Free Jazz

Nat Hentoff Celebrated Jazz and Freedom

The late critic tirelessly supported the improvisational genius of America’s native art form and the rights of all citizens, contrarian or not, to speak their minds.

Waring Abbott/Getty

The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.

According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.

And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.

I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”

As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile. Hentoff was a mentor and a guiding force for me, professionally and personally. I ended up following Hentoff’s lead, straddling unlikely mastheads through my work—The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and Truthdig, for instance—and finding jazz a particularly good vehicle through which to address social justice. After the 2005 flood in New Orleans resulting from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina, when I described to him the extent of injustice and inequity surrounding that situation, Hentoff told me, “You have to do something, and you can’t do nothing.” Thus followed a decade of my own reporting, supporting in part by funding Hentoff helped me find. Hentoff even helped me reconcile myself with the religion from which I’d strayed, Judaism.

The most resonant voice in the pages of his book At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene is that of the chazan—the cantor in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue Hentoff attended while growing up in Boston. It’s not that Hentoff was particularly observant (he called himself “a Jewish atheist” in the book). But in shul, he found a captivating voice that provoked both visceral and intellectual responses that turned his head around, and that lasted a lifetime.

“The passionate, mesmerizing, often improvisatory singing of the chazan,” he wrote, “sounded at times as if he were arguing with God.” At 11, when Hentoff heard “music blaring from a record store that made me shout aloud in pleasure” it was clarinetist Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare.” Regardless of whether or not that particular keening A-minor melody of Shaw’s was based on a cantorial theme (Hentoff wrote that it was), a deeper connection with the music he would come to love and document—jazz—was thus forged. The cantor’s “soul cry of human promise, transcendence and vulnerability” was the same element Hentoff would home in on within the music of, say, Charles Mingus, the “depth of his witnessing to the human condition” an unbroken link for Hentoff to the blues at jazz’s base.

Hentoff said he was an “itinerant subversive” from the start. Growing up in a then predominantly Jewish Roxbury neighborhood within an otherwise largely anti-Semitic Boston, he grew defiantly individual and developed a strong sense of social justice while still quite young. In his memoir, Boston Boy, he recalled his defining moment of rebellion at age 12—eating a large salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement, while sitting on his family’s porch. He enjoyed not so much “that awful sandwich” as the experience of rebellion, combined with the knowledge of “how it felt to be an outcast.”

Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Simon and Lena Katzenberg Hentoff. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and the tough Roxbury section that was his home was a vortex of political debate among Socialists, anarchists, Communists, Trotskyites, and other revolutionaries. He learned early how to rebel. He channeled his sensibilities into what he used to call his “day job—reporting on keeping the Bill of Rights alive,” reflected most prominently through his 50-year tenure as a columnist for The Village Voice and via many of his books. He also developed an early love and appreciation for jazz—a music he would come to write about as a “life force.”

Within jazz’s community, Hentoff found fellow itinerant subversives, including Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Jo Jones, and Paul Desmond. “These were my teachers,” Hentoff once told me, “people who took risks every single night.” While a student at Boston Latin High School, Hentoff spent most of his free time at jazz clubs like the Savoy Café. He befriended Ellington and others, including, later on, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

Hentoff lived through a good chunk of jazz’s history, including its heyday within American popular culture. He got into radio in Boston while still a teenager, and did broadcasts from jazz clubs such as the Savoy and George Wein’s Storyville, where he got to know many musicians, and sometimes interviewed them on-air. From the start, he was interested in the music’s context as well as its content. He moved to New York to work as an editor for Down Beat magazine, which back then appealed to a much broader readership than it does today. In 1957, together with critic Whitney Balliett, he cast “The Sound of Jazz,” a landmark CBS program that brought the likes of Billie Holiday and Lester Young and more generally the sounds and attitudes of jazz into American living rooms; Hentoff called making that show “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” He wrote liner notes to groundbreaking recordings, including John Coltrane’s Expressions and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. As A&R director of Candid Record, he was responsible for a long list of important and unexpected albums, including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, which still stands as one of the most overtly political of jazz classics.

Among Hentoff’s many books is 1955’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, which he edited with Nat Shapiro. It was a seminal work of oral history relating to jazz. “The reason Nat Shapiro and I did that,” Hentoff told me, “was that, at the time, there was a widely held belief—really a myth—that jazz musicians are inarticulate by and large, except on their horns. There was a sense among a number of the listeners that all you have to do is pick up your horn, and you blow. And we had the idea that you could have a book where the musicians told their stories, in part to show that they could tell their stories.”

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Hentoff was neither the first nor the last jazz lover to exalt the music as both metaphor and laboratory for whatever we mean when we speak of an American experiment. Ralph Ellison expressed all that with more literary distinction and greater connection to the context of African-American arts. But if Ken Burns’s 19-hour PBS series “Jazz” in 2000 offered something of a caricature of jazz as the symbol of American values and virtues, Hentoff’s body of writings has come closest to painting an honest working portrait of the idea.

I recall interviewing Hentoff years ago, when Antonin Scalia was still on the Supreme Court, about the type of jazz pedagogy Ken Burns promoted. “Well, for one thing, John Marshall—who was the first, and in some ways, the most powerful Supreme Court justice in the beginning of the 19th century—said that the Constitution is a living document,” Hentoff said. “And unlike Scalia, who keeps an 18th century dictionary to find out what the framers had in mind, jazz is the same. Sidney Bechet, in that very good memoir of his, said, ‘You can’t hold the music back.’ And that means that you can’t categorize or fix anything in the music in terms of saying, ‘Only this is jazz, and this isn’t jazz.’ And the same thing goes for the evolving Bill of Rights. You can’t talk about the fourth amendment right to privacy only in terms of what the framers said. They didn’t know about wiretaps, let along telephones.”

Among the many diverse honors bestowed upon Hentoff—from, among other organizations, the Guggenheim Foundation, The American Bar Association, the National Press Association, and the American Library Association—was his designation in 2004 as one of six Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts, the first non-musician to win the honor.

And yet one of Hentoff’s endearing qualities—one missing in most music critics and political commentators today—was real humility. At one point in At the Jazz Band Ball, Hentoff wrote of sometimes “feeling fraudulent” for lack of technical knowledge about, say, chord substitutions. That feeling grew more intense when his daughter, at the time a budding musician, asked, “How can you dare affect the income of a musician when you give him bad reviews since you can’t say technically what you think he’s doing wrong?” In his book, Hentoff cut to an encounter with the arranger and bandleader Gil Evans. “I’ve been reading you for years,” Evans told him, “so I know what you listen to and how you listen. I also know musicians who can tell technically everything that’s going on in a performance, but they don’t get into where this music is coming from inside the musician—the story he wants to tell. You can do that some of the time. Stop worrying.”

Hentoff either stopped worrying, or went ahead anyway. Without discounting the value of or need for such critical analysis based on musical knowledge—how could he?—he argued for the narrative of jazz as a succession of stories of men and women who have shaped and lived the music.

“I’ve always had the sense when I was writing,” Hentoff once told me, “especially when I was doing liner notes, of asking myself, ‘What can I say that will be of use to someone in another generation?’ When I do liner notes, I interview the musicians. When I did notes for Coltrane, we’d always go through the same ritual. I’d call up and I’d say that the record company just gave me this. And he’d say, ‘I wish you wouldn’t write the notes because if the music doesn’t speak for itself, what’s the point?’ And John was a very kind man, so I’d say, ‘John, it’s a gig.’ So then we went on.”

And so I’ll go—we’ll go on—emboldened by Hentoff’s grandest ideas and deepest commitments, but not past the point of questioning ourselves. Maybe we’ll channel just enough of his itinerant subversive.

On the eve of the inauguration, standing onstage at Manhattan’s Symphony Space as master of ceremonies for a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Hentoff’s legacy—his commitment to truths we hold self-evident in both musical declarations, and the Declaration of Independence; his understanding that a sense of community is essential to creative music and effective activism. While dozens of musicians played on for more than three hours, and when I spoke of the dangers posed by this new administration and of complacency in the face of such threats, I felt his spirit present. I believe he’s with me now, demanding more.