fusion.
Anybody who collects records will agree that liner notes, no matter how well conceived and expressed, cannot improve upon the quality of the music inscribed in the grooves of the enclosed piece of vinyl. That must stand on its own merits. But notes that complement the artistic expression contained within are, in essence, the nice big red bow that ties the experience together. (Think Bill Evans’ liner notes for Kind of Blue.) Hentoff never attempted to tell us how to listen to Mingus or what to hear or, as Dr. Pollock did, tell us how to feel. What he did do, however, was to make us aware of the complex nature of one of the giants of twentieth century American music, which, for many, served to appreciably enhance the listening experience as we made the connection between a composer, his creation and his performance.
In an interview with JazzWax, Hentoff was asked how he wanted his writings to be remembered. His response: “You could hear the voices of the musicians in just about everything he wrote.” Perhaps they were never heard more loudly than in his writings about Charles Mingus.
(Below is a trailer to the 2013 documentary, The Pleasures Of Being Out Of Step, which featured the story of Nat Hentoff.)
© Steve H. Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission
(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on January 7, 2021)