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I dwelled on the “elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies” in the Times obituary: “the legendary jazz writer and civil libertarian who called himself a troublemaker and proved it with a shelf of books and a mountain of essays on free speech, wayward politics, elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies of the Constitution died on Saturday [at age 91] at his home in Manhattan … surrounded by his family members and listening to Billie Holiday.”
Hentoff worked at the Village Voice for fifty years, alongside a handful of agile writers populating their independent America with flair, teeth, and supple sentences. For my cohorts and me, they changed journalism.
Hentoff’s art was to highlight the art of others and he was so successful that he is in danger of being left out of the stories he stepped aside to make room for.
Any way you want to look at it he was prolific. There are many strands of Nat Hentoff, which, in both scope and depth, are hard to wrap your head around.
Known for books such as Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya (with Nate Shapiro) and The Jazz Life, his big themes (section titles of The Nat Hentoff Reader, 2001) include the condition of liberty, the passion of creation, the persistence of race, and the beast of politics. His lesser-known books are as rich and illuminating as his best known. These include Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste; a spirited and heterodox biography of Cardinal O’Connor, to whom Hentoff warmly referred as “my friend the Cardinal”; and (a personal favorite) his understated, rough-cut Young Adult novel Jazz Country, billed on the dust jacket as, “the story of a white teen-ager’s struggle to make it in the black man’s world of jazz.”
My own hope is that some day there will be a well-selected collection of Hentoff’s music writing, that will stand side by side with such classics as Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a fellow writer and traveler who chronicled his own towering century.
For those less familiar with Hentoff, he may be one of the best-known Zelig figures that you’ve never heard of. Witness Hentoff taking the stand in Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial, and placing himself in the line of fire, as William F. Buckley berated the specter of Black Power on his TV program Firing Line. As Camera 2 turned to Hentoff in the latter, he matter-of-factly explained that the truth of Black Power is that it did “not exist as yet,” which is why black people and groups such as the Black Panthers were organizing under its banner. Aboard Bob Dylan’s bus for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with Joan Baez, listening to Allen Ginsberg holding forth; on the go again on a chilly night in April 1955, backstage among the 40-plus musicians at Charlie Parker’s memorial concert at Carnegie Hall, which Hentoff co-produced and to which he contributed program copy; or in the studio with Cecil Taylor and Abbey Lincoln producing the album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.
Though I did not always share his opinions and positions, I respected, even lionized Hentoff. He had an unabashed sense of rabidity about what he was here to do, and how to keep on doing it. I was not alone. David Lewis asked the poet Amiri Baraka what Nat Hentoff’s reputation was among jazz musicians. Baraka shook his head and laughed, “I don’t know, what’s the reputation of the Bible in Church?”
From the age of 15, as a muckraker for the mimeographed Boston City Reporter, where he wrote about anti-Semitism, to articles drafted the past few months (see his June 2016 article “Trump’s Dangerous War on Press Freedom,” as timely as it is distressing), Hentoff never stopped.
Some of the Hentoff tributes over the past week focus on his political writings, others on his jazz criticism. He himself understood that his articles, books, and producing were interconnected. Both politics and American creative music share the clear-eyed goal that the fight for freedom never ends. For writers and musicians like myself, certain of his most powerful books are emancipations.
How did Nat Hentoff become Nat Hentoff? In his memoir Boston Boy, one exchange becomes a central trope of his identity: I was twenty, sitting at the bar in a struggling Boston jazz club, alongside Duke Ellington’s longtime tenor saxophonist — the large, often volatile, Ben Webster.… Ben had just finished a set with an earnest but stolid local rhythm section, and he had lifted them, as if in a huge fist, into a groove that at least approximated swinging. “You see,” Ben said, triumphant: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.”
“That principle of Ben’s music and his life, which were the same, has stayed with me. If I’m to have a headstone, I’d like that to be on it.”
In Jazz Country, another elder black musician explains to the young white protagonist that you don’t have to play jazz to swing, you can “swing in other ways.” And that was Nat’s own story of how he translated the values of music and the Jazz life into his own writing and worldview. It is more than an honorific gesture that he was the first nonmusician to be recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
He said one of his favorite Ellington songs was “What Am I Here For?” It always struck me as a strange choice. I like a few versions of the song, but never felt moved by it. Still, I’d give it a close listen, trying to hear what Nat heard it in. As it turned out, the song held a private meaning for him. His autobiography Boston Boy provides a clue.
At age 15, he still didn’t know what he was here for, but he began to find out when he was recruited “as apprentice journalists for a muckraking newspaper — actually a four-page mimeographed sheet — the Boston City Reporter.” He reflected, “The only payment was that for me, it put a personal pulse, a rhythm, to Duke Ellington’s song.”
Hentoff took the song and question to heart. He knew enough to know that the question has no one answer, but that, in any case, the lived life is its expression.
For Hentoff listening was as essential as food, clothing, and shelter. It was a basic need, and yet listening and “being there” were starting points; you then had to “make it” in the moment. This meant allowing conversations to go in unexpected directions. More than once Hentoff quotes cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, who learned to play by ear, obsessively listening to records: “That’s one thing I like about jazz, kid. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”
Strange as it may sound for a writer of his accomplishments, Hentoff believed that his most lasting achievement would not be one of his books, but in fact a television program that he helped produce one Sunday afternoon in 1957.
CBS asked Hentoff and Whitney Balliett to create a jazz program for the network. They selected the musicians and worked with them on the numbers to be played. The line-up included Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, Mal Waldren, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Danny Barker.
The show, The Sounds of Jazz, exemplified Hentoff’s light touch. The bare studio would be the stage. Against protocol, the cameramen were told “not to worry about being caught in someone else’s shot.” According to Hentoff, in his introduction to Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music (1995), permission was given for the cameramen to use their judgment on any “particularly arresting shots” and “not wait for the control room” for directions.
A seemingly minor detail, Hentoff relates that the musicians were “told to dress as they would for a rehearsal,” which meant that Holiday would not wear a dress and “most of the musicians wore their hats.” The details of the set up reveal Hentoff’s process in action. You can see the musicians sharing stories in their own private language in a small intimate setting.
The session’s moment of truth is Lester Young’s one course solo on “Fine and Mellow,” sung by Billie Holiday. Hentoff’s telling of it gives me the chills:
When The Sounds of Jazz was on the air, we in the control room were moving in time to the music until something happened that nobody had anticipated. It was an epiphany, a wordless remembrance of things past between Lester Young (“Prez” she [Holiday] had nicknamed him long ago) and Billie Holiday (“Lady Day” had been his name for her).
They had once been very close, but for reasons unknown they had grown far apart. During the week before airtime they had avoided each other. And Lester Young, sick and weak, had to be replaced [on an earlier part of the show] on the big-band numbers. All he had left was Billie’s number. I told him before the show started that he didn’t have to stand up for his solo; he could stay seated.
Billie was seated on a stool … She began to sing. In the control room we leaned forward. The song “Fine and Mellow” was one of the few blues in her repertory. She sang about trouble long in mind, with some kicks along the way. Her sound was tart, tender, knowing. And she was sinuously swinging.
It was time for Prez. He stood up and played the sparest, purest blues chorus I have ever heard. Nodding, smiling, Billie was inside the music. Her eyes met his. It was as if they were in another, familiar place, a very private place. I felt a tear, and so did [CBS producer Robert] Herridge.
As I dwell on Hentoff’s life and work I keep thinking how much poorer the history of jazz would be without him. I think about his liner notes for John Coltrane’s Giant Steps or his exceptional “Dizzy in the Sunlight” portraits of Dizzy Gillespie — more essays than I can name here. Hentoff wrote in such a way that we felt we were hearing something for ourselves when we were in fact hearing it through Nat’s scrupulous ear.
As Hentoff developed as a writer his questions became deeper about the person and deeper still about the bigger picture of one’s own life.
He was an early commentator on the cultural and racial politics of jazz, critiquing the white culture of jazz critics and even DownBeat magazine while he worked there. According to scholar Nichole Rustin he “was perhaps the most articulate white critic on the subject of race and its attendant discourses of power, agency, and class within jazz culture and on the national scene. Black musicians felt that they could trust Hentoff because of his deep knowledge about jazz history and its practitioners, and his respect for their ideas.”
If Hentoff is the voice of jazz writing, as he has been called, it is because he always allowed the voices of the musicians to take the lead. A typical Hentoff piece seems to tell you everything you need to know: a note or two from Nat, a quote or two from the musician, and then you’re off, on your own to immediately search for the music.
Here are the lead paragraphs for Hentoff’s “Every Night, I Begin Again.”
In the Ellington sense, Hank Jones is serenely beyond category. If I owned a nightclub, I’d give Jones a lifetime contract. Unlike some musicians who memorize attractive “licks,” as they used to be called, Jones is a true improviser. He is “the sound of surprise,” to use Whitney Balliett’s phrase for jazz as it ought to be.
Furthermore, Jones is a melodist, a lyrical storyteller. “In a way,” he [Jones] told me recently, “I have a singing approach to the piano. I play very long lines that connect with each other to tell a musical story. The sentences become paragraphs, and as for the colors — well, the harmonies are what the lines are built on.”
In many ways Hentoff’s significance has been acknowledged, and in others it has not been. Hentoff’s 1957 review of Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and his startling interview “Just Call Him Thelonious,” both provided a much needed window into Monk as a person, musician, and composer at a critical moment in Monk’s life and career.
A favorite line from Hentoff’s introduction to his interview with Monk, is “When he has something to say, he says it in his music.” Indeed, Hentoff’s critical evaluation of the pianist proved decisive.
I do not wish to overstate Hentoff’s significance, or the role he played in such critical receptions, yet it would be wrong to understate them too. It’s a hedge for other writers or historians whom might just wish to rush directly to the gold of the quotes and miss the alchemist in the shadows of such brilliant corners.
In high school my best friend’s father, who was an encyclopedia of American music, told me that when he first heard Monk he thought he was playing chopsticks. Later I came to admire his honesty about how he heard Monk. We want to believe that we can see and hear the most vital art and its contours, mysteries, and wily beauty, but more often than not trusted guides are needed.
In the end, so many of the people whom Hentoff interviewed said things to him that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t say to anyone else. This is the power of listening, but these conversations grew out of real relationships and mutual trust. And so it is, his interviews, conversations, and many books, starting with Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It, are a cultural treasure and inheritance. Hentoff never needed or wanted to be center stage, and that may have been the right-sized understanding of the role of a critic, and especially a white critic, in the jazz world. For me, Hentoff stands as one of the greatest sidemen in the history of jazz.