Nat Hentoff, 1925-2017

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I always thought Nat Hentoff, who died Jan. 8 at the age of 91, would have a querulous, contentious, grumpy and cranky voice. But you can hear his voice on YouTube, and it isn’t like that at all. Most times, it is clarion clear, empathic to be sure, warm with enthusiasm at times — depending on what he was talking about — but always strong.

When you categorize a man such as Hentoff, you can miss the whole. His obituaries invariably led off with the word jazz, as in jazz writer, jazz critic, jazz champion (I like that one).

He wrote about jazz, all right — he wrote liner notes for jazz albums, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice for 50 years, he wrote books about jazz — but even as a writer he had many sides. He wrote columns for all sorts of publications, including both the Washington Post and the Washington Times (imagine that), and he wrote children’s books and novels, even mysteries.

Raised Jewish in Boston, he considered himself a non-believer, but he had aspects of a biblical prophet about him. He looked fierce, beard and all, eyes intensely interested. When it came to the First Amendment, he was completely engaged, like a warrior, down to his last bullet, standing up to a rising tide implacably, sticking it to the horde of enemies of free speech.

He wrote: “Those who created this country and chose freedom … actually believed that we could be trusted to make up our own minds in the whirl of differing ideas.”

As a civil libertarian, he was adamant about that. Any assault on free speech, however unpopular, however dangerous, came under the heading of “I may hate what you say, but I will defend to my last breath your right to say it.”

Let’s not forget that he was also vividly opposed to abortion in a way that many right-to-life advocates are not, and that he once said that President Barack Obama was “the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had.” He defied expectations of the loveable liberal. He was a contrarian in most things, but endlessly interesting. Small wonder that a documentary about him is titled “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.”

No question, though, that his other never-ending, heartfelt passion (along with free speech) was jazz. “I was hit hard by jazz when I was eleven years old,” he said. That meant the 1930s, big bands, blues, Ellington and Ella. He would come to embrace the upstart beboppers from Charlie Parker to Mingus to Miles and he went further than that, discovering the joys of Bob Dylan and 1960s counterculture. He admired jazz’s innovative improvisation, which freed music from rules and boundaries and created a whole new world and culture.

It’s not hard to see why he loved jazz, was bowled over by it. His life and his various aspects were freely improvisational; he could shift and changes and move in different worlds. Fittingly, in 2003, he was the first non-musician to ever be named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts.

According to the Washington Post, quoting his son Nick Hentoff, he was listening to Billie Holiday when he passed away.


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