Many of the obituaries for Nat Hentoff, the writer and critic who died Saturday at 91, are focusing as much, if not more, on his political writing as on his work as a jazz critic—an imbalance that seems to relative importance of jazz and politics in contemporary culture more than it does Hentoff’s own body of work.
Hentoff was a combative and heterodox observer of politics, an absolutist civil libertarian who was a man of the left—one of the first great Village Voice writers—but one who was willing to, and often did, break with fellow leftists, as on his opposition to abortion. Thanks to his rightward drift over the years (by the end of his career, his column was running on World Net Daily, of all places), he’s being mourned as much if not more on the right today.
But I knew Hentoff as a jazz writer long before I’d ever heard of his political work. Hentoff’s name was so commonly signed to the liner notes of classic jazz albums from the 1950s and 1960s that as a budding jazz fan, I came to believe he might have been the only jazz writer at the time. He was not—though his stature was close. Hentoff was, however, one of the early, serious critics of the form. Like many jazz writers, he had once picked up an instrument, then realized that he wasn’t going to make it as a player.
Instead, he brought a seriousness of approach to a music that was past its zenith of popularity in the swing era but still a long way from being revered as “America’s classical music,” much less Ken Burns’ sepia-toned scope. His 1961 book The Jazz Life delved into musicians who were liable to be tarred as junkies (Miles Davis), malcontents (Charles Mingus), or charlatans (Ornette Coleman), considering not just the notes they played but the social contexts from which they emerged and in which they worked. Hentoff had honed his knowledge of the world as a teenager in Boston, hanging around jazz clubs and black jazz musicians where a young Jewish kid stuck out.
Before his spell at the Voice, Hentoff wrote for DownBeat (he claimed he was fired for trying to hire a black writer there), and later wrote about the music for JazzTimes, The Wall Street Journal, and others. Hentoff also reviewed records occasionally for The Atlantic, though none of those reviews is available online. In 2008, he was laid off by the Voice. (I wrote a short piece criticizing the decision for my college newspaper; Hentoff, by what means I can’t begin to guess, saw the column and sent me a fax to thank me.) In addition to his jazz journalism, Hentoff also wrote the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and profiled the future Nobel Prize winner for The New Yorker in 1964. “Wiry, tense, and boyish, Dylan looks and acts like a fusion of Huck Finn and a young Woody Guthrie,” Hentoff wrote.
When I heard about Hentoff’s death, I realized it had been more than a decade since I read The Jazz Life. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that, like Hank Shteamer, I no longer feel I know Hentoff’s critical voice. Jazz criticism boasts some notable stylists, from the impeccable Gary Giddins to the boisterous Stanley Crouch to the cerebra Ben Ratliff. By dint of his stature, Hentoff seems in a category apart—he is simply the voice of jazz writing.
Hentoff wasn’t just a great writer, though. He also produced several albums—none of such stature as the drummer Max Roach’s ambitious 1960 album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a project of civil-rights-related compositions. “Freedom Day,” which focuses on the Emancipation Proclamation, features Roach’s wife Abbey Lincoln on vocals and boasts notable solos from trumpeter Booker Little and trombonist Julian Priester, but it’s Roach’s machine-gun drumming that leaps out of the music.
Blending his own social and musical passions, Hentoff celebrated the political awakening among musicians at the time in his liner notes for the album:
Jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and several others declared public support for the sit-ins …. Jazzmen too had been becoming conscious and prideful of the African wave of independence. Several new original compositions were titled with the names of African nations, and some jazzmen began to know more about Nkrumah than about their local Congressman.