Nat Hentoff, Jazz Authority, Free Speech Champion, Dies at 91

Nat Hentoff, the music journalist whose love of jazz as a youth became a lifelong affair even as he turned into a provocative writer on politics and a fierce defender of free speech, has died. He was 91.

He died Jan. 7 at his home in Manhattan, “surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” his son, Nick Hentoff, said in a twitter post.

Hentoff wrote nonfiction books about jazz music and First Amendment issues along with biographies, memoirs and novels.

Book writing was a sideline. He worked as an editor at DownBeat magazine and a writer at the New Yorker and, for 50 years, New York’s Village Voice, and was a prolific contributor to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Hentoff didn’t let his many interests sidetrack him from his passion for jazz, a world where he knew everyone from Louis Armstrong to Zoot Sims. He championed jazz on radio, staged a historic TV jazz broadcast and produced notable recordings of the music.

The National Endowment for the Arts called Hentoff “one of the major voices in jazz literature” and in 2004 made him the first non-musician to win its Jazz Masters award.

Hentoff was equally proud of his political journalism, his son, a New York attorney, said on Sunday. In 2012, New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute named him one of the 100 outstanding journalists in the U.S. over the past 100 years. Hentoff “crusaded, even against some liberal orthodoxies, for civil liberties,” the institute said.

Most Important

“The most important thing in his work as a journalist was caring about the impact of what happened to other people and about solutions for helping people, helping the marginalized,” Nick Hentoff said in a telephone interview Sunday.

“His point was to make people angry. He wanted to shake things up.”

The honors bestowed upon the elder Hentoff couldn’t shield him from a fate suffered by many journalists in the Internet era: After five decades as a columnist at the weekly Village Voice, he was fired in 2009.

“I’m not retiring,” Hentoff wrote in his final column, declaring he was “off to other combats.”

His dismissal didn’t shock colleagues. “Nat Hentoff was fearless, never afraid to remind management that he wasn’t obliged to take a poll on something before coming to his conclusion,” journalist Allen Barra wrote in the Voice.


Hentoff conceded he was difficult. His business card, if he had one, would read “Troublemaker,” he said, calling himself a “Jewish atheist civil libertarian, imperfect pacifist, committer of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War.”

In the 1980s, Hentoff shocked his leftist colleagues at the Voice when he became a fervent opponent of abortion.

“I was the only declared pro-lifer at the paper since its founding in 1956,” he wrote in “Speaking Freely,” his 1997 memoir. Almost immediately he became a “pariah” at the paper, Hentoff said, adding that three women editors stopped speaking to him.

He angered anti-abortion allies as well, pointedly asking why so many of them supported the death penalty.

‘Be Fair’

The lack of journalistic objectivity at the Voice didn’t bother Hentoff. “The only thing a journalist can do, and has to do, is to be fair,” he said.

Nathan Irving Hentoff, the son of Russian immigrants, was born on June 10, 1925, in Boston, which was then “the most anti-Semitic city in the country,” he said.

Picked on by youths as a teenager, Hentoff avoided being beaten up by telling them he was Greek, not Jewish, he wrote in “Boston Boy” (1986), his first memoir.

At 11, Hentoff’s soul was touched by jazz when he heard Artie Shaw’s clarinet solo in “Nightmare” pouring out of a record store’s speakers, he said in a Smithsonian oral history interview.

The next year he became a free thinker. To provoke his observant Jewish neighbors, he ate a salami sandwich on his porch instead of fasting on Yom Kippur. “I wanted to know how it felt to be an outcast,” he wrote, saying he found it “quite enjoyable” though the sandwich made him sick.

Jazz Clubs

As a teenager, Hentoff began spending time in local jazz haunts where he heard Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, among others, and where he said the saxophonist Ben Webster gave him his lifelong credo.

After an unhappy gig playing with lesser musicians one night, Webster turned to Hentoff and said, “You know, if the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.”

“I found that a very useful way to conduct my life,” said Hentoff, who as a writer had to please editors whose preferences and abilities varied greatly over the years.

As a journalist, Hentoff formed friendships with Malcolm X and John Cardinal O’Connor -- the self-described “Genghis Khan of the Catholic world” -- and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, whose New Yorker profile Hentoff spun into a full-blown biography.

These relationships never swayed his journalism. A negative Hentoff review caused one friend, saxophonist Paul Desmond, to forever stop speaking to him.

Fulbright Scholar

Hentoff graduated from Boston Latin School whose alumni include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Leonard Bernstein. He got his taste for journalism as an undergraduate at Northeastern University in Boston, where he left his position as editor of the school paper when the administration attempted to censor the publication.

As a graduate student, Hentoff studied American literature at Harvard University though he soon left to spend a year in Paris as a Fulbright scholar. Returning to Boston, he hosted a radio program on jazz, and then was hired as DownBeat magazine’s New York bureau chief.

In New York, he reviewed records, went to jazz clubs and, still in his 20s, was considered an authority on the music. One day he picked up his telephone to find Benny Goodman on the line.

“I’d never met him,” Hentoff recalled. “He said, ‘I’m looking for a tenor player. Who do you think?’ My goodness, Benny Goodman’s asking me? So I said, ‘Zoot Sims.’”

Varied Interests

Hentoff was fired by DownBeat’s Chicago managers, he said, for hiring a black receptionist.

Approached by the Village Voice to do a weekly column in 1958, he agreed on condition he would write about subjects other than jazz, “like education in Harlem” or politics, he said. “The way things were, you were an expert if you had a byline twice on a particular subject.”

He profiled Malcolm X after hearing musicians discuss him. They first met at a Harlem cafe, where a jukebox was playing “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell,” said Hentoff. “I liked the sound of the singer, Calypso Louis, who later became Louis Farrakhan.”

“I wrote, I guess, the first piece on Malcolm -- who became a friend of mine, to our mutual surprise,” he said.

Of all he accomplished, Hentoff was proudest of a live TV program he helped stage in 1957, “The Sound of Jazz.” He and Whitney Balliett, jazz critic at the New Yorker, persuaded Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young and Thelonious Monk, among others, to take part.

Not Retired

He began at the New Yorker as a staff writer in 1959 with a profile of saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, later contributing pieces on people ranging from songwriter Bob Dylan to New York Mayor John Lindsay until Tina Brown became editor and “retired” him in 1994, he said.

Hentoff didn’t stay retired. He found a 20-year-old jazz violin player and a teenage female saxophone player to write about. In the Wall Street Journal in 2010, he wrote about Myron Walden, a saxophonist, whose lyrical music he said made his pulse quicken the way saxophonist Lester Young did decades earlier.

“Musicians used to tell me that playing jazz kept them young,” Hentoff said. “So does listening.”

Hentoff and his wife, Margot, had two sons, Thomas and Nick. He had two daughters, Jessica and Miranda, from a previous marriage.

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