Nat Hentoff, the civil liberties advocate and columnist who wrote about jazz and politics everything in between during a career spanning seven decades, died Saturday at 91, his son said. He passed surrounded by family and listening to Billie Holiday.
I had the pleasure of spending time with Mr. Hentoff on several occasions in New York and I always found him to be a walking encyclopedia of Jazz.He would start out every encounter with a “pop quiz” on music, after which he feigned disgust with any wrong answer. He took great pleasure in regaling you with anecdotes about famous musicians, singers, songwriters, and producers.There will never be another Nat Hentoff.
Hentoff was born in Boston to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1925. The New York Times reported that he tried to rebel at the age of 12 by publicly eating a salami sandwich as people walked by him on the way to synagogue, which angered his father and his neighbors. He said later that he did it in order to know how it felt to be an outcast, calling the experience “enjoyable.”
He attended Boston’s Latin School and graduated with honors from Northeastern University in 1946. In 1950, he was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 1953 through 1957 he was associate editor of Down Beat magazine. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in education and an American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award in 1980 for his coverage of the law and criminal justice in his columns. In 1985 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Northeastern University.
George Wein presenting Nat Hentoff with the NEA Jazzmaster Award
He has published many books on jazz, biographies, and novels, including a number of books for children. Among his works: “Does Anybody Give A Damn?: Nat Hentoff on Education,” “Our Children Are Dying,” “A Doctor Among Addicts,” “Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J Muste,” “The New Equality,” “The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America,” “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book,” “The Man from Internal Affairs,” “Boston Boy,” and “John Cardinal O’Connor: At The Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church,” “Free Speech for Me and Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other,” and “Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music.”
Hentoff developed a love for jazz early in life, and unlike many fans of his generation, took it seriously as art music rather than as glorified dance music. He brought to his listening a quality of focused, sustained attention that has always been rare. In Lewis’s film, Hentoff relates a story that seems as extraordinary as it is characteristic of the man: Unable to appreciate Charlie Parker’s genius — the ideas were too dense, he says, and came too quickly for him to grasp — he followed a friend’s advice and listened to Parker’s records at half-speed, closely and repeatedly. Slowed down, the music gradually became comprehensible, its intricacies less opaque, its beauties less veiled, and he began to understand the scope of the talent on display. It is no accident that Hentoff was the first non-musician to be named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The title of David Lewis’s documentary “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step/Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff” begs a central question: Has Hentoff, 91, famed social commentator, critic, jazz writer, and activist, really spent his life being out of step? Or is that largely a romanticizing conceit?
If one considers the prevailing conformity of Eisenhower-era culture out of which his career first flowered, the answer, of course, is yes; a bearded, left-leaning, jazz-loving, African-American-befriending agnostic Jew was about as out of step as a person could get. But situated more narrowly within his own milieu, among his own kind, this East Coast child of the Great Depression who lived in the heart of Greenwich Village, frequenting its lively night scene while helping to forge the distinctive tone of its own local newspaper, has spent most of his life not only in step, but also frequently choreographing those steps for his confreres.
Charles MIngus with Nat Hentoff
Musicians themselves sensed in him a kindred spirit, and many became his personal friends. Charles Mingus wrote in his memoirs that Hentoff with whom he found it possible to form a deep, abiding friendship. The writer’s admiration for his favorite artists was unfeigned, wholehearted and free of any consciousness of a racial divide. Interracial friendships were not so very rare in left-wing circles during the 1950s; nevertheless, there seems to have been a special quality of warmth and receptivity that Hentoff brought to these relationships.
In addition to his weekly Village Voice column, Hentoff wrote on the subject of music for the Wall Street Journal. Among other publications in which his work has appeared are the New York Times, the New Republic, Commonweal, the Atlantic and the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for more than 25 years.