Nat Hentoff, honored in 2004 with a Jazz Masters fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, was the first writer to receive the prestigious accolade usually reserved for jazz musicians. This goes a long way towards confirming his credentials as the foremost jazz critic in the United States and probably in the world. Expanding on the title of one of his most celebrated books, Jazz Is, American Music Is hints both at Hentoff's curiosity and knowledge outside the boundaries of jazz, and his acknowledgment of the connection between what is the United States and its popular music. Quoting Ralph Ellison's answer to O'Mealy's suggestion that the Harlem Renaissance had failed because of lack of institutions, he writes "We do have institutions. We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz" .
The book is a collection of 65 short articles, written between 1995 and 2003, most of them having originally appeared in JazzTimes, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times. They are gathered under 8 separate headings: the jazz voice, the blues, the masters, ageless big and small bands, the business of jazz, the rainbow of country music, the farther rainbow, and jazz ahead, framed by an introduction and a "last chorus." As the titles of the chapters indicate, American Music Is encompasses both general surveys of American popular music, from old-time music to blues, from country to jazz, and cameos on individual jazz luminaries, performers (Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Fred Astaire, Jo Jones, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Willie Nelson, Dale Watson, etc.), producers (Norman Granz) or writers (Ralph Ellison).
Most pieces are topical. They were intended as reviews of concerts, CD releases, radio programs, or films. Even the more sweeping ones originate in some specific event. Hentoff writes in short, unadorned sentences, preferring to focus on the artists and the music rather than display dubious literary skills (though his pieces are always extremely personal, and he often resorts to personal memories, in a modest, self-effacing way). They are also extremely informative. True to his dedication to music and musicians, he gives the full titles, the record company, the names of the engineers and producers, and the reference numbers of the CDs mentioned (plus how and where to get them); he also urges the reader to support ageing musicians through foundations (phone numbers, websites, and addresses are duly mentioned). Another specific feature of Hentoff's style, a testimony to his humility, are the numerous quotes, either from books, lyrics, or personal interviews, that articulate his reviews. More than illustrations, they are the backbone and the starting point of his articles, and give them flesh and flavor. The numerous anecdotes cited also partake to the flavor of the book. One portrays Sue Mingus (Charles's widow) fighting against piracy, scooping a number of bootleg records of her late husband in a Paris store, and challenging the staff to have her arrested for theft. Another describes the starting point of many Ellington numbers in the long minutes he spent on stage improvising while waiting for his stars musicians to deign to come on stage.
Individually, the vignettes are pleasant enough to read but lack a general sense of purpose. However, as hinted at by its title, the whole book provides a definition, or at least a description, of American (popular) music. As a starting point, Hentoff uses Pete Hamill's comments on Fred Astaire: "He epitomized the virtues of a free country [...] No other nation could have produced him" . In Hentoff's perspective, "the rainbow of American music"—"the sources of which were far beyond our shores"— is characterized by the numerous influences resulting from layers upon layers of foreign settlers, from slaves to immigrants, including his own Jewish tradition. Indeed, as he repeatedly reminds the reader, the chazans, or cantors, of the synagogues were the original multiculturalists, having wandered through various cultures, and their tradition was a strong, though often overlooked, influence on jazz; after all, was not the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), about the son of a Jewish cantor who becomes a famed jazz singer?
The other global achievement of American Music Is is that it allows the reader to appreciate Hentoff's involvement in favor of the African-American community. The interviews he conducted with numerous black jazzmen, telling him "personal stories of Jim Crow that [he] hadn't heard about in courses at Boston Latin School" [xviii] were his true classes. He thus recalls the recording sessions he had organized for Abbey Lincoln, for the Freedom Now Suite and Straight Ahead, which drew irate comments from the press—"We don't need the Elijah Muhammad type of thinking in jazz" . He also repeatedly reminds his readers of the plight of ageing black musicians and suggests they should contribute to the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides for the poor and destitute among them. One should also mention his other heartfelt, and altogether rather unpopular struggle for the integration and recognition of women in jazz (particularly in the humorous and pugnacious "testosterone is not a musical instrument").
However, his positions are far from being dogmatic, and never does he blindly support, out of a sense of guilt for example, those who contend that black musicians own jazz and that it had been stolen by the whites. Like Ellison, he has little patience for Afrocentrism, putting the emphasis, rather, on complex interactions of background and cultures. Typically, he comes to the defense of Louis Armstrong, often accused by black musicians of being an Uncle Tom, explaining in the process how Charles Black, a white, initially racist lawyer, came to work with Thurgood Marshall after listening to Armstrong. He also recalls the test Roy Eldridge, a black trumpet player who claimed he could tell on listening to a recording whether the musician was black or white, was submitted to, and which he failed more than half the time. With unremitting energy, Hentoff fights prejudice and narrow-minded attitudes: "For all their talk of multiculturalism and the joys of diversity, many places of higher learning are actually bristling enclaves of single-interest polemics" . For Hentoff, the key for a better world comes from education, hence his support of programs such as Jazz education in the Schools, or JazzLinks: Jazz Connects to History.
a whole, the brevity and informative character of the reviews, added
to the fact that they were originally published in the press, an
ephemeral medium if any, deprive American Music Is of long
lasting qualities. It is more a book to leaf through and nibble
than a sustained, thought-provoking analysis. If the style, as already
mentioned, is light and pleasant, it is also rather casual, with
little effort at developing and nourishing ideas. However, and I
mean this as a compliment, American Music Is enticed me
to log into Amazon.com and purchase a bucketful of jazz CDs (a move
habitually not contemplated at all in those post-Christmas January
days), which after all should be the main purpose of a successful
music review, wouldn’t you say?