|Nat Hentoff, in 2007|
January 8, 2017
The nation lost a unique voice, and the Fillius Jazz Archive lost a supporter with the passing of Nat Hentoff on January 7. Mr. Hentoff died at the age of 91 at his home in Manhattan. In a career that spanned seven decades, he excelled as a jazz critic and as an astute observer of our nation and its politics. The Associated Press opined, “Nat Hentoff enjoyed a diverse and iconoclastic career, basking in the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects.”
Nat was interviewed for the Fillius Jazz Archive in New York City on January 12, 2007, almost ten years ago to the day of this blog.
As a child Nat loved jazz and had aspirations to pursue a career as a musician.
NH: I was taking clarinet lessons from an alumnus of the Boston Symphony and I was about 13, 14 years old. And I could read anything. And I was playing scales one day near an open window, it was a summer day. And all of a sudden I hear a shout from downstairs. “Hey kid, you want to go to a session?” I look down, there’s this short kid and I figured well I can read anything, so I went. And when we got there this kid took out his horn and began to play and I knew then that I’d have to find a day job that wasn’t in jazz. It was [jazz cornetist] Ruby Braff. He was about my age. He was already playing extraordinarily beautiful stuff.
Due to his passion for the music, Nat still found himself in the middle of the jazz scene. As a co-producer for the 1957 “Sounds of Jazz” Live TV special, he witnessed a poignant moment between Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Here is a link to that moment, seen in this clip at 1:25.
NH: The background of that was Lester was not feeling well. He was supposed to be in one of the big band sections with the all-time sax section: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, I forget who else we had there. I said look, you don’t have to do that, and when you do the small combo thing with Billie, you can just sit down. And then she came on in a circle with Roy Eldridge and Lester etcetera. He got up and in the control room, people, as this was unfolding, had tears in their eyes. It was such a moment. Because they were looking at each other, as Lester played. And they had been very close and then not so close, and it was so personal and so intimate, and I was so glad we got that for the ages.
Like the musicians he so admired, Nat was required to wear multiple career hats which seemed to suit him well. I asked him about making a living as a writer/critic.
MR: Was it tough raising a family of four kids as a freelance journalist?
NH: It was tough for a while because I got fired. My one gig was at Down Beat when the first child was coming along and I committed a wrongdoing. We were writing essentially about black music. We had no black employees, no black writers in either New York, Chicago where the headquarters were, or in Los Angeles. The boss wasn’t interested in the music at all; he ran a printing shop but he owned the paper. He did not like Jews, he did not like blacks. And one day a woman came in. I thought she was black and we needed a sort of a receptionist so I figured okay we can start with that. I didn’t check with him. He found out about it and I was fired. Years later when I wrote about it she wrote me a note and she said well you know I’m not black, I’m Egyptian. Well some of the theorists today would say yes you are. But anyway that left me in a hole, and Norman Granz was very helpful. He gave me a whole bunch of liner notes for a hundred bucks apiece, and that paid the rent for a while. But I had to freelance. And the Village Voice was very important. They didn’t pay us at the time. But I went there on one condition, that I didn’t have to write about jazz. Because in terms of the newspaper and magazine editors, I was stereotyped, talk about categorizing. So I could write about anything I wanted to: education, the laws, civil liberties. And that got me started as a freelance writer.
Nat was highly attuned to the sharing of accurate information. Even though our interview took place ten years ago, the proliferation of instant Internet access was a concern to him.
NH: This is an extraordinary paradox. There’s never been a time in human history when there’s been so much instant access to information — or what appears to be information. The 24 hour news cycle is such that the idea of reporting in teams or a reporter getting months to do a story, that’s very rare now. So what you get are, if not sound bites, quick stories. And once something else happens — when I was growing up in Boston the reporters had a phrase, follow-up. You all had to follow-up on the story. But there’s not much of that either. And this cacophony of information, it’s increasingly on the Internet. Most of the newspapers, to stay alive, are going increasingly on the Internet, and they’re being contested by bloggers and they’re multiplying. But there’s no filter as to what you’re hearing from the bloggers. Is it information or just unvarnished biased opinion? So in a time when we have access to all this information I think there’s more confusion than ever before.
Nat Hentoff wrote supportively of the oral history project that is the Fillius Jazz Archive, and his opinions about our effort appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and Jazz Times. We shared a love for the music and personality of singer Joe Williams, and Nat wrote glowingly about our 2005 release of the CD “Havin’ a Good Time” culled from reel to reel tapes from Joe Williams’ estate. At the end of our interview, Nat evoked Joe’s name:
MR: I’m very appreciative of you giving me your time today.
NH: Oh look, as you can tell I enjoy talking. But one of your friends, I was once in Joe Williams’ dressing room and we were talking about players who are no longer here, some because of their own damn fault. And Joe looked at me and said, “You and I are survivors.” And I felt like I’d been knighted, that Joe would put me in his company.