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.