You Can't Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat

You Can't Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat

by Gene Lees


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In this wise, stimulating, and deeply personal book, an eminent jazz chronicler writes of his encounters with four great black musicians: Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Milt Hinton, and Nat "King" Cole. Equal parts memoir, oral history, and commentary, each of the main chapters is a minibiography, weaving together conversations Gene Lees had with the musicians and their families, friends, and associates over a period of several decades.

Lees begins the book with an essay that tells of his introduction to the world of jazz and his reaction to racism in the United States when he emigrated from Canada in 1955. The underlying theme in his book is the impact racism had on the four musicians’ lives and careers and their determination to overcome it. As Lees writes, “No white person can even begin to understand the black experience in the United States. . . . All [of the four jazz makers] are men who had every reason to embrace bitterness—and didn’t.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300089653
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/11/2001
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gene Lees is the publisher of the Jazzletter. He is also a song lyricist and the author of more than a dozen volumes of jazz history and criticism, including the highly acclaimed Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White.

Read an Excerpt


by Nat Hentoff

Increasingly, most of the writing on seminal jazz figures is based on second- or third-hand sources. Gene Lees, however, is one of the relatively few chroniclers left who has known the musicians he writes about long and well.

    Moreover, he is not just a jazz critic or journalist. Lees is a musician, singer, and lyricist with his own distinctive body of work. Unlike most of those who write about jazz, Gene is one of the family, and so, when he interviews musicians, he literally speaks their language. Clearly, that leads to deeper communication.

    Also, unlike some critics who try to burnish their own reputations by earnestly discovering "new stars" and new forms of the music—one writer has advocated the diminishing importance of the soloist in jazz—Gene keeps adding to our knowledge of those creators who have shaped the music over time.

    What this book vividly reveals, in addition, is that Lees, while literate musically, understands that, as Charlie Parker said: "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." And living the music can be perilous.

    "It's like going out there naked every night," a bass player once told me. "Any one of us can screw the whole thing up because he had a fight with his wife just before the gig or because he's not with it that night for any number of reasons.

    "I mean, we're out there improvising. The classical guys have their scores,whether they have them on stand or have memorized them. But we have to be creating, or trying to, anticipating each other, transmuting our feelings into the music, taking chances every goddamned second. It can be exhilarating too, but there's always that touch of fear, that feeling of being on a very high wire without a net below."

    Gene Lees knows, from the inside, the fierce commitment that jazz makers have to the music. Their nightly risk-taking requires such intimacy with the instrument that, as William Butler Yeats once wrote, you can't tell the dancer from the dance.

    Louis Armstrong spoke for his peers, and for those who yearn to be in that company: "I don't feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That's my living and my life. I love them notes. That's why I try to make them right. Any time of the day, you're liable to see me doing something toward that night."

    Even John Coltrane, who practiced for hours every day, experienced more than a touch of fear one night. At the Five Spot in New York, where off-duty musicians would line the bar to hear and watch the intense interplay between Thelonious Monk and Coltrane, I saw Coltrane come off the stand one night looking utterly dejected. I asked him what had happened.

    "Monk's music is so all of one piece," he said, "so interconnected, that on that last number, I got lost. I felt as if I'd fallen down an empty elevator shaft."

    Lees knows the uncertainties as well as the joys of the jazz life. And being an insider, he knows a continuing source of uncertainty—the political economy of jazz. How to survive the career-determining producers at record companies, the club owners, the bookers and impresarios, and the critics.

    Throughout this book, you will find stories about the challenges of the jazz life, on and off the stand, that, I expect, cannot be found elsewhere in the jazz literature. At least I didn't know them before.

    John Coltrane used to try to discourage me from writing liner notes to some of his recordings. And I'd say, "John, I have this gig." Being a kindly man, he'd agree to talk about his music, but he kept saying, "If the music can't speak for itself, no writing can help it."

    In one vital respect, he was wrong. A writer like Gene Lees, who has the trust of the musicians he writes about, can lead listeners to the musicians' experiences that are at the continuing core of their music. A writer can't alchemize bad or shallow music, but he or she can lead listeners to want to know more about the music because they become so intrigued by the lives of the players. Gene Lees does exactly that.

    I once asked Duke Ellington what he most wanted of his listeners. "I don't want them," he said, "to analyze musically what I'm doing. I want them to listen with their feelings, their memories. You see, it works both ways. When Johnny Hodges is playing a ballad, and I hear a sigh from one of the people on the dance floor or in the audience, that becomes part of our music."

    It's of no use to notate a sigh: but once a listener is drawn to a particular way of music, learning more about the person, the actual person, making that music, can lead to deeper dimensions of listening.

    This has been true for listeners from the beginning of jazz, and Gene Lees—through the musicians in this book—makes you want to hear more of their music, which transcends categories that critics too often place on jazz, dividing the music into styles that are "modern" or "avant-garde" or "old-time."

    One of the most continually resourceful musicians I've known, Eric Dolphy—who expanded the range and depth of a number of reed instruments—was considered on the cutting edge of jazz. But one night, during a jazz festival in Washington, Eric Dolphy heard, for the first time, the Eureka Jazz Band of New Orleans, playing as the marching bands had when Louis Armstrong was coming up.

    "I stood right in the middle of those old men," Dolphy remembered, "and I couldn't see much difference from what I'm doing, except they were blowing tonally, but with lots of freedom. You know something? They were the first freedom players."

    And among the long line of freedom players who followed are the musicians in this book.

    Gene Lees captures another part of the essence of jazz. Cornetist Jimmy McPartland recalled: "People used to ask Bix Beiderbecke to play a chorus just as he had recorded it. He couldn't do it. 'It's impossible,' he told me once. 'I don't feel the same way twice. That's one of the things I like about jazz, kid. I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?"


Sometime about 1985, the magazine Toronto Life asked me to write an article about the most famous jazz musician Canada has produced, and one of the most famous in any field of music, namely Oscar Peterson. I had known Oscar slightly since 1950 and well since 1959, when I became editor of Down Beat. As we did this new interview, Oscar said that he would like to make some comments about racial discrimination in Canadian television commercials. But, he added ruefully, it would be a waste of time, because the magazine would never print them. I told him he was wrong; I knew the magazine better than he did. He made his comments, I quoted them, the magazine printed them, and thus began a campaign in which Oscar ultimately triumphed, redressing the balance of ethnic representation in Canadian TV commercials. And the article led to my writing a full biography of Oscar. The point is that he thought the magazine would not print what he said.

    I came to know almost all the jazz chroniclers and critics of my own generation, most of those of the generation before me, and a lot of those younger than I. I have never known one who was not deeply concerned by issues of civil rights in the United States and, in even closer focus, the treatment of black Americans. That racism is the most critical problem in American society should be, but isn't, obvious to everyone. The boom in building "free enterprise"—that is, profit-making—prisons, and the concomitant expansion of "law enforcement" personnel, is conspicuously an imperative to lock away in modern oubliettes the black male population, especially that part of it in the full strength of youth. The mere possession of a marijuana joint is enough to get you warehoused for several years if you are from the black ghetto. If on the other hand your father is a "respectable" taxpaying white man, chances are you will not spend even a week in the pokey for this petty offense, maybe not even a day.

    Given that all, or certainly most, of the chroniclers of jazz have had an interest in black civil rights ranging from the sympathetic to the impassioned, it is odd that more comment on race and racism does not turn up in interviews with black jazz musicians in magazines. Why is this? Do they, like Oscar Peterson on that occasion in Toronto, think the magazines will not print their views?

    In view of my own concern for this matter, and my conviction that its racial division constitutes the most crucial social issue of the United States—in the past, in the present, and into the future—I have gone out of my way not to raise the subject whenever I have interviewed black jazz artists. I do not wish to exhibit an intemperate curiosity. I certainly do not want to project anything that might be construed as a patronizing sycophaney. Above all, to use a lawyer's courtroom term, I do not want to lead the witness. I am always interested in what it is the interviewee wants to say, and thus I like to let him or her lead me.

    Despite this policy, I have never interviewed a black musician who has not at some point himself raised the subject. This was true even when I was working for Down Beat at the start of the 1960s. And it certainly has been true since, in 1980, I started the Jazzletter. Perhaps it has been because the subjects of my portraits for the most part have known me for years and, more important, know that because it is my publication I have control over what goes into it. No one can veto or censor me.

    I have said repeatedly that I have no trouble understanding, at least in an empathetic way, blacks who hate whites. What truly does baffle me is those great spirits who don't.

    The Jazzletter freed me from the restrictions of length implicit in the nature of magazines. If I wanted to let a piece run longer than the three or four thousand words common to magazine articles, I could do so by spreading it across several issues of the publication. This evolved into a form I think of as the minibiography, and through its use I have been able to reflect on the lives and legacy of dozens of artists who might all too easily have slipped through the interstices of history. Five volumes of these essays have previously been published; this is the sixth.

    Lies Across America by James w. Loewen, a book published in 1999 by the New Press in New York, examines many monuments and markers across America and tells the true stories behind the lies engraved thereon. One of the segments, on the statue to a supposedly heroic Chicago cop who participated in the Haymarket Riot of May 1886, is actually hilarious because that figure has the distinction of being the most knocked-over and blown-up monument in American history. I recommend the book. I intend to read Loewen's Lies My Teachers Taught Me. The one thing Henry Ford and Voltaire would have agreed on, had they met, was Ford's statement that history is bunk. Voltaire put it more elegantly. He said that history is a fiction that has been agreed upon.

    One of Loewen's passages is particularly illuminating to me. It explains why I find it so fascinating, and urgent, to set down, for example, Milt Hinton's memories and for that matter my own memories of certain events. Loewen writes: "I have found useful a distinction that societies make in east and central Africa. According to John Mbiti, Kiswahali speakers divide the deceased into two categories: sasha and zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead....

    "Historical perspective does not always accrue from the passage from sasha to zamani. On the contrary, more accurate history—certainly more detailed history—can often be written while an event lies in the sasha. For then people on all sides still have firsthand knowledge of the event. Primary source material, on which historians rely, comes from the sasha. To assume that historians and sociologists can make better sense of it later in the zamani is merely chronological ethnocentrism."

    Simon Schama, in the preface to his Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989), makes a similar point: "Historians have been overconfident about the wisdom to be gained by distance, believing it somehow confers objectivity, one of those unobtainable values in which they have placed so much faith. Perhaps there is something to be said for proximity. Lord Acton, who delivered the first, famous lectures on the French Revolution in the 1870s, was still able to hear firsthand, from a member of the Orleans dynasty, the man's recollections of 'Dumouriez gibbering on the streets of London when hearing the news of Waterloo.'"

    As Loewen makes clear in his book, you must evaluate monuments in terms of when and by whom they were erected, for they bear the prejudices and convenience of their own time and of their builders. And this is true of history, not simply the erection of monuments. Thus the Haymarket statue bears the prejudices of the police, who were responsible for it, and does not tell you that it was not the protesters who rioted but the police themselves. The monument makes these killers into heroes. Distortion exists too in some of the "histories" of jazz. Memory may be fallible, but I have found the recollections of musicians more compelling, and usually more credible, than some of the writing on jazz, past and current.

    For one of my earlier collections of musician's memories, Cats of Any Color (1994), I compiled a group of my essays on men whose lives in one way or another had been affected by the racism of the United States. Fully two-thirds of the book dealt with white racism. The last third dealt with the phenomenon of anti-white black racism, manifest in a certain minority of younger black musicians, the policies of the Lincoln Center jazz program, the writings of Stanley Crouch, and other evidence, including a statement by Spike Lee that blacks were incapable of racism. (I think you'd have trouble selling that in Rwanda.) The press to a large extent dwelled on the last part of my book and hardly mentioned the first two-thirds.

    This book is not an extension of Cats of Any Color. It is almost its opposite, the obverse of the coin. It comprises essays on four great men, on the magnificence of the legacy they bequeathed to their country and indeed to the world, and the munificence of their humanity. All are men who had every reason to embrace bitterness—and didn't.

    We all have our heroes. These are four of mine.

Chapter One

Sudden Immersion

In the first week of May 1955, I traveled by train from Montreal to Windsor, Ontario, crossed into the United States on a bus, handed my permanent-residence papers to an immigration officer, and proceeded into downtown Detroit with an odd and tremulous feeling that I was leaving all that I was and ever had been behind. I was going to take up life in a new country and a new city: Louisville, Kentucky. I was twenty-seven. I bought a pair of shoes that day. The young salesman asked my name. I told him. He called me by my first name. That was the first cultural shock of my arrival, the informality of Americans. It made me a little uncomfortable, as the French are if one proceeds too quickly to the intimacy of tu instead of vous.

    Unlike immigrants from the world's sundry tyrannies, I was not fleeing some hideous dictatorship. Canada was in some ways a more democratic and much freer country than the United States. This was, after all, only five months after Joseph McCarthy had been condemned by the Senate for what, in effect, was a reign of political terror.

    Politics had nothing to do with my decision to move. It was mostly a matter of scope. When one's abilities and ambitions and yearnings had expanded to a certain size, one had no choice but to leave, which is why so many French Canadians have gone to France and English Canadians to England or the United States. The population of the United States is consistently ten times that of Canada, resulting in the southward drift of all sorts of Canadians of ability. The phenomenon is known in Canada as the brain drain: John Kenneth Galbraith, for example. Even old Bat Masterson was a Canadian. After his career as a gambler and lawman, associate of Wyatt Earp and Doe Holliday, he took up sports writing. He was hired as chief sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph in 1901 and died at his desk there in 1921.

    The flow of Canadians into the American automobile industry—such as Louis Chevrolet and the Dodge brothers—was critical to its evolution in Detroit. Actors and theater people went to Hollywood because there was no Canadian film industry, and they contributed beyond measure to the development of Hollywood: Mack Sennett, the Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer, Mary Pickford, Glenn Ford, Douglas Dumbrille, Norma Shearer, Christopher Plummer, Jack Carson, Michael J. Fox, Norman Jewison, Arthur Hiller, Lorne Greene, Kate Nelligan, Walter Pidgeon, Yvonne De Carlo, Margot Kidder, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Colleen Dewhurst, Alexis Smith, Donald Sutherland, John Vernon, Mark Stevens, Genevieve Bujold, and even the archetypal "American" Indians Graham Greene, Jay Silverheels, and Chief Dan George. American television newscasting is permeated by Canadians—Peter Jennings, Arthur Kent, Thalia Assuras, Kevin Newman, Ray Pizzey, Morley Safer, Sheila McVicar, and more. You can sometimes spot them by their "out" and "about" and "house." Peter Jennings seems unable to get rid of that sound; I know I can't. But another clue is the word "dollar." If someone pronounces it to rhyme with "polar" rather than "collar," you've nailed one. And oh yes, if you ever hear someone say "Yes eh?" or "No eh?" you know that person is not only Canadian but from Montreal. It's comparable to the way Pittsburgh people say "yuns" as a plural form of "you." Very regional stuff. Three of the most influential arrangers of our time were born in Toronto: Percy Faith, Robert Farnon, and Gil Evans. But all three left Canada, Bob Farnon for England, Percy and Gil for the United States.

    Canada is larger than the continental United States or Brazil, and Quebec is bigger than Texas. But most of the population lives close to the American border. I like to say that it's a country five thousand miles long and about sixty miles wide, which is approximately true. From Westmount in Montreal, you can look down through the Eastern Townships of Quebec (where Bat Masterson was born) into the Green Mountains of Vermont. Thus it is that almost all the population of Canada can receive American radio and television stations. It amazes me that Canada has been able to maintain so strong an identity, given this constant inundation of American cultural influences. My heroes in childhood were all American, including Superman. The radio heroes, such as the Green Hornet, Jungle Jim, the Lone Banger, and those in the comic strips and books, Red Ryder, Smilin' Jack, Dick Tracy, Batman, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel, the Green Lantern, the Phantom, were Americans all. Tom Swift was an American, and so were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And of course all the heroes after whom we modeled ourselves in playing cowboys—Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Tom Mix, John Wayne, the Three Mesquiteers—were American. Even the bad guys were Americans—John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, the James Boys, the Youngers. It is little wonder that so many of us grew up with an unexpressed feeling that nothing very interesting ever happened or ever could happen to a Canadian. This is the source of the notorious Canadian inferiority complex.

    There was a parallel to this in the United States: a sense of inferiority toward European culture, particularly in the field of music. Earlier in the twentieth century, it was rare for an American symphony orchestra to have an American conductor. For that matter, most of the conductors of American orchestras still come from other countries, including one from India and another from Japan. Leonard Bernstein was one of the exceptions to this rule.

    The reason for the American sense of inferiority about the country's own composers had a simple genesis: it was deliberately inculcated in the nineteenth century by music publishers. Since there was no copyright agreement between the United States and other nations, the music publishers could steal all the music they wanted from Europe; but royalties had to be paid on American music. And so the publishers perpetrated the myth of American musical inferiority. To this day, all too many "cultured" Americans do not appreciate the genius of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others at the upper level of popular music, which very term they transcended. And in general Americans do not have anything approaching an adequate appreciation of the greatest contribution to world culture the United States has made: jazz. A Jamaican judge I met some years ago said, "Jazz is God's gift to America, and America's gift to the world."

    I was listening to jazz before I knew its name. It came to us over the radio. The small city of St. Catharines in the Niagara Peninsula, where I grew up, is about ten miles from the American border. I heard the big bands from a time before I can remember, and when I was a little older I bought American records. When the first Capitol records came out during World War II, I would cross the border from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Niagara Falls, New York, buy them in a favorite store, and smuggle them home under the seat of the bus.

    One cannot claim there was no racism in Canada. But it was neither lethal nor legal. For one thing, Canada had no substantial background of slavery. The first American blacks arrived in Canada from Jamaica in 1791. England was the first European nation to outlaw slavery, but Ontario beat her to it. Slavery was outlawed by Act of Parliament in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1791. It continued for a time in Lower Canada (now Quebec), but one Emmanuel Allen, age thirty-three, was the last slave ever sold in Canada. He drew a price of thirty-six pounds in a Montreal auction on August 25, 1797. In 1804 there were 142 slaves in Montreal. The British order outlawing slavery throughout the empire passed on May 31, 1834, effectively ending it in Quebec, too.

    The first important source of Canada's black population was the Underground Railway, on which escaped slaves traveled north to freedom. Some of their descendants are still there, although a great many returned to the United States after the Civil War. The railroads later recruited blacks from the United States to work as cooks, redcaps, and porters, and they soon monopolized these professions and resolutely resisted attempts by whites to penetrate their ranks. A substantial difference between the United States and Canada is that blacks were brought by force to the former and immigrated voluntarily to the latter, particularly from the U.S. and the Caribbean islands of the British Commonwealth.

    In 1949, there were eighteen thousand blacks in a Canadian population of about thirteen million. There were approximately as many black Americans south of the border as there were white Canadians north of it. One American in 10 was black, compared with one Canadian in 722.

    I claim no special virtue for Canadians: if there was little open prejudice against Negroes, it was because there were too few of them to inspire it. My father, who was English, as was my mother, made the point that there was no prejudice against blacks or any other group in England because there was almost no "minority" population. He said that racial bigotry arose only when the minority population was large enough to seem to pose a threat. He made the prediction that if England ever did have a large immigrant population, you would see racial prejudice arise. And with the postwar influx of blacks from the Caribbean, his prescience was fulfilled.


Excerpted from You Can't Steal a Gift by NAT HENTOFF. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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