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Nat Hentoff: The Outsider-As-Insider

Nat Hentoff: The Outsider-As-Insider

Remembering the jazz critic and free speech crusader.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Nat Hentoff and his son Nick in a photo posted on Twitter last Saturday just after the death of the acclaimed jazz writer and civil libertarian.
Twitter via JTA
Nat Hentoff and his son Nick in a photo posted on Twitter last Saturday just after the death of the acclaimed jazz writer and civil libertarian. Twitter via JTA

It’s a steamy summer weekend in the early 1980s, and I’m alternately working and schmoozing in the offices of the Village Voice. With two friends I am helping reorganize some 20 years’ worth of files in the weekly’s film department, a favor to an old mentor of ours. There’s a guy padding around the open plan office in his stocking feet, usually with a cup of coffee in one hand, glasses pushed up on his forehead. With his graying hair and curly, slightly unkempt beard, he looks like a Jewish teddy bear.

Nat Hentoff.

As a still-unknown writer nearing 30, I was a bit intimidated by Hentoff’s presence. I needn’t have been. He was as relaxed and warm as his shoeless state suggested, a public intellectual at home in his own skin (and socks) and his own office. Hentoff was cordial, exchanging small talk, asking about our task, our writing, our careers with genuine interest. There would be a few other, similar encounters over the next few months.

It is a contrast to the public face that Hentoff presented, the one that was most discussed in the aftermath of his death last week at 91.

That Nat Hentoff was, like many Jewish-American writers whose careers bloomed in the post-Shoah suburbanized America of the ’50s, a controversialist, a street-smart city kid, disdainful of the crabgrass-infested Levittowns surrounding the urban centers, provocative, abrasive, fearless.

As he recounted in his buoyant memoir “Boston Boy,” Hentoff was fated to be a perpetual outsider-as-insider, the hip Jewish kid of Russian ancestry in Brahmin and Catholic Boston, the white maven in the black world of jazz. It was a double-consciousness that he embraced eagerly, and one that led him to the most dangerous position that American society has to offer, defender of free expression.

Hentoff’s beloved Mark Twain once wrote, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

Hentoff frequently echoed those words, and he doubled down on their challenge at every available opportunity over a career that spanned 50 years at the Voice. It proved a very good way to make enemies across the political spectrum. If you are going to defend free expression of every stripe as a matter of principle, you will quickly offend both anti-Semite and Jew, Stalinist and Fascist alike. About the only groups of people you can count on to stand by you will be a tiny hardcore of librarians, writers on the periphery and civil liberties lawyers.

Of course, Hentoff did everything in his power to alienate even those people. The tone of his columns on these issues was combative, frequently arrogant. Sometimes he wrote as if he believed himself the author of the First Amendment and its only proponent. He seemed to take particular delight in jousting with readers in the letter columns of his many publications, and he could be more cruelly dismissive of friends than enemies.

In later years, when he enthusiastically embraced the anti-abortion movement, the strident tones he used often overwhelmed the substance of his argument. Hentoff had come to his newfound position on reproductive rights from his defense of disabled infants and children. To his mind this was a perfectly logical straight line of reasoning, extrapolating backward to the unborn. To me it always looked like a significant category error, and it headed towards places in American politics that a nice Jewish boy wasn’t particularly welcome.

So be it.

Forgotten in all but the music press — what remains of it anyway — is the Nat Hentoff who hung around bandstands in the Boston night, drinking in very note, every chord progression and every word of Lester Young and Charlie Parker and countless other jazz masters. (In announcing his father’s death, his son Nick wrote poignantly in a tweet: “He died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday.”) In their presence, Hentoff was transformed into the worshipful acolyte at the feet of the sensei, eager to learn and grateful for the opportunity to pass along the truth.

Hentoff once told an interviewer how jazz intersected with his career as a defender of the Bill of Rights.

“I’ll leave you with this — every once in a while writing about my day job I get so down I have to stop,” he said. “I literally stop and put on a recording, and then that sound, that feeling, that passion for life gets me up and shouting again and I can go back to grim stuff of what’s happening in the rest of the world.”

In 2013, a biographical film about Hentoff titled “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” spotlighted his career as a jazz critic and First Amendment advocate.

In one of his late collections of music pieces (he wrote jazz for Downbeat as well as for other leading publications), Hentoff recounts a phrase of the great tenor saxophonist Young’s, something about listening to the story as it came out of his horn. Hentoff was attuned to those stories and he retold them with consummate skill and love.

That’s the Nat Hentoff I’d like to remember. In his stocking feet, of course.

JTA contributed to this report.

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