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Remembering Nat Hentoff: A Voice and an Ear

Nat Hentoff during the annual "A Great Night in Harlem" Benefit Concert at The Apollo Theater in New York City.


The first and most famous book by Nat Hentoff — Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, co-credited to Nat Shapiro and originally published in 1955 — is an oral history that rings with the authority of scripture. “This is the story of jazz,” it begins, “as told by the musicians whose lives are that story.” 


The introduction goes on to explain the book’s methodology and issue a few disclaimers: it’s not a conventional history or a comprehensive survey, nor does it pretend to be. Because of the democratic clamor of voices ahead, we’re told to expect a rush of “candor, conceit, warmth, contradictions, bitterness, nostalgia, fulfillment, and frustration.” But I think the most important point is made in that first sentence, with its pointed emphasis. The construction is almost tautological: this is the story, and they are the story. 


Hentoff, who died on Jan. 7 at 91, authored many other books over the course of a distinguished and purposeful life in letters: soulful jazz chronicles, like The Jazz Life and Jazz Is; two valuable and colorful memoirs; some polemical novels, and some outright polemics; anthologies of essays like his insightful and openminded American Music Is. He was also a tireless and prolific force in periodicals — most notably the Village Voice, where his byline appeared for half a century, though during much of that time he was writing about politics and free speech, in alignment with his civil libertarian ideals. 


Virtually every jazz citizen past a certain age can recall some formative encounter with Hentoff’s writing. Like many, I first encountered him in the liner notes of countless albums: he was the pithy guide lending counsel as I first began to pore over John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The liner notes told me that Hentoff knew how to listen. In a way it was the same lesson imparted by Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, one of the first jazz books I ever purchased, now a little tattered around the edges but still an invaluable resource. 


It’s a book I’ve returned to over the last week, gleaning a reminder of the one essential truth throughout Hentoff’s jazz career: that it was always first and foremost about the men and women responsible for the music — about their lives and voices and intentions. Not every jazz critic takes such a humanistic, living-and-breathing approach. I believe it’s the essence of his enormous contribution to the field. 


Scholar and political activist Dr. Cornel West put it well in a recent interview with Doug Doyle of the WBGO Journal: “Nat had a humility, he had an unbelievable sense of down-to-earthness and generosity. And most importantly he was willing to learn [from] and listen [to] the jazz musicians; he came in not with an attitude of being a missionary or having the status of the in-crowd.” Indeed, Hentoff wore his outsider’s badge with rugged pride. Not for nothing that a recent documentary about his life’s work, by David L. Lewis, was titled The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.



Credit David L. Lewis / First Run Features
First Run Features
Nat Hentoff at work, in an image from 'The Pleasures of Being Out of Step'

Hentoff grew up in Roxbury, Mass., and discovered jazz as an intrepid young man; the epiphanies sparked by the music form a memorable refrain in his first memoir, Boston Boy. He cut a formidable figure even then, and soon a public one, on the air at WMEX. One of his early associates was George Wein, who had yet to open the jazz club Storyville, let alone the Newport Jazz Festival. (Wein describes this period in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, which I cowrote.) 


“We used to hang out at the Savoy,” Wein said last week, “and Nat was way ahead of us as far as his political thinking and his education. He was a very brilliant guy — I learned a lot just sitting and talking with him. He would pontificate a bit, but it was always worth listening to. He was a natural teacher.” When Wein organized his first concert in 1949, with clarinetist Edmond Hall, he asked Hentoff to write the program notes. It was Hentoff who came up with the concert’s title: “From Brass Bands to Bebop.” 


Hentoff soon became an essential contributor at DownBeat, and then a founder of The Jazz Review, a periodical that in many ways laid the bedrock for the field of academic Jazz Studies. But it’s worth remembering that his essay in the first issue of The Jazz Review, in 1958, opens with a withering critique of the Newport Jazz Festival, which he’d championed and been involved with just a few years earlier. 


That combative independence was as much a Hentoff signature as his evident feeling for jazz musicians. It was one thing he had in common with bassist-composer Charles Mingus, whom he produced on Candid Records in the early 1960s, and whose friendship would later be the source of fond reminiscence. It was also a hallmark of his political thinking, one way of understanding some of the positions that put Hentoff at odds with his peers. (He was staunchly anti-abortion, and had as little patience for liberal pieties as he did for conservative bugbears.)


George Wein presents Nat Hentoff with an NEA Jazz Master Award, 2004.
Credit R. Andrew Lepley
George Wein presents Nat Hentoff with an NEA Jazz Master Award, 2004.

  But the resolute nature of Hentoff’s opining, in person and in print, cohabited with a willingness to admit error and misjudgment — not always, and not on all subjects, but it was something. In 2001, for instance, he devoted an installment of his column in JazzTimes to Wein, making it a gesture of goodwill. Recalling their Boston years, Hentoff then quoted his own cutting appraisal of the mid-‘50s Newport Jazz Festival — “a money-grubbing enterprise of the same category as any giant midway staffed with shell games and taffy candy” — and then walked it back, admitting it to be “more than a little hyperbolic.” A few years later, Wein was the person who formally presented Hentoff with his NEA Jazz Masters Award.


Around Greenwich Village, where Hentoff lived for most of his life, he embodied a stature both everyday and larger than life, like the folk hero he was. Amy Niles, president and chief executive of WBGO, grew up as his neighbor on West 12th Street, during his productive heyday. She had no inkling of his stature at the time — to her, he was “Nicky’s dad.” (Nick Hentoff, a civil liberties and criminal defense lawyer, announced his father’s death on Twitter.) 


Many years later, when Niles encountered Hentoff at a jazz benefit, they spoke in terms of the old neighborhood, with its familial and tribal affiliations: “His connections were on that very humanistic level.” 


It was the same in the offices of the Village Voice, as Tom Robbins, a longtime compatriot, remembered in a recent tribute: “If this bow-shaped man, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, wasn’t pacing the Voice’s halls with his latest column in hand, he was deep in conversation with whoever crossed his path.” 


Wherever he went, Hentoff was likely to be trundling along with an armload of reading material. “He would be walking along with a magazine or some papers, reading them while he walked, and taking notes constantly,” said Fred Bass, co-owner of the Strand bookstore. “He had such a curiosity about what he was doing. He wasn’t wasting any time.”


Hentoff was both a book hound and something of a hoarder: over the years, the Strand took some 200 boxes of books off his hands. Bass recalls one day he was at the apartment for a pickup when the phone rang, and couldn’t be found under the piles. And yet Hentoff never wavered in his patterns of acquisition: “He used to come in the store quite often, and he’d wander around. He’d always walk out with something.” 


After his passing, a number of jazz journalists shared versions of what I’ll call a Nat benediction: the moment when you pick up the phone to discover Hentoff on the line, commending you for a particular story. My Nat benediction came in 2008, and  I’ll never forget it, even though it came via a message on my answering machine.


I had met Hentoff at a few industry functions, but we’d never had a real conversation. Foolishly, I now realize, I’d thought of him as a distant eminence, a face on jazz journalism's Mount Rushmore. One of the great honors of my professional life up to that point had been starting a column at JazzTimes, in the company of Hentoff and Gary Giddins. I had also briefly been a regular contributor to the Voice, the bully pulpit they had in common.


The reason for Hentoff’s voice message was a piece in The New York Times about the pervasive struggle of jazz musicians who lacked health insurance. This was an important cause for him, as I knew: he was closely involved with the Jazz Foundation of America, which had a substantial role in the story. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to hear his booming voice on the recording: “I want to commend you on your recent piece about jazz musicians and health insurance," he said. "That's a story that almost never gets covered.” Then, as I remember it, he signed off like an announcer on a radio broadcast. 


Were he still around to fight, I’m certain Hentoff would have plenty to say about what’s currently unfolding with health insurance policy on Capitol Hill. But that’s a diatribe for another time. At this moment I’m thinking about the words he and Shapiro used to characterize the tone of Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, all those years ago: “candor, conceit, warmth, contradictions, bitterness, nostalgia, fulfillment, and frustration.” Could there possibly be a better summation of the energies in Hentoff’s own voluminous work?


And could there be a better postscript than the line that opens the book? To my mind, Hentoff was more than one of the great voices of commentary in jazz. His life was that story, to the extent that such a thing is possible, and we remember him well whenever we listen closely to what the musicians have to say.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.