Jazz has lost a major voice and ardent champion. No, we’re not talking about another jazz musician from one or another bygone “golden age” who has passed on, but one of the greatest jazz writers we’ve had, Nat Hentoff, who has relocated to the realm of legend and legacy. He leaves behind a mountain of words, ideas, attitudes, and passions filtered through his finely tuned ears and set to paper. Jazz is much the richer for his input.
Hentoff — whose love of and scribing about jazz goes back to doing radio in the late 1940s, writing for and editing Down Beat in the ’50s, and moving on to many other venues, wending through many of its twists, upheavals, and evolutionary turns over 70-plus years — died on January 7, at age 91, and still writing. Reportedly, he died with family around him and Billie Holiday on the box — a dreamy and apt ending to a life well and musically lived.
Among other forms, Hentoff’s integral voice has appeared on many a liner note for albums, in jazz and elsewhere (including Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), going back to the time when record liner notes were an important source of info and zeitgeist-building (imagine that). In his liner notes for Charles Mingus’s classic 1963 album Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Hentoff quotes an interview in which the iconoclastic artist pondered, “What’s so funny is some people think a composer’s supposed to please him, but in a way a composer is a chronicler like a critic. He’s supposed to report on what he’s seen and lived.” At the risk of inflating the role of the critic, a good, thoughtful one helps to bring clarity and thought provocation to the enlivened space between composer/performer and listener, a process that comes close to the act of art-making.
Along with an elite handful of jazz writers, including New Yorker writers Whitney Balliett and Gary Giddins, Hentoff spoke with a quiet, commanding authority mixed with an active curiosity about this progressive American music. Neither a puff-piece-producing glad-hander nor a caustic power-wielding naysayer as a critic, he brought great intelligence to his work and served as a role model for jazz writer-critics in his wake.
When I was an avid Village Voice reader, Hentoff was mostly engaged in his nonmusical discoursing, writing weekly on issues and political intrigues usually relating to First Amendment rights. He was, to quote a common short-order bio blurb, a Jewish atheist civil-libertarian, pro-life, pro-Iraq War, and clearly not always given to promoting the liberal party line, even earning scorn from the African-American community at times.
Among many other publications, books (more than 25), and other contexts, he wrote for the Voice for 50 years, a remarkable run. In his final column for the Voice in 2009, Hentoff insisted that he was far from retiring from the writing and rattling game: “I’ll be putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties, now that I’ve been excessed from the Voice.”
More recently, switching out political issues for jazz again (though sometimes weighing in on the politics of the jazz world), Hentoff wrote a column on the back page of JazzTimes for the last several years, as well as the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. In an age when journalists aren’t necessarily keen to limit accessibility to potentially unpleasant public responders, I was always impressed that he insisted on running his actual phone number — which started with 212, of course — at the end of each JazzTimes column.
He was a radical by nature, and old school in the best ways, but moreover had his own private sense of moral being, as suggested in the title of David L. Lewis’s 2015 documentary, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff. In Hentoff’s 1997 memoir, Speaking Freely, he opens his fascinating life’s story with a simple but telling quote by tenor sax titan Ben Webster: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.” That he did, in his own style and groove.
Also from his Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus liner notes, Hentoff could be waxing self-referential when he wrote: “Mingus’s recordings, including this one, are among the most persistently candid and absorbingly maturing autobiographies in jazz history … It is not only that so heterogeneous a mixture of emotions, memories, aspirations and sudden self-discoveries are constantly operating within Mingus, but his expressive power as a musician also comes from the size and surge of all those forces. Mingus is remarkably unblocked.”