Nat Hentoff — journalist, author, civil rights advocate, “social commentator,” and one of the most influential jazz writers in history — died on January 7, 2017 at the age of 91.
A controversial figure who wrote for the Village Voice for 50 years and authored 35 books, including works for young people, he was, by his own admission, “a troublemaker.” The New York Times criticized his writing, saying it was not deeply researched and was mostly based on personal observation.
But despite his tremendous body of work as an author and in publications such as the New Yorker and Washington Post, his main contribution (and this point will likely be argued vigorously) was as a jazz writer who influenced subsequent generations of jazz writers, including yours truly.
A well-documented life
Hentoff's interest in jazz began while attending public school in Boston. After working at a Boston radio station, in 1953 he moved to New York and wrote about jazz as a staffer for Down Beat magazine until 1957 (though he remained a contributor for many years). He founded the influential but short lived Jazz Review, which lasted from 1959 to 1960, before turning his attention to writing books, including his groundbreaking 1961 The Jazz Life, which detailed, for the first time in print, the social and psychological aspects of jazz.
Four years later, he wrote Jazz Country, a novel for youngsters that detailed the challenge of a young white musician’s attempt to break into the jazz scene. I hadn’t yet reached my teens when I read Jazz Country, but it is one of the reasons I got into jazz. In 1966, he wrote Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, an essential collection of interviews that, for the first time, featured five decades of jazz musicians speaking for themselves.
One might think Hentoff’s jazz taste would be as progressive as his politics, but that wasn’t the case. He embraced everyone from Gene Krupa to Charlie Mingus, but was a latecomer to modern jazz. According to Eric Tarloff, in writing about David Lewis’s 2013 documentary, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff, he initially had a tough time embracing be-bop.
“In Lewis’s film,” Tarloff says, “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 and came to quickly for him to grasp, he says — 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.”
A local connection
Hentoff encouraged the involvement of young people in every facet of jazz, from performing to entrepreneurship. Suzanne Cloud, executive director and co-founder of Glenside’s nonprofit The Jazz Bridge Project, which provides emergency funds and assistance for Philadelphia-area jazz and blues musicians, had an unforgettable interaction with Hentoff.
“He wrote the first piece on Jazz Bridge we ever had,” Cloud recalls. “It was the first year our calendar came out, and I sent him one as he was writing the end page essay for Jazz Times magazine at the time. He loved it and wanted to find out more about Jazz Bridge and the calendar. He called me and, at first, I couldn't understand him on the phone. I asked, ‘Who is this again?’ And he yelled, ‘It's Nat Hentoff! Hentoff! I'm on a deadline, dammit.’ I told him not to yell at me, that even though I admired him immensely, he couldn't scream at me like that. He calmed down. Later, he called me back to apologize for being so abrupt. He was a wonderful writer on so many subjects and cheerleader for jazz.
Indeed he was.