Columnist Nat Hentoff, fierce champion of jazz and 1st Amendment rights, dies at 91

Nat Hentoff, the venerable political and cultural columnist who distinguished himself as a preeminent jazz critic for DownBeat magazine in the 1950s and, in later decades, as a passionate defender of 1st Amendment freedoms in columns for the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Washington Times, has died. He was 91.

His son, Tom Hentoff, told the Associated Press that his father died from natural causes at his Manhattan apartment. 

For his 60-plus-year career as a journalist, Hentoff was preoccupied with authenticity and truth — no matter how uncomfortable or unvarnished. And while he would point to jazz and “being Jewish” as deep influences in his writing and thinking, it was his unbending protection of the 1st Amendment and civil liberties that he considered “of all of my obsessions ... the strongest.”

The author of more than three dozen books, and the subject of the 2014 documentary “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” Hentoff moved seamlessly from discourses on jazz and politics, adult and young-adult fiction, mysteries and memoir.

Considered a fiercely independent thinker, Hentoff consistently concerned himself with America’s conscience and how it was publicly expressed — both through its home-grown musical traditions (jazz in particular, but later, a swath of American vernacular music — folk, blues, bluegrass) and in his strict, to-the-letter and often controversial interpretation of the Constitution.

“I think we’re in a perilous state,” Hentoff told the New York Times in 2009, “in that, to paraphrase [President] Madison, the way to keep this republic is to have an informed electorate.” Instead, we have “constitutional illiteracy, which is rampant.”

Hentoff’s long career was built around agitating, challenging what he often saw as faulty rhetoric and party-line thinking — a convenient tailoring (or silencing) of language to meet the needs of the crisis of the moment — including book banning and abortion.

An often self-described member of “The Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists,” Hentoff dodged nothing. He believed not in fewer words, but better ones: a clear, concise argument, supported with research and reporting.

In a San Francisco Chronicle review of his 1993 book, “Free Speech For Me — But Not For Thee,” Patricia Holt wrote: “He’s self-righteous, preachy and pompous — but as is true with his book ... Hentoff is also one of the most accessible enlightening authors in the country.”

Over the years, in his books, newspaper and magazine columns, or behind the lectern (he held adjunct positions at New York University and the New School for Social Research), Hentoff had often described himself as a “man of the left,” yet persistently confounded those who identified similarly. This was due primarily to his unwavering stance on hot-button issues such as abortion (he opposed the practice), capital punishment (he supported the death penalty) and freedom of speech (he opposed hate-crime laws because he said they “dangerously” punish thought).

“Nat had a way of pissing off the writers and editors of two generations of lefties ... by which, I mean just about everyone who came of age from the Vietnam era on,” Village Voice contributor Allen Barra wrote in 2008, when Hentoff was laid off after a 60-year association with the paper. “[It] was unmatched by anyone I know of.”

For many, it was difficult to square the hard-line columnist with his earlier incarnation: the bearded Greenwich Village denizen who spent many after-the-last-set hours talking with African American jazz legends — among them John Coltrane and Max Roach, who struggled with and articulated oppression within their music.

When discussing his opposition to abortion in a 1985 piece for the New Republic, he declared that he was not just a “a pro-lifer,” but “a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer,” causing a furor. “The New Republic got 30 or 40 letters on that one, mostly negative,” he recalled in a 1995 interview with the Washington Post. “My wife agrees with them, too. She tells me I’m enslaving women.”

Hentoff didn’t see these hyphenated positions as mutually exclusive: As part of being a multifaceted citizen of the United States, it was his right.

Eschewing easy categorization, Hentoff’s positions weren’t provocative for controversy’s sake, but were a rigorous exercise in exploring the very fiber of what defined and connected the country. His deep explorations often led him to be ostracized by critics and colleagues, but for him, it was simply a consequence that he saw as part of the territory of truth-telling.

“I used to consider myself a liberal,” he told the Jewish Week in 1997, “but in an area that means a lot to me, liberals were just as much censors as conservatives. They wanted to kill free speech.”

It was too risky, he believed, to toe what he saw as the party line, if these freedoms implicit in the very definition of what it is to be American were qualified: “If children do not get the sense that the Constitution, very much including the Bill of Rights, actually belongs to them, they will grow up indifferent to their own — and other’s — liberties and rights. And if enough of the citizenry are careless in these matters, those liberties and rights will be suicidally lost.”

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925. His parents, Simon and Lena, settled in Roxbury, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, to raise their son in their Old World traditions. In later years, Hentoff would characterize the surrounding environment’s anti-Semitism as “exuberant,” so virulent that he often fought for safe passage home or to school.

His time in Roxbury was a bitter, violent taste of American intolerance that would shape him. Those years became a crucible: “I was an outsider,” Hentoff once wrote, “and therefore I learned to be continually skeptical of what insiders with power said and believed.”

Being an outcast created a bridge-building empathy of understanding. From an early age, Hentoff made a connection between the forthright playing of jazz musicians and the outside-the-lines possibilities of an improvised life. Hentoff frequently related the story that he first heard jazz tumbling out a window of a downtown record store while on his way to classes at the prestigious Boston Latin Academy. “A fierce wailing of brass and reeds, a surging, pulsing cry that made me cry out too.” He was hooked. He would hide copies of DownBeat in his geography textbook, would frequent Boston’s jazz joints and befriended the musicians.

Hentoff’s journalism career was christened by a free speech battle. At Northeastern University, he became editor of the student newspaper. His staff had uncovered a corruption story that involved city government. The administration intervened, asking Hentoff to pull the story. Instead, the entire staff quit. From then on, Hentoff became passionately interested in the freedom of the press — and the attendant 1st Amendment freedoms.

After graduation, he began hosting a jazz radio show on WMEX radio, which paired him with his jazz heroes in on-air interviews. And by the early 1950s, he’d picked up a regular gig for DownBeat writing reviews. In 1953, he was invited to New York City to be the editor. By this time, he was focused on the musicians’ realities: their deep engagement with their craft and their struggles with fair pay and gig security in pursuit of their art. Only four years later, Hentoff was fired for “agitating” to hire a black employee, frustrated that the magazine was “profiting from a black art form” but sidestepping integrating their staff.

He struck out for a while as a freelancer, attempting to broaden himself beyond jazz writing. The jazz players were the ones Hentoff would later credit with cautioning him about pigeonholing himself.  Duke Ellington, whom he counted as a mentor, would toss out aphorisms time and again that had applications beyond the bandstand: “Never get caught up in categories. That will imprison you.”

Hentoff longed to write social criticism. In 1958, the Village Voice, then a fledgling, cash-strapped alternative weekly, approached him. He agreed, on the condition that he’d never be asked to write about jazz. Instead, Hentoff wrote his widely read and cited column for years.

His layoff, at 83, was an event that caused an outpouring of emotion and support that surprised the seen-it-all columnist. “It’s like reading one’s obituary while you’re still alive,” he told National Public Radio in 2009, but to lift the moment he added, “I’ve been fired from some of the more prestigious publications over the years. ... When Tina Brown came in [at the New Yorker], it was about 10 days before Christmas, I got a note from her managing editor thanking me for my service now that I had retired. It was very kind of her because I wasn’t aware that I had retired.”

“Few have assiduously and consistently defended the right of people to express their views no matter how objectionable,” journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote in a review of Hentoff’s 1997 memoir “Speaking Freely” in the Los Angeles Times. Hentoff stood firm on this for his entire career. He often quoted his muse, journalist I.F. Stone: “If you’re in this business to change the world, you need to find another day job.”

But to many, it was clear that Hentoff only half believed it. He worked tirelessly trying to test the “perfectibility of man and therefore society,” an axiom he carried with him from his old Jewish neighborhood in Boston.

In many ways the advice the journalist-cum-agitator most adhered to was from saxophonist Ben Webster, who told him: “Listen, kid, when the rhythm section ain’t makin’ it, go for it yourself.”

MORE OBITUARIES:

Huston Smith, pioneering teacher of world religions, dies at 97

Longtime community newspaper man and activist Jonathan Sanchez dies at 64

Jeffrey Hayden, veteran director and husband of actress Eva Marie Saint, dies at 90

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