Columnist Nat Hentoff dies at 91

NEW YORK — Nat Hentoff, an eclectic columnist, critic, novelist and agitator dedicated to music, free expression and defying the party line, died Saturday at age 91.

His son, Tom Hentoff, said his father died from natural causes at his Manhattan apartment.

Schooled in the classics and the stories he heard from Duke Ellington and other jazz greats, Nat Hentoff enjoyed a diverse and iconoclastic career, basking in "the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects."

He was a bearded, scholarly figure, a kind of secular rabbi, as likely to write a column about fiddler Bob Wills as a dissection of the Patriot Act, to have his name appear in the liberal Village Voice as the far-right WorldNetDaily.com, where his column last appeared in August 2016.

Ellington, Charlie Parker, Malcolm X and I.F. Stone were among his friends and acquaintances. He wrote liner notes for records by Aretha Franklin, Max Roach and Ray Charles and was the first non-musician named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. He also received honors from the American Bar Association, the National Press Foundation, and, because of his opposition to abortion, the Human Life Foundation.

Hentoff's steadiest job was with the Voice, where he worked for 50 years and wrote a popular column. He wrote for years about jazz for DownBeat and had a music column for the Wall Street Journal. His more than 25 books included works on jazz and the First Amendment, the novels "Call the Keeper" and "Blues for Charles Darwin" and the memoirs "Boston Boy" and "Speaking Freely."

The documentary "The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff" was released in 2014.

Jazz was his first love, but Hentoff was an early admirer of Bob Dylan, first hearing the then-unknown singer at a Greenwich Village club in 1961 and getting on well enough with him to write liner notes two years later for Dylan's landmark second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

"The irrepressible reality of Bob Dylan is a compound of spontaneity, candor, slicing wit and an uncommonly perceptive eye and ear for the way many of us constrict our capacity for living while a few of us don't," Hentoff wrote.

At a time when the media alternately treated Dylan like a prophet or the latest teen fad, Hentoff asked well-informed questions that were (usually) answered in kind by the cryptic star. Hentoff also was willing to be Dylan's partner in improvisation. A 1966 Playboy interview, he later revealed, had been made up from scratch after Dylan rejected the first conversation that was supposed to be published by the magazine.

As a columnist, Hentoff focused tirelessly on the Constitution and what he saw as a bipartisan mission to undermine it. He tallied the crimes of Richard Nixon and labeled President Clinton's anti-terrorism legislation "an all-out assault on the Bill of Rights." He even parted from other First Amendment advocates, quitting the American Civil Liberties Union because of the ACLU's support for speech codes in schools and workplaces.

Left-wing enough to merit an FBI file, an activist from age 15 when he organized a union at a Boston candy chain, Hentoff was deeply opposed to abortion, angering many of his colleagues at the Village Voice and elsewhere. In 2008, he turned against the campaign of Barack Obama over what he regarded as the candidate's extreme views, including rejection of legislation that would have banned partial birth abortions.

Hentoff was born in 1925, the son of a Russian-Jewish haberdasher. Thrown out of Hebrew school, he flaunted his unbelief, even eating a salami sandwich in front of his house on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement. In 1982, his opposition to Israel's invasion of Lebanon led to a trio of rabbis declaring he had been excommunicated.

"I only wished the three rabbis really had the authority to hold that court," Hentoff later wrote. "I would have told them about my life as a heretic, a tradition I keep precisely because I am a Jew."

He was educated as a boy at Boston's Latin School, alma mater to Ralph Waldo Emerson among others. But his best lessons were received at a local jazz joint, where Ben Webster and Rex Stewart were among those who took a liking to the teenage fan and became, Hentoff recalled, "my itinerant foster fathers." Back in the classroom, Hentoff would hide jazz magazines inside his textbooks.

In college, Northeastern University, Hentoff found a home at the Savoy Cafe and befriended Ellington, drummer Jo Jones and others. Ellington not only lectured him on music, but enlightened young Hentoff (who eventually married three times) on the loopholes in monogamy. "Nobody likes to be owned," Ellington told him.

After graduating, Hentoff worked as a disc jockey and moved to New York to edit DownBeat, from which he was fired in 1957, because, he alleged, he had attempted to employ an African-American writer. A year later, he joined the Village Voice and remained until he was laid off in December 2008.

"I came here in 1958 because I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about," Hentoff wrote in his final Voice column, published in January 2009. "Over the years, my advice to new and aspiring reporters is to remember what Tom Wicker, a first-class professional spelunker, then at The New York Times, said in a tribute to Izzy Stone: 'He never lost his sense of rage.' Neither have I."

© The Associated Press FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 13, 2006 file photo, Jazz legends pose for a group portrait of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters of the past and present, in New York. At foreground right is writer Nat Hentoff.

Nat Hentoff, journalist who wrote on jazz and civil liberties, dies at 91

Nat Hentoff, a journalist, author, champion of jazz music and passionate defender of civil liberties in columns he wrote for The Washington Post and Village Voice, among other publications, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 91.

His son, Nick Hentoff, announced the death on Twitter, saying his father died while listening to jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Over a long and admired career — he was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — Mr. Hentoff was a writer and editor for the jazz magazine Down Beat, co-founded the publication Jazz Review, was immersed in efforts to bring jazz to television, briefly ran a record label for which he oversaw the recording of major jazz musicians including Max Roach and Cecil Taylor, and wrote liner notes for John Coltrane’s landmark album “Giant Steps” (1960).

In 2003, he was one of the first nonmusicians to be recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet his interests went far beyond the realm of jazz. He wrote for print publications including the New Yorker magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and Legal Times. Late in his career, he was a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Through years of turmoil and turbulence, through times of political divisions evoked by the Vietnam War, in eras of social discord and widespread concerns about crime as well as attempts to suppress dissenting voices, Mr. Hentoff was regarded as among the country’s staunchest public advocates of American constitutional guarantees.

In his columns on civil liberties, published in the Voice for a half-century and in The Post in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Hentoff sometimes aroused the ire of many of who might have seemed to be his natural allies in the progressive camp. At the same time, he unabashedly shared, in print, views that were dear to many who might not have expected to find him congenial. For such reasons, a 2013 documentary about his life was plausibly titled “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” On-screen he declared, “the Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being.”

“Duke Ellington used to tell me that ‘we gave the world the freest expression ever in the arts,’ so I always thought there was a natural tie there,” Mr. Hentoff told the New York Times. “The whole idea of the Bill of Rights and jazz [is] freedom of expression that nobody, not even the government, can squelch.”

Of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, Mr. Hentoff was most closely identified with the First, the one that guarantees freedom of speech and of the press as he derided and denounced what he perceived as efforts at censorship by the left and the right.

Atop his column in The Post were the words “Sweet Land of Liberty.” Mr. Hentoff believed in applying the words of the Constitution in the most difficult of circumstances. Nor was the word “Sweet” to be overlooked. As he saw it, it was the Constitution that created American life as he knew it and as others enjoyed it.

It was also said of him that he freely made use of the freedom that he cherished to promote causes that might have seemed inconsistent in someone whose ideas so often seemed to reflect those of American liberalism, or progressivism.

One of those for which he was well known was his determined opposition to abortion, leading him to call himself a member of the antiabortion left. It did not concern him that many whose views on abortion he shared might have held diametrically opposed positions on a broad range of issues also dear to Mr. Hentoff’s heart. He supported the state of Israel and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He was described in the American Conservative magazine, in recognition of his individuality, as “the only Jewish atheist pro-life libertarian hawk in America.”

One of his Post columns from 1985 looked askance at opposition that led to the withdrawal of the proposed commencement speaker at Cornell University’s medical school. Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had become known, among other things, for anti-Zionist views. Chomsky’s views on the Middle East were far more nuanced than that, and his speech was going to address the arms race. But when Cornell’s president was chosen as Chomsky’s replacement, Mr. Hentoff wrote, with obvious irony, that the graduates who had opposed Chomsky could rejoice in “having been rescued from the possibly infectious presence of a heretic.”

In recent years, he supported the presidential prospects of Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who, he told the Times, “knows the Constitution’’ and is sympathetic with his views on civil liberties issues, including surveillance and the use of drones. And he noted that President Obama, for all the admiration he elicited from liberals, “needs watching — like everybody.”

Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925, to Jewish immigrants from Russia, and his father supported the family as a haberdasher and a traveling salesman. Raised in a Jewish neighborhood, Mr. Hentoff said he showed signs of rebellion from a young age, pointing to the time, at age 12, when he sat on his front porch and ate “a huge salami sandwich very slowly” on the Sabbath.

Mr. Hentoff displayed a precocious interest in journalism. At 15, he became an unsalaried reporter for Frances Sweeney, who ran the muckraking and short-lived Boston City Reporter. Mr. Hentoff covered anti-Semitism as a beat.

Meanwhile, he graduated from the prestigious Boston Latin School, and from Northeastern University in 1946. He worked for a series of radio stations, mostly as a jazz broadcaster.

He said he was fired from Down Beat in 1957 after pushing too aggressively for the publication to hire black writers. He then joined the nascent Village Voice, where he said he lobbied to write about anything but jazz and began to immerse himself in issues including education, race and, eventually, civil liberties.

He wrote and edited books on jazz, and he also wrote novels and essay collections, among other works.

Mr. Hentoff was married three times, and he had several children. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately determined.

Mr. Hentoff acknowledged to the Times that he sometimes came across as a “gadfly” but that his passions were quite serious. “Without intending to,” he said, “I learned to be an outsider. I’ve been an outsider all my life, and what I’ve concluded is that you can learn a lot by being there.”


Nat Hentoff, Journalist and Social Commentator, Dies at 91

Nat Hentoff, the author, journalist, jazz critic and civil libertarian who called himself a troublemaker and proved it with a shelf of books and a mountain of essays on free speech, wayward politics, elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies of the Constitution, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

His son, Nicholas, said he died of natural causes, surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday.

Mr. Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice for 50 years, and also contributed to The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine and dozens of other publications. He wrote more than 35 books — novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects.

The Hentoff bibliotheca reads almost like an anthology: works by a jazz aficionado, a mystery writer, an eyewitness to history, an educational reformer, a political agitator, a foe of censors, a social critic. He was, indeed — like the jazz he loved — given to improvisations and permutations, a composer-performer who lived comfortably with his contradictions, though adversaries called him shallow and unscrupulous, and even his admirers sometimes found him infuriating, unrealistic and stubborn.

In the 1950s, Mr. Hentoff was a jazz critic in Manhattan, frequenting crowded, smoky nightclubs where musicians played for low pay and audiences ran hot and cold and dreamy. “I knew their flaws as well as their strengths,” he recalled, referring to the jazz artists whose music he loved, many of whom he befriended, “but I continued to admire the honesty and courage of their art.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, he wrote books for young adults, nonfiction on education, magazine profiles on political and religious leaders and essays on racial conflicts and the Vietnam War. He became an activist, too, befriending Malcolm X and joining peace protests and marches for racial equality.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he produced commentaries and books on censorship and other constitutional issues; murder mysteries; portraits of educators and judges; and an avalanche of articles on abortion, civil liberties and other issues. He also wrote a volume of memoirs, “Speaking Freely” (1997).

His writing was often passionate, even inspirational. Much of it was based on personal observations, but some critics said it was not deeply researched or analytic. His nonfiction took in the sweep of an era of war and social upheaval, while many of his novels caught the turbulence, if not the character, of politically astute young adults.

While his sympathies were usually libertarian, he often infuriated leftist friends with his opposition to abortion, his attacks on political correctness and his criticisms of gay groups, feminists, blacks and others he accused of trying to censor opponents. He relished the role of provocateur, defending the right of people to say and write whatever they wanted, even if it involved racial slurs, apartheid and pornography.

He had a firebrand’s face: wreathed in a gray beard and a shock of unruly hair, with dark, uncompromising eyes. Once a student asked what made him tick. “Rage,” he replied. But he said it softly, and friends recalled that his invective, in print or in person, usually came wrapped in gentle good humor and respectful tones.

Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Simon and Lena Katzenberg Hentoff. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and he grew up in the tough Roxbury section in a vortex of political debate among socialists, anarchists, Communists, Trotskyites and other revolutionaries. He learned early how to rebel.

On Yom Kippur in 1937, the Day of Atonement and fasting, the 12-year-old Nat sat on his porch on a street leading to a synagogue and slowly ate a salami sandwich. It made him sick, and the action outraged his father. He had not done it to scandalize passing Jews who glared at him, he said in a memoir, “Boston Boy” (1986). “I wanted to know how it felt to be an outcast,” he wrote. “Except for my father’s reaction and for getting sick, it turned out to be quite enjoyable.”

He attended Boston Latin, the oldest public school in America, and read voraciously. He discovered Artie Shaw and fell passionately for Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and other jazz legends. As more modern styles of jazz emerged, Mr. Hentoff also embraced musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and, later, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.

At Northeastern University, he became editor of a student newspaper and turned it into a muckraker. When it dug up a story about trustees backing anti-Semitic publications, the university shut it down. Mr. Hentoff and members of his staff resigned, but he graduated in 1946 with high honors and a lasting devotion to the First Amendment.

After several years with a Boston radio station, he moved to New York in 1953 and covered the jazz scene for Down Beat until 1957.

He was one of the most prolific jazz writers of the 1950s and ’60s, providing liner notes for countless albums as well as writing or editing several books on jazz, including “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It” (1955), which he edited with Nat Shapiro. It was a seminal work of oral history.

In 1958 he was a founding editor of the influential The Jazz Review, which lasted until 1961. In 1960, he began a notable if brief career as a record producer, supervising sessions by Mingus, Max Roach and others for the Candid label.

Around the same time, he began a freelance career that took him into the pages of Esquire, Harper’s, Commonweal, The Reporter, Playboy and The New York Herald Tribune.

In 1958, he began writing for The Village Voice, the counterculture weekly. It became a 50-year gig, despite changes of ownership and editorial direction. Veering from jazz, he wrote weekly columns on civil liberties, politics, education, capital punishment and other topics, all widely syndicated to newspapers.

In January 2009, he was laid off by The Voice, but said he would continue to bang away on the electric typewriter in his cluttered Greenwich Village flat, producing articles for United Features and Jewish World Review and reflections on jazz and other music for The Wall Street Journal.

Citing the journalists George Seldes and I. F. Stone as his muses, he promised in a farewell Voice column to continue “putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties.”

He wrote for The New Yorker from 1960 to 1986, and for The Washington Post from 1984 to 2000. He also wrote for The Washington Times and other publications. For years he lectured at schools and colleges and was on the faculties of New York University and the New School.

Mr. Hentoff’s first book, “The Jazz Life” (1961), examined social and psychological aspects of jazz. Later came “Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste” (1963), a biography of the pacifist, and “The New Equality” (1964), on the role of white guilt in racial reforms.

“Jazz Country” (1965) was the first of a series of novels for young adults. It explored the struggles of a young white musician breaking into the black jazz scene. Others included “This School Is Driving Me Crazy” (1976), “Does This School Have Capital Punishment?” (1981) and “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” (1982). They addressed subjects like the military draft, censorship and the generation gap, but some critics called them polemics in the mouths of characters.

Many of Mr. Hentoff’s later books dealt with the Constitution and those who interpreted and acted on it. In “Living the Bill of Rights” (1998), he profiled the Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the educator Kenneth Clark and others as he explored capital punishment, prayer in schools, funding for education, race relations and other issues.

In “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other” (1992), he attacked not only school boards that banned books but also feminists who tried to silence abortion foes or close pornographic bookstores; gay rights groups that boycotted Florida orange juice because its spokeswoman, Anita Bryant, crusaded against gay people; and New York officials who tried to bar South Africa’s rugby team because it represented the land of apartheid.

In 1995, Mr. Hentoff received the National Press Foundation’s award for lifetime achievement in contributions to journalism, and in 2004 he was named one of six Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts, the first nonmusician to win the honor.

Mr. Hentoff was the subject of an award-winning 2013 biographical film, “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” produced and directed by the journalist David L. Lewis, which played in theaters across the country.

Mr. Hentoff’s first two marriages, to Miriam Sargent in 1950 and to Trudi Bernstein in 1954, ended in divorce. His third wife, the former Margot Goodman, whom he married in 1959, is a columnist and author of essays, reviews and short stories.

Besides his wife and son Nicholas, he is survived by two daughters, Jessica and Miranda, a son, Thomas; a stepdaughter, Mara Wolynski Nierman; a sister, Janet Krauss, and 10 grandchildren.


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