Remembering Nat Hentoff, an acclaimed critic and singular voice
Francis Blagburn celebrates the life of an influential and, at times, controversial columnist, novelist and jazz critic who died on 7 January
There aren’t many polymaths in modern journalism. Writers tend to craft a personal brand and then cling to it, as though stepping outside of their chosen category would risk diluting their identity. It’s difficult to imagine any of today’s crop of social commentators taking on anything like the scope of subject matter tackled by Nat Hentoff, the late New York jazz critic who passed away on Saturday 7 January after a life that spanned ten decades and a writing career that spanned seven. For Hentoff, writing a book on the First Amendment came as naturally as a blistering review of Charles Mingus or an analysis of the magic of Duke Ellington.
Like Roger Ebert, he was one of those critics whose towering body of work has a reach beyond the USA, touching lives across around the world and altering the course of popular culture in the process. Incidentally, Ebert had a wealth of positive things to say about his contemporary, having visited Hentoff’s cluttered office at the Village Voice magazine in Manhattan in the 1980s, an experience he recapped in his review of The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, a 2014 documentary about Hentoff’s life. He remembered stepping into the office and finding a room packed with newspapers and books from floor to ceiling, a kind of shrine to the printed word. He’d never seen anything like it: “Crazy love, you can call it”, he wrote, with the knowing tone of an old friend.
Hentoff’s crazy love caused him to write endlessly, and read just as much. He worked for Village Voice for fifty years as well as penning columns for the New Yorker, Down Beat, The Wall Street Journal and so many other esteemed American publications. Not only did he contribute to defining the general tone of jazz writing with commentary and analysis in the pages of music magazines, he wedged himself firmly into the history of the genre by writing the liner notes for records by Max Roach, Stephane Grappelli and Duke Ellington, as well as Bob Dylan and others outside of the genre. In fact, his liner notes alone have been compiled into vast alphabetical indexes that drink in everyone from saxophonist Zoot Sims to Billie Holiday, who Hentoff was listening to when he died last week surrounded by family.
Hentoff was a controversial figure, whose political writing could be provocative and divisive; he was accused of both homophobia and anti-feminism at points during his career. Still broadly accepted by a progressive crowd, he cut the figure of a kind of earlier and more extreme Jonathan Franzen, unrepentant for his episodes of borderline conservatism; an inconvenient yet firmly established member of the so-called liberal elite.
Not only did he contribute to defining the tone of jazz writing, he wedged himself into the history of the genre
For those who love Hentoff’s jazz writing but disagree with his stance on certain issues – he was an outspoken opponent of abortion, for instance – there is a temptation to block out this reality, but it’s worth considering how connected his musical and political ideas may have been. Did he despise censorship for the same reasons he loved the freedom of expression jazz could provide?
It’s relevant that he remembered being told by Duke Ellington, “Don’t get yourself caught up in categories”. Hentoff wrote that the jazz greats were his “secular rabbis”, and it’s easy to see how he transferred Ellington’s wisdom to a political as well as a musical context. His libertarian writings often attempted, at least, to eschew labels and embrace a freer and less conformist idea of American identity, however ill-advised his actual pursuit of that aim could be. By the last decades of his career, having been dropped by Village Voice in 2006, he was writing for worldnetdaily.com, a right-wing libertarian website that at the time of writing brandishes the headline “Trump has Islamic clerics wetting their pants” on its front page.
For some on the left, Hentoff was representative of “the decay of American liberalism”. Indeed, he tested the fuzzy relationship between the term liberal and the term leftist, demonstrating the ability for the word liberal to be stretched across both ends of the left-right political spectrum, used as it is to justify both laissez-faire economics and socially progressive stances by different people at different times. Hentoff himself was not consistent throughout his career, his positions and opinions changed over the course of his life, but it’s likely that he’d have rejected any left, right or even liberal labelling anyway: he saw himself as a constitutional expert and free speech advocate – a rogue voice rather than a mouthpiece for an ideological group.
In an age of post-truth political discourse, when the Russian embassy can tweet a picture of Pepe and be met by scores of Reddit-reading, ‘SJW’-baiting chauvinists in the comments, Nat Hentoff’s writing harks back to increasingly distant age. Yes, his writing could be inflammatory – and many fans of his music writing would come to find his more socially conservative positions problematic – but he always adhered to the conventions of respectful debate. As filmmaker David L. Lewis described, “he recognized his own place in the ecosystem of journalism, and he was keenly aware of the failings of the profession — especially the institutions and conventions of what today we call the mainstream media. That’s what made him a pioneer of what came to be known as alternative journalism… but Nat was remarkably respectful of mainstream journalists.” His arguments were rooted in what he saw as legitimate principles of free speech rooted in the foundational constitutional principles of the United States – he was always advancing an argument, never ‘trolling’ for its own sake. He was a person who rallied against political correctness but in a respectful manner, with none of the post-integrity crassness of Milo Yiannopoulos, Brendan O’Neill or, of course, Trump.
Perhaps this is too low a bar though. Hentoff should be remembered because he was a great critic, whose writing on music – even as he believed in parallels between his political and musical tastes – would always possess a unifying, universal quality. “The whole idea of the Bill of Rights and jazz [is] freedom of expression that nobody, not even the government, can squelch,” he once said. Still, for many the two sides are not really equal. The truest freedom of expression he ever came close to defining existed somewhere in the music.