My 1996 interview with the late Nat Hentoff about his years at Down Beat magazine

Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.
Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.

The great journalist and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff died on Saturday at the age of 91. In 1996 I had the privilege of interviewing Hentoff and his former colleague Dom Cerulli for Northeastern University’s alumni magazine. Hentoff and Cerulli, who died in 2013, were both Northeastern alumni, and both served as the editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat in the 1950s. I can’t find the clip, but I did manage to dig up my last rewrite before I turned the article in to my editor. I cannot defend the way the piece opens; all I can say is that I’m glad I’ve continued to improve as a writer. Hentoff was a giant. His death creates a deep void, especially at this moment of crisis.

It was the 1950s, Manhattan, 52nd Street. And it seemed like the whole world was in a groove.

Check it out—over there, at the Five Spot. It’s Thelonious Monk, plunking out the chords to “ ’Round Midnight” on the house piano.

Charlie Parker’s seen better days. You know how it is: sometimes he shows up, sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s still Bird, and if he can borrow an alto sax he’s supposed to be playing tonight at Birdland, the club they named after him.

Dizzy Gillespie’s around, of course, only now he’s not playing much bop. He’s got himself this new trumpet that’s bent up toward the ceiling, and he’s doing some Afro-Cuban thing.

Like the old guys? Well, they’re still holding forth. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, you name it.

Miles Davis, that skinny kid trumpet player who used to be in Bird’s band, is starting to turn heads. And Charles Mingus has a band that’s making the biggest, wildest noise you’ve ever heard.

“It was magical. It was incredible,” says Barry Kernfeld, editor of “The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

It was also a hell of a lot to keep track of.

And from 1952 to ’59, two of the most important witnesses to this musical revolution were a couple of Northeastern guys, Nat Hentoff (Class of 1944) and Dom Cerulli (Class of 1951). They were the New York eyes and ears of Down Beat, a Chicago-based magazine that was—and still is—the most authoritative publication covering jazz.

Hentoff, who’d joined Down Beat as a columnist in 1952, was named New York editor in 1953. Then, in 1957, when Hentoff left (actually, he was fired, which we’ll get to), he was replaced by his assistant, Cerulli. He, in turn, quit in 1959.

“It was exhilarating,” says Hentoff, who, at 71, writes about civil liberties for The Village Voice and reviews jazz and country music for The Wall Street Journal. “I was in the clubs probably four or five nights a week, sometimes more. Hearing all that music. Getting to know the musicians. Getting to know the club owners, who were far less impressive personally but interesting in a Damon Runyan sort of way. For all those years, I did practically nothing but read about jazz, write about jazz, and listen to it.”

Cerulli, 69, now a freelance writer and editor who’s currently putting together an album of classic dance-band music for the Smithsonian Institution, puts it more simply: “I had the job that every college kid in America wanted.”

***

Nathan I. Hentoff’s childhood in the then-Jewish ghetto of Roxbury is movingly recounted in his autobiography, “Boston Boy” (Knopf, 1986). In that book and numerous others, he writes about how he first developed his love for jazz. One of his earliest musical memories was of laying in bed when he was 8 years old, during the Depression, and listening to Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” on the radio. Later, as a freshman reporter for The Northeastern News, he had a chance to interview his childhood idol.

Indeed, jazz was a refuge for Hentoff during his years at Northeastern, a time that was marred by his battles with then-president Carl Ell over the direction of the News. Hentoff, after being named editor, sought to transform the sleepy paper into a crusading journal. For Ell, that was bad enough. But when Hentoff’s reporters began pestering the trustees with some probing questions, Ell decided to act. Hentoff writes in “Boston Boy” that he expected Ell would demand his resignation, and Hentoff was prepared to fight. Instead, the crafty Ell simply instructed his second-in-command, William C. White, to hand Hentoff and the rest of the News staff a written policy stating that the News was to confine its activities to the campus—and that it was not to bug the trustees. Hentoff and nearly the entire staff resigned.

Thus Hentoff spent a considerable amount of time at “another institution of learning, the Savoy Café,” a jazz club on Huntington Avenue near Massachusetts Avenue.

Like a jazz musician improvising on an ever-changing riff, Hentoff offers a flurry of memories in “Boston Boy,” some specific, some impressionistic, only rarely chronological. He writes about his education in race relations, a non-academic course in which he learned, among other things, that the owner of the Savoy paid off the cops so they wouldn’t hassle black musicians who were dating white women. He recalls his dangerous infatuation with a young black singer who was also the object of a black detective’s desire. And he remembers the drummer Jonathan “Jo” Jones, “the man who plays like the wind,” who took young Hentoff under his wing.

“I never found out why Jo tapped me as a candidate for his relentless attention,” Hentoff writes. “It happened when I was nineteen. Jo, seated at the back booth at the Savoy, beckoned imperiously. ‘It is time,’ he said in his raspy staccato voice, ‘for you to find out what you have to know if you are going to write about this music.’”

Following graduation, Hentoff worked as a disc jockey for the old WMEX, and it was some years before this brilliant but underemployed young man got the break he needed. Finally it came. He’d been doing some stringing for Down Beat, reviewing records, concerts, and the like. And that led to fame, if not fortune, in the form of a column, called “Counterpoint,” which debuted on February 8, 1952, on page one. Hentoff started with a bang, denouncing Maynard Ferguson as “the most tasteless, overrated trumpet player this side of Clyde McCoy.” McCoy’s name is pretty much lost to history, but Ferguson went on to enjoy a lengthy, successful career. (“You see the effect of a critic?” Hentoff asks, laughing.)

The column was a success—or, as Hentoff dryly puts it in “Boston Boy,” it was “sufficiently quarrelsome and arrogant to bring a good deal of mail, the tenor of which suggested that I set my face to the Atlantic Ocean and keep walking in that direction.” Down Beat’s New York editor, Leonard Feather, was eager to step aside; Hentoff was named to take his place, for a weekly salary of $175.

***

Dominic P. Cerulli’s childhood was the Italian-American parallel to Hentoff’s Jewish experience. Like Hentoff, he grew up in an ethnic working-class neighborhood of Boston, in this case Orient Heights, in East Boston. He remembers going to his first jazz concert as a young boy in the mid-1930s. A black jazz band, sponsored by Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, was appearing in the neighborhood.

“It was the first time I ever saw black people,” Cerulli recalls. “And it was the first time I was within 10 feet of live music, other than an accordion at a wedding reception. The minute those guys hit that first note, I was gone. The funny thing was that at the end of the evening, when my grandmother was taking me home, she was holding my hand—we had to walk maybe six blocks—and I was stumbling at every curbstone. Finally she said, ‘What in the world is wrong with you?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got my eyes closed.’ ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I want to keep all the music in.’ I really wanted to keep that music alive.”

Cerulli enrolled in Northeastern’s engineering program in September 1944, four months before Hentoff would graduate. He promptly flunked out, though he earned an “A” in English and an “A” in mechanical drawing. At that point he decided to join the Navy; he was shipped to the Pacific on an aircraft carrier just in time to see the end of the war. He returned to Northeastern in 1946, this time as an English-journalism major, his education financed by the GI Bill. Like Hentoff, he got involved with The Northeastern News. And like Hentoff, he pursued his interest in jazz. At a panel discussion he organized at Richards Hall that included Hentoff, Cerulli says it became clear that Hentoff was—well, a bit behind the times.

“Afterwards I lent him three of my bebop records, and I said, ‘This is what’s going on in music now, Nat,’” Cerulli says. “Then, the next thing I knew, I was reporting for work at Down Beat, and there he was. He was up to his ass in modern music. And to this day he has not returned those records.”

Following graduation, Cerulli went to work for United Press. The highlight: chartering a boat so that he could mount a sinking oil tanker off Cape Cod during a winter hurricane. Later he was hired by The Boston Globe to cover the Statehouse. Politics wasn’t to Cerulli’s liking, though, “because it made the guys so cynical.” When his editors started talking about sending him to Washington, he adds, “I could foresee a long future of cynicism on the national level.”

Since Cerulli lived on Exeter Street, right near Storeyville, Boston’s premier jazz club, he dropped a note to Down Beat, suggesting that he become the magazine’s Boston stringer. He clicked, and when the Globe dispatched him to the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, he met with Down Beat’s editors, where he signed a deal to go to New York as a staff writer under Hentoff.

The 1950s was a time when interest in jazz was exploding, fueled not just by the remarkable talent that had gathered in New York, but by the development of the long-playing record. The evolution of Down Beat was as rapid as the move from 78 to LP. A newspaper since its founding in 1934, it switched to magazine format on April 20, 1955, an issue devoted to the news of Charlie Parker’s death the preceding month. For a few more years, the inside of the biweekly magazine continued to look like the funky pages of a 1950s-style newspaper. That changed in 1957 when Down Beat adopted a redesign, largely at Cerulli’s instigation, that gave it the look and feel of a modern magazine.

At the risk of oversimplification, it might be said that Hentoff took on the heavy topics while Cerulli focused on lighter, more pop-oriented material. “If there was any difference between Nat and me, other than Nat’s beard, it was that Nat was very serious about the social implications of the music and the effect of society on the musicians,” Cerulli says. “I tried to be a journalist working in an idiom. Nat had set much higher goals. I also think I like a lot more commercial music than Nat can tolerate.”

Yet Hentoff could veer off in a pop direction himself. Like Cerulli, he was an admirer of Eydie Gormé back when she was a struggling young singer. And as he’s gotten older, Hentoff has become a big fan of country music—a passion he shares with Charlie Parker, who once told a young musician who couldn’t understand why the great Bird liked hillbilly music, “Listen to the stories. Listen to the stories.”

“They were both very, very knowledgeable about the music,” says Jeff Stout, a trumpet player and alumnus of Buddy Rich’s band. Stout, who teaches jazz history at the Berklee College of Music, started reading Down Beat as a 12-year-old during the ’50s. “Hentoff, in particular, was very literate,” he says. “It was very intelligent, right to the point, humorous. And from Cerulli’s columns, you’d know what was going on.”

The end of Hentoff and Cerulli’s collaboration came abruptly, in June 1957. “I had been complaining for months and years that we had no blacks on staff anywhere, and here we were making money off black music,” Hentoff recalls. “The boss, the boss, John Maher, was a bigot. And I finally decided, ‘The hell with this.’ There was an opening; it wasn’t a lofty position, essentially a receptionist/secretary. And a young woman came in who seemed very bright and good—and dark—and I hired her. That’s why I got fired.”

Surprisingly, Cerulli says he’d never heard that story. He was told there was a financial squeeze, an excuse he later came to believe was untrue, and that Maher had decided to keep him rather than Hentoff because Hentoff was making more money. Cerulli says he nearly quit after hearing Hentoff had been fired, but was talked out of it by a couple of friends at RCA. “I remember we went into some little Chinese restaurant, and sat at the bar and drank our lunch,” he says. “They finally convinced me that I should stay. And I tore up the letter of resignation I had written.”

The current publisher of Down Beat, Kevin Maher, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Cerulli continued alone for two more years before a new top editor in Chicago decreed that staff members would no longer have bylines. Now, in addition to long hours and low pay, he would have to contend with anonymity. It was time to get out. “It still rankles to this day,” he says.

***

After leaving Down Beat, Nat Hentoff began writing a column for the then-new Village Voice. He took no money at first; his only condition was that he would not have to write about jazz, so that he could expand his range. He also wrote freelance pieces for The New Yorker, among other publications, and became known as one of the country’s foremost civil libertarians.

Dom Cerulli went in an entirely different direction, working for record companies and finally for himself, primarily in public relations and advertising. He’s been active with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the Grammy Awards. Once he was even nominated for a Grammy, for the liner notes to Adlai Stevenson’s “The Voice of the Uncommon Man.” Indeed, Cerulli became such a prolific writer of liner notes that he produced some of them under the byline of “Ferris Benda”—the name of his character in “The Fourth Estate,” a musical he performed in at Northeastern to benefit the library fund.

Though Cerulli and Hentoff are not regularly in touch, the bond remains. Hentoff wrote the introduction to “The Jazz Word” (Da Capo Press, 1987), an anthology that Cerulli co-edited. And Cerulli recently wrote Hentoff a note of praise after Hentoff produced a column for the Voice denouncing the Republican Congress’s assault on the Fourth Amendment.

Both men are less than thrilled with the direction jazz took after the 1950s—the atonality of free jazz in the 1960s and the simplistic commercialism of fusion, an electrified hybrid of jazz and rock, in the 1970s. Hentoff praises the role of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in bringing a new generation of black musicians and audiences to classic jazz, but he finds Marsalis’s technically brilliant playing rather joyless, and he can’t understand why today’s young stars seem to be stuck in the bop and post-bop styles of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Indeed, Hentoff’s personal favorite remains the emotionally fragile tenor saxophonist Lester Young, “The Prez,” whose did his finest playing in the 1930s and early ’40s.

In “Boston Boy,” Hentoff tells a heartbreaking story about what he considers his most lasting musical achievement: a live television program, “The Sound of Jazz,” that he helped put together for CBS in 1957. Among those on hand were tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and, most important, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, former lovers, both ravaged by years of alcohol and drug abuse, both near the end of their lives. Young was barely able to function, and was ultimately dropped from everything except “Fine and Mellow,” on which he was to accompany Lady Day.

“It was time for Prez,” Hentoff writes. “[Producer Robert] Herridge had signaled the floor manager to tell Prez to play from his chair. If he got up, he might collapse on prime time. But when the moment came, Prez stood and, looking at Lady, played in one chorus—its colors those of twilight in October—the sparest, most penetrating blues I have ever heard. Billie, a slight smile on her face, kept nodding to the beat, her eyes meeting Prez’s, her nod invoking memories only she and Prez shared. As he ended his solo, Lady’s face was full of light and love, and Prez, briefly, was back in the world.

“In the control room, Herridge, I, the associate producer, the engineers, were not surprised to see each other crying.

“On the set, after the hour was over, Billie, pleased with the show, came over and kissed me. Lester was gone, somewhere in space.”

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