Nat Hentoff, who passed away this weekend at age 91 “surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” as his son Nick wrote, was an American original. He was widely known as a muckraking journalist, a defender of free speech and the Bill of Rights but, most of all, as a passionate advocate for jazz.
Summing up his life and career is daunting. There are too many Nat Hentoff anecdotes to cram into the 90-minute evocative and charming (and, sadly, currently unavailable) 2014 documentary, “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” But it manages to cover high points like the iconoclastic Hentoff’s friendships with Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, musicians Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and countless others; his role in kick-starting the career of Bob Dylan; and his impassioned, tireless, and articulate stand in the arena of American politics and culture, defending his beloved Constitution and the liberties it enshrines.
He wrote more than 30 books, including the influential jazz book, “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It”; the political critique and celebration of the First Amendment in “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other”; the wonderfully titled autobiography “Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions”; and so many others.
Hentoff’s columns appeared regularly in such far-flung and incongruous places as the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and at conservative and libertarian outlets like Jewish World Review, the Washington Times and the Cato Institute, where he was a fellow.
In the early 1980s, his vocal championing of the pro-life cause was such a rejection of the liberal orthodoxy that it perplexed and infuriated his colleagues at the Village Voice, the iconic New York broadsheet he did so much to establish in the 1950s. For conservatives, of course, his heterodox, civil libertarian views (especially on the War on Terror) could be equally incensing. While he loved smashing expectations and arguing, it was never a put-on; Hentoff’s sincerity and intellectual rigor won him the respect of those with whom he differed on any one of these issues.
The Great Jazz Popularizer and Translator
However, in a career brimming with significant contributions to American life, perhaps Hentoff’s greatest desire was his success in presenting jazz, this country’s signature artistic innovation—and his lifelong love—as a serious intellectual pursuit. For him, that meant respecting the craft and the artistic ambitions of the musicians themselves, and the sacrifices these musicians made to attain mastery and success.
He disdained the caricature of the primitive, emotion-driven African American musician who seemed to spontaneously create without study and practice. As a later book very much in the tradition of Hentoff’s work would exclaim in its title, this music was “as serious as your life.”
Hentoff will always be associated chiefly with his liner notes on the back side of hundreds—maybe thousands—of jazz records. In keeping with his desire to present the music’s creators as worthy of respect, his written contributions usually focused on biographical and programmatic details about the music and the aesthetic intentions of the performers. For me, seeing Nat’s liner notes on an album was like an invitation to a great party. Not only were you assured you’d hear something fantastic, but also that you’d get to bring several new, brilliant, creative people into your life for, at least, the duration of an LP side.
In an entertainment environment where pitch-corrected warbling models who couldn’t identify a major scale are referred to as “artists,” it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it was for a jazz musician—especially one working on the avant-garde fringes—to be treated with such respect for what they were able to strive for and accomplish artistically. Several of the musicians Hentoff wrote so passionately about were barely making a living, or living at the margins of society in the New York City of the mid-twentieth century. “A lot of people spoke to him,” critic Stanley Crouch told Newark’s WBGO, “because he was a guy who was actually interested in what they were doing.”
Cultivating Musicians as Critics
Aside from liner notes and his work at Down Beat, from 1958-1961 Hentoff published The Jazz Review, a monthly journal that strove to feature musicians themselves as knowledgeable and perceptive critics of one another’s work. In one representative issue (June 1960), jazz composer and music theorist George Russell discussed modern jazz’s relationship to tonality and harmony, spending considerable space on where then-revolutionary Ornette Coleman fit into the tradition. In a way, it was the reverse of cinema critic André Bazin’s Cahiers du cinema in Paris; many of Bazin’s younger colleagues at the magazine (like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others) were serious analysts of film before embarking on careers of their own as celebrated practitioners.
The Jazz Review, on the other hand, showed that musicians could be as articulate as writers and analysts as their music was advanced and passionate. Hentoff’s main concept for Jazz Review—musician-as-music-writer and critic—is best represented today at Do the Math, the blog of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, whose work (like the recent interview with trumpeter Tom Harrell) moves beyond biography and into analysis and well-written musicology.
Despite his reputation for having adventurous ears—championing Cecil Taylor, Booker Little, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and other modernists and innovators—Hentoff never forgot the importance of what he often described as the emotional “cry” of jazz. This expressive ingredient was often described as a “blues” feeling (if not the typical musical formulations associated with the blues).
He often described how his life changed the first time he heard Artie Shaw’s theme, “Nightmare,” comparing it to the plaintive sounds of the chazzan in the synagogue he attended as a child in Boston. I know what he meant. For me, the polytonality (though, truthfully, it was often more like cacophony) of the congregation’s responsive singing and chanting stuck in my mind; years later, listening to jazz brought that sensation back to my ears.
The Day I Met Nat Hentoff
I was lucky enough to be able to mention that shared experience to him. Hentoff called me up in 2012 after reviewing a book I’d prepared for production about Islamic lawfare threats to free speech. I enthusiastically cut him off before he was done introducing himself as a freelance journalist—as if a longtime jazz fanatic needed to be told who he was! He was researching Islamic law on slander for a forthcoming column, and wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to ask him about producing the sessions for “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus” for the Candid label in 1960.
After speaking with Hentoff a few times on the phone, I asked him to join me as a radio show guest. Again, he was enthusiastic to discuss politics and the First Amendment—the other subject of his life’s passion and achievement—but this time, I prevailed on him to discuss Billie Holiday instead.
As he would often relate, Hentoff’s proudest moment was producing a CBS special in 1957 called “The Sound of Jazz.” Terry Teachout notes in the Wall Street Journal that the show “continues to be widely regarded as the finest jazz program ever telecast.” In a sense, the show was like his career in miniature. Hentoff and his colleague, fellow jazz critic Whitney Balliett, selected an integrated group of musical voices to present to a predominantly white TV audience. There were no gimmicks, no shtick, no mugging for the camera; like in Nat’s liner notes, the musicians were presented as masters and authentic creative artists.
The assembled cast was perhaps the greatest ad-hoc assemblage of jazz greats in history, and included performances by Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Pee Wee Russell, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Dickie Wells, Jim Hall, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Mal Waldron, Thelonious Monk, “Papa” Jo Jones, and, of course, singer Billie Holiday and her frequent musical collaborator in the 1930s, tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
The Endless Variety, Individualism, and Creativity
Holiday singing “Fine and Mellow” stands out, 50 years on, as one of the most beloved performances in jazz history, due largely for the empathy evident between the pair during Young’s solo (at 1:25), which is the perfect example of the tenor giant’s vibrato-less, years-behind-the-beat artistry. The contrast between Young’s solo and Ben Webster’s statement immediately preceding it may be the perfect introduction to jazz’s endless variety, individualism, and creativity. This pure example of the gorgeous variety with which two geniuses can improvise on the same material is one reason Nat Hentoff adored it.
The other reason—as with so much of how Hentoff related the story of jazz to America—was personal. “Fine and Mellow” is all the more poignant knowing that the performance was the last time Young and Holiday would see each other before their deaths in spring and summer of 1959. In 2000, NPR interviewedHentoff about the take:
The song she sang that, to most people (including me), was the climax of the show was one of the few songs that she herself ever wrote: ‘Fine and Mellow.’ It’s a basic 12-bar blues. It may be the only blues song she ever wrote, although the language of the blues, the texture of the blues, the cry of the blues was always part of what she did.
What made this the climax of the show was this: She and Lester Young — she had given him his nickname, Pres, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show.
Lester was not feeling well… When it came to his solo, in the middle of ‘Fine and Mellow,’ Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard.
Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, [Robert] Herridge, the producer, had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving. I think for all the times she sang this song, on records and in night clubs, this was the performance that I think meant the most to her, and it came through on ‘The Sound of Jazz.’
After it was all over, she was so pleased with how it went—it was live, by the way—she came over and kissed me. And that’s worth more to me than the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In a 2009 interview with jazz critic Marc Myers, Hentoff was asked how he’d like to be remembered. “Probably something like this,” he said. “You could hear the voices of the musicians in just about everything he wrote.”
Selected Nat Hentoff-produced recordings for Candid
Charles Mingus, “Reincarnation of a Lovebird, No. 2” from “The Complete 1960 Nat Hentoff Sessions.” Charles Mingus – Reincarnation Of A Lovebird No. 2
Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy, “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus” (1960).