The Troy Street Observer

June 10: Birthdays for Frazier and Hentoff

Two Boston-born icons of jazz journalism share a June 10 birthday, George Frazier in 1911, and Nat Hentoff in 1925. Happy 88, Nat!

Frazier and Hentoff were part of a gang of influential journalists with Boston ties (George Simon, Mike Levin, Bill Coss, Dom Cerulli, Dan Morgenstern) who determined how jazz would be covered at Down Beat and Metronome, the two major magazines reporting on it at mid-century.

Both grew up in homes of modest means, Frazier in South Boston and Hentoff in Roxbury. Neither got very far as a clarinetist. Both attended Boston Latin High School. Both made a career out of being outspoken and controversial, and both were implacable foes of Jim Crow and the abuse of power. Their musical common denominator was trumpeter Frankie Newton.

Photo of George Frazier
George Frazier, ca. 1942. Photo Boston Herald

George Frazier started writing about jazz while an undergraduate at Harvard, but his big break was becoming Boston correspondent with Down Beat in that magazine’s mid-1930s infancy. He also started writing a record review column in Madamoiselle in 1936. His work was always highly personal and rarely troubled by facts. He wrote about jazz until late 1942, mainly in Down Beat and the Boston Herald.

Frazier was a very opinionated guy, but I don’t think he expected us to take him seriously.  He wrote for effect, and didn’t look too deeply into his subject. He told us so himself, in the Boston Herald, on March 18, 1942: “Jazz is a lively business, God wot, but I think it loses a lot of its flavor when you try to become too analytical about it. The music is there and if it’s fine and satisfying, it’s fine and satisfying and you haven’t a worry in the world. And if, on the other hand, it’s second-rate and specious, why, that’s too bad, but hardly enough to justify your writing your congressman.”

Frazier left the Herald, the city of Boston, and jazz journalism all at the same time, in late 1942. He wrote about jazz infrequently after that, and most of that was marginal. He spent his last dozen years as a newspaper columnist, first at the Herald but more prominently at the Globe, where he entertained many and left the jazz writing to others.

Photo of Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff, mid 1950s

Nat Hentoff was, and is, a different kind of writer entirely. He’s a self-described troublemaker and member of the “Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.” He noted that the most valuable bit of journalism instruction he ever received was “Don’t say anything you can’t back up,” and he took it to heart. Unlike the bomb-throwing columnist Frazier, Hentoff fashioned his lengthy pieces with painstaking care.

Hentoff was active in the Boston jazz community from about 1945 to 1953, as a disc jockey on WMEX radio, editor of his newsletter Counterpoint, jam session emcee at Storyville, and from 1951 to 1953, as Boston correspondent for Down Beat. His writing brought national attention to Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Teddi King, Charlie Mariano, and Nat Pierce for the first time. In 1953, he replaced Leonard Feather as Down Beat’s East Coast editor. Within a few years of arriving in New York, he helped produce The Sound of Jazz on CBS, formed Candid Records, founded The Jazz Review, and published jazz articles in mainstream magazines like Saturday Review and The New Yorker.

Hentoff still writes about jazz, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I can add that one of his recent pieces was an essay about The Boston Jazz Chronicles and his own Boston years, published in JazzEd magazine.

Frazier wrote one book, an edited collection of his magazine work. Hentoff has written over 30, eight of which are about jazz, but there are novels, biographies, and non-fiction works on education, politics, and first amendment issues. This last he refers to as his “day job”—writing about free speech and civil liberties.

Frazier got to a point with jazz where he could take it or leave it. Hentoff enjoys it as much now as he did when he discovered it at age 11. Nat said this in a 2010 interview with Jim Cullum: “I sometimes imagine what my life would have been like if it weren’t for jazz. Once you get into it, you can never get enough of it. I’ll leave you with this—every once in a while writing about my day job I get so down I have to stop. I literally stop and put on a recording, and then that sound, that feeling, that passion for life gets me up and shouting again and I can go back to the grim stuff of what’s happening in the rest of the world.”

I hope some day to hear a fine jazz tune called “Nat’s Shout.” I bet he’d like that.

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