The American jazz critic, journalist, and novelist Nat Hentoff (1925–2016) wrote more than 35 books and thousands of newspaper articles and columns on a wide variety of topics. During his career, he championed the idea of freedom across various subjects and literary forms, and his oeuvre was characterized by a consistent set of themes and influences: “Being Jewish. Jazz. The First Amendment.”
Nat Hentoff was well known for his writings about jazz, both nonfiction and fiction. During the first part of his career, he wrote for the widely read jazz publication Down Beat and also cofounded the influential magazine Jazz Review. Later, feeling confined by that specialty, he took a job with the pioneering New York City alternative weekly The Village Voice, initially offering to work without a salary if he could write about topics other than jazz. Hentoff was a fierce defender of freedom of speech and resisted censorship, whether it came from the political left or right. His personal politics were difficult to classify, however, and he periodically antagonized both progressives and conservatives. He saw no contradiction among his diverse views and writings and was quoted by Washington Post writer Martin Weil as noting: “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. The whole idea of the Bill of Rights and jazz [is] freedom of expression that nobody, not even the government, can squelch.”
Nathan Irving Hentoff was born on June 10, 1925, in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and his father operated a men's clothing store. Hentoff grew up in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, which had a large Jewish population as well as a large group of non-Jewish residents who listened to the anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin. As a boy, he attended an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Hentoff experienced anti-Semitism firsthand when he had a tooth knocked out by a group of Irish-American youths, and he attributed to that experience a lifelong sympathy with oppressed and marginalized groups. He also rebelled against Judaism, however, eating a large salami sandwich on his front porch on the Sabbath, to the dismay of passers-by.
Showing talent early on as a writer, Hentoff was admitted to, and then graduated from, the prestigious Boston Latin School, an institution that brought him into contact with a diverse student body. His years at this school also instilled in him a lifelong orientation toward hard work.
Hentoff's first exposure to jazz music was from a loudspeaker outside a Boston department store, and he was entranced by “a fierce wailing of brass and reeds, a surging, pulsing cry that made me cry out too,” according to John Gennari's Blowing Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics. Soon he was concealing copies of Down Beat inside his schoolbooks during class and frequenting the city's jazz clubs, even though he was well underage. After a move from Boston Latin to Northeastern University, he served as editor of the school's student newspaper and led the newspaper staff in a walkout when administrators demanded that a story about corruption in Boston's city government be pulled. He also wrote for the Boston City Reporter, covering stories about anti-Semitism, and he was strongly influenced by the paper's editor, Frances Sweeney. During World War II, Hentoff sought and received a draft deferment because he was physically unfit for service, although he later experienced feelings of guilt over not having served.
After graduating from Northeastern in 1946 with a B.A. in English, Hentoff worked as a disc jockey at Boston radio station WMEX, hosting a jazz program and interviewing cutting-edge jazz musicians such as saxophonist Charlie Parker. He began writing jazz reviews for Down Beat that found a substantial audience. In 1953 he moved to New York City and became the magazine's editor. In 1955 he coedited Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, one of the first book-length oral histories of jazz music. In 1957, however, he was fired from Down Beat, the reason being, he believed, racism. He had urged the magazine to hire an African-American writer, reasoning that the periodical's income came largely from its discussions of the work of black musicians.
With jazz declining in popularity while audiences for rock and roll increased, Hentoff had difficulty finding steady work until he came to an agreement with the Village Voice. He also began writing columns for the New Yorker in 1960. The civil rights movement reached a crescendo early in that decade, and Hentoff emerged as one of its major supporters within the journalistic world. He attended the March on Washington in 1963 and befriended not only A.J. Muste, an advisor of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the much more controversial Malcolm X. He wrote a biography of Muste and in 1964 published The New Equality, a civil rights manifesto. Hentoff also remained interested in jazz and issued a book about jazz musicians, The Jazz Life, in 1961.
In the mid-1960s Hentoff lent his support to the growing movement in opposition to the Vietnam War, often using his Village Voice column as a platform for his antiwar views. He joined a protest group that met with Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and demanded that Stevenson resign his position in protest of growing U.S. involvement in the war. (Stevenson refused.) Hentoff's involvement with protest groups, and his 1968 Playboy magazine article “The War on Dissent,” attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which started a file covering his activities.
Jazz, civil rights, and the war by no means covered the range of interests of the inexhaustibly curious and hardworking Hentoff. In 1967 he wrote A Doctor among the Addicts, an examination of the then-current epidemic of methadone abuse, and in A Political Life: The Education of John V. Lindsay (1969), he profiled New York City's popular mayor. He also wrote two novels, both on the subject of race: Call the Keeper (1966), which featured a white detective searching for the killer of a black police officer, and Onwards! (1967), which dealt with the mid-life crisis of a left-leaning intellectual.
Hentoff was also noted for producing young-adult books, both fiction and nonfiction; he had resisted the idea of writing for young people until he was persuaded to do so by Harper & Row editor Ursula Nordstrom. His first youngadult novel, Jazz Country, appeared in 1965 and focused on a young white jazz musician who is mentored by older African Americans and comes to understand their struggles. Several of his teen novels are set in schools, including The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (1982), which dealt with the issue of censorship, a concern that increasingly occupied Hentoff in later years. Sometimes his fiction was criticized as too polemical because he tended to employ his fictional characters as mouthpieces for his views rather than creating them as fully developed individuals.
Hentoff was a free speech absolutist, writing the syndicated column “Sweet Land of Liberty,” about freedomof-expression issues, for a time. Sometimes he antagonized his former progressive allies, at one point defending the rights of anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler, who was known for organizing disruptive protests outside abortion clinics. Hentoff opposed both abortion and capital punishment. “I believe in what used to be called the seamless garment,” he said in a Public Broadcasting System interview quoted by Virginia's Arlington Catholic Herald. “It can also be called a consistent ethic of life. I am against capital punishment…. I am pro-life all the way.” His stance was not undergirded by religion; he described himself as a Jewish atheist.
Hentoff remained productive well into old age. He returned to the theme of censorship in Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other (1992), and many of his essays were anthologized in books such as Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music (1995). In 1986 he produced Boston Boy, the first volume in a twopart memoir, and he followed it up in 1997 with Speaking Freely. His awards included a Critics Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists' Association in 2000 and a Jazz Master award from the National Endowment for the Arts, bestowed in 2004; he was the first non-musician to win the latter award.
In his private life, Hentoff was married three times. His first marriage, to Miriam Sargent in 1950, ended in divorce after less than a year; a second marriage, to Trudi Bernstein, lasted from 1954 to 1959 and produced children Miranda and Jessica; and his third marriage, to Margot Goodman, produced sons Nicholas and Thomas. Hentoff was still married to Goodman on January 7, 2016, when he died in his home in New York City while listening to the music of Billie Holiday.
Gennari, John, Blowing Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Hentoff, Nat, Boston Boy, Knopf, 1986.
Hentoff, Nat, Speaking Freely, Knopf, 1997.
Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1986, Alan Bunce, “Nat Hentoff: Interview with a Boston Original.”
JAZZed, April–May 2017, “Nat Hentoff: 1925–2017,” p. 44.
New York Times, January 9, 2017, Robert D. Mcfadden, “Nat Hentoff, a Writer, a Jazz Critic and above All a Provocateur, Dies at 91,” p. B6.
Washington Post, January 8, 2017, Martin Weil, “Nat Hentoff, Journalist Who Wrote on Jazz and Civil Liberties, Dies at 91.”□