The Jazz.com Blog
February 09, 2009 · 8 comments
Jazz.com is delighted to introduce Nat Hentoff as a new contributor. Few individuals have done more for the jazz art form than Mr. Hentoff. Hence, it came as little surprise when, back in 2004, he was the first non-musician to be honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Below Hentoff writes about two other important jazz advocates: Nesuhi Ertegun and Joel Dorn. T.G.
I've only had a few years of experience as a producer of jazz recordings. First, I worked for Lester Koenig's Contemporary label in the 1950s. Lester was a valuable teacher: "Let the musicians breathe," he said, "and the music will."
Then, for a couple of years, I had complete reign as the A&R man at Candid Records, where my releases included recordings by Charles Mingus, Booker Little, Otis Spann and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite.
As a reporter on the jazz scene, I had watched in studios as some longterm producers—with their egos and sales figures in mind—acted as if the music had their bylines, considerably diminishing what Whitney Balliett described as jazz's "Sounds of Surprise."
Once a leader agreed to come to Candid, I didn't interfere with the music, except for the rare occasion when an arrangement was so thick the players got stuck in it. I'd suggest a free blues, and the players came back to life.
But over the years, I was privileged, as were listeners around the world, to have my spirits lifted by the work of the very model of a jazz musician's A&R man, Nesuhi Ertegun. At Atlantic Records, Nesuhi let Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, and many others, breathe naturally. Nesuhi understood that—as John Coltrane once told me—to jazz players, "this music is as important as life itself." And Nesuhi got to know the source of what he was hearing by connecting with musicians' lives. Said Yusef Lateef:
Talking to Nesuhi was like talking to a brother or a father. When I returned to the U.S. from Nigeria, it was because of Nesuhi that I was able to do an album that won a Grammy.
I often heard my friend, Charles Mingus, berate the unjustified hubris of the music business powers he had to deal with, but he was never critical of Nesuhi. As Sue Mingus, who keeps expanding her husband's legacy around the world, wrote in her memoir Tonight At Noon: A Love Story:
Nesuhi's warmth and friendship for Mingus lasted a lifetime… He gave him complete artistic freedom. Nesuhi had always come to his rescue without question when Charles needed a friend.
When Nesuhi died at 71 in 1989, too little notice was paid in the jazz world, let alone elsewhere. There were passing accolades, but when compared to the large-scale attention paid over the decades to his brother Ahmet, the chairman and cofounder of Atlantic, Nesuhi's profound impact on the jazz canon through his relationships with the musicians he recorded has been neglected.
At last, however, the scope and depth of what Nesuhi bequeathed to players as well as us non-musicians has been grandly released in a Rhino Handmade CD box set: Hommage à Nesuhi, subtitled "Atlantic Jazz, A 60th Anniversary Collection."
This tribute would not have come about had it not been for another master producer and historian, Joel Dorn. After yearning to work with Nesuhi, Joel became his assistant at Atlantic in 1967, and was instrumental in a number of their lasting creations.
Joel died in 2007 at 65. For years, he brightened my life with his stories of the lives as well as the music of the players he had worked with – and, like Nesuhi, with his unfailing integrity. Often sardonic, without a trace of political correctness, Joel had an infectious love of life. "I don't do things to do them," he told Marshall Bowden during a conversation on jazzitude.com. "I really only do what I want to do, which is a tricky way of living." But it's also a jazz way of living.
For a long time, Joel talked to me about what was to be his last major production—finally getting Nesuhi his due. I was honored, I kid you not, when he asked me to write a reminiscence of Nesuhi for the liner notes of the Rhino set – alongside others written by Sue Mingus, Michael Cuscuna, Ira Gitler, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Mirjana Lewis (John's wife), Gunther Schuller and David Ritz. Ritz recalled their first meeting, when he told Nesuhi:
"When I was a kid, your records made all the difference."
Nesuhi responded that he felt the same way, "but they weren't mine."
"You produced them!" David protested.
"'Facilitator,' Nesuhi answered, "is a more accurate term than 'producer'."
As Joel Dorn says in his contribution to the liner notes, "Nesuhi possessed a thundering lack of ego."
Among the jazz treasures Nesuhi 'facilitated,' which can be found in this Rhino collection for the ages—if the world survives not global warming, but massive inhumanity—are the following tracks, along with previously unpublished "decisive moment" photographs by Lee Friedlander:
Big Joe Turner's "Cherry Red;" Ray Charles's "I Got A Woman;" John Coltrane's "Giant Steps;" Charles Mingus's "Passions of a Man;" Milt Jackson's "The Spirit-Feel;" The Modern Jazz Quartet's "The Golden Striker;" Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin';" and Laverne Baker's "Empty Bed Blues."
The five-volume set is a limited edition of 3000, available through the Rhino website for $149.98. However, if there is a demand beyond that number, more sets will be made. I expect that once the word gets around, there will be more than 3000 listeners around the world who fill feel as intense a need to have this as Joel Dorn did to convince Rhino to issue it.
In his notes, Dorn, never one to dilute his passions, says: "If you ever wanna believe anything I tell you, believe this: Nesuhi was the soul of Atlantic Records back when Atlantic Records actually had a soul."
This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff