Back in the days when the Village Voice was a must-read paper, “it always made me think of [a] great bar in the Village, and everybody’s … talking about everything under the sun,” recalled Karen Durbin, one of the former editors. “And sometimes an argument” would break out “and sometimes a chorus. You want that conversation at that bar or you’re just a bunch of boring drunks.” One of those at the old Voice who, for more than 50 years, was never boring or afraid of an argument was Nat Hentoff, 89.
The brilliant jazz writer and the columnist-guardian of the First Amendment (“the Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being”) is the subject of David Lewis’ new documentary, “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes On The Life of Nat Hentoff” (in which Durbin was doing her remembering).
In the era of LPs and record stores, when liner notes on the back of albums were an art form, Hentoff wrote liner notes almost as long and as often as he wrote columns, for albums ranging from Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ to recordings by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Hentoff’s wife Margot remembers, his liner notes “were so romantic,” and one didn’t have to be married to Hentoff to think so.
For example, Billie Holiday and Lester Young had a musical connection so transcendent, and a relationship so smokey, that many believed they must have been lovers, or should have been if they weren’t. We see a clip of Holiday and Young, who grew ever distant with the years, performing “Fine and Mellow” on “The Sound of Jazz,” a CBS program in 1957 for which Hentoff was executive producer. Hentoff wrote, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”
It was romantic until it wasn’t. Hentoff was fired in December 2008 after a half-century at the Voice, in no small measure for being “out of step” on topics ranging from abortion (he was against it, just as he was against the death penalty and almost all wars) to President Obama (“possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had”) to AIDS (“his first reaction to AIDS was not good,” said Durbin). That we’re not even told what Hentoff’s position on AIDS was, just that it was “not good,” reflects the onset of a politically correct time when, in the church of the Voice, to disagree was to be damned. “Nat and I became enemies,” said Durbin. “It was too painful, because neither of us was going to say, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry.’”
His firing was an ironic end for a columnist who defended the free expression and First Amendment rights of everyone else, from Malcolm X to Lenny Bruce to the right of Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood, although Hentoff was painfully conscious of anti-Semitism, even in liberal New York. As Hentoff wrote in the Voice, “If a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘All Jews gather in Times Square,’ it could never surprise me.”
Tony Ortega, the Voice editor (2007-12) who pink-slipped Hentoff, praises him, while skirting the controversies: “[When] Nat began his column … what Nat did that I don’t think anyone was doing at that time, is he would take a look at what the dailies were writing and comment on it. He was one of several people that invented that role of being an alternative to the daily newspapers, and that’s really what an alternative weekly is.” But by 2008, Ortega explains, “I had four columns and I knew that I could only afford two. Another editor might have chosen differently, but I felt I was choosing for where the Voice was going in the future.”
Perhaps it’s best to go back to the beginning, when Hentoff was the one you wanted to sit next to when the nights were good and the conversations even better.
The film opens with the arm of a record player, its stylus slowly lowered onto a jazz LP, softly scratched. “Certainly, anybody interested in the music, knew the name Nat Hentoff,” said the poet and jazz writer Amir Baraka (LeRoi Jones). At one point in the film Baraka tells of going to the Village Vanguard one night, “and I said to Miles, “Mr. Davis, I’d like to interview you.” Davis said no. Baraka said, “I betcha if I was Nat Hentoff you would do it.”
We see Lenny Bruce, on stage: “This is a newspaper I’m reading. It’s brilliant. It’s called the Village Voice. And actually this is a brilliant newspaper. It’s published in the Village and it has a brilliant editorial staff, plus some very erudite contributors. Let’s see, we’ve got Nat Hentoff, his subject is jazz. He knows about it…”
For an atheist, his journey to jazz began in shul. Hentoff tells the camera, “The cantor was a basic part of the whole religious experience there. And they sang what is called melismatically. That is, they often would take one syllable and use a number of notes on it, and they often improvised with melodies called nigguns. It was so powerful, so viscerally powerful, I still have a big collection of Jewish cantorial singers. Later on I told my friend Charles Mingus, the jazz creator … ‘I’ve got to play you some of this ‘cuz this is Yiddish blues.’ That started what I look for in all music. What most moves me is what in Yiddish is called the krechts, the cry. That’s what you have in all of jazz, one way or another. It makes you sit up and sometimes get up and shout.”
One day, walking in his hometown of Boston, he heard music coming out of a record store, music “that hit me like a chazzan swinging. I was so excited that I yelled in pleasure, which you didn’t do in Boston in those days. I rushed into the store… what was that? That was Artie Shaw’s ‘Nightmare.’”
Boston, he remembers, was “the most anti-Semitic city in the country,” and once when he was surrounded a gang who asked if he was Jewish, he denied it. “My pride was broken.” He never denied it again.
There are two Jewish covenants, one of faith, one of common fate, and while Hentoff doubted the first he embraced the second. In the 1930s, he would “knock on the doors of our neighbors … to ask for donations to plant trees” in pre-state Israel, believing that there needed to be “a safe homeland there for the people chosen to be the objects of the oldest continuing bigotry on earth.” Today, “I let myself dream that I might have had something to do with one or more of the trees in Itamar,” the settlement where the Fogel family was killed in a brazen terrorist attack.
Hentoff was often more complex than his enemies supposed. He opposed abortion, and yet early in their marriage, Hentoff’s wife went to Cuba — during the revolution, no less — to get an abortion. Looking back, Hentoff says, “What [was] I going to do, tell her not to? This is not a patriarchal household that I’m part of. I’m incapable of that…”
He was one of those writers that many readers, and the people he wrote about, thought of as a friend. Mingus, who died in 1979, says in an old clip, Hentoff was “a very sensitive cat … one of the few white guys you could really talk to in your life. Afterwards, you get in the habit of writing to him from time to time, when you’re feeling the pain in the middle of the night, and the larger questions that seem to have no answers loom up before your eyes. But Hentoff always digs the meaning of the question, and replies, all in caps on yellow paper, like a story off the wires.”
“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” is playing at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave., near West Third Street, (212) 924-7771.