Nat Hentoff likes to say he was an “itinerant subversive” from the beginning. Growing up in a then predominantly Jewish Roxbury neighborhood within an otherwise largely anti-Semitic Boston, he grew defiantly individual and developed a strong sense of social justice while still quite young. In his memoir, “Boston Boy,” he recalled his defining moment of rebellion at age 12—eating a large salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement, while sitting on his family’s porch. He enjoyed not so much “that awful sandwich” as the experience of rebellion, combined with the knowledge of “how it felt to be an outcast.”
That sentiment is amplified by a phrase from one of Hentoff’s memoirs that provides the title for a wonderful new documentary about Hentoff by director David L. Lewis: “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” (There’s also a companion book, published by CUNY Journalism Press.)
On the film’s website, Lewis describes the film and its subject:
Pleasures profiles legendary jazz writer and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, whose career tracks the greatest cultural and political movements of the last 65 years. The film is about an idea as well as a man – the idea of free expression as the defining characteristic of the individual.
Hentoff is a pioneer who raised jazz as an art form and was present at the creation of ‘alternative’ journalism in this country. Pleasures wraps the themes of liberty and identity around a historical narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act.
In his recent New York Times piece, Larry Rohter provided some good context:Mr. Hentoff, who turned 89 this month, is the author of books like “Living the Bill of Rights: How to Be an Authentic American” and “The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America.” Initially, though, he built a reputation in the jazz world, interviewing artists like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and turning the writing of liner notes for albums into something approaching an art form.
I’ve not yet seen this film, mostly because I’m hunkered down working on a book—”Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America.” It just so happens that Hentoff helped introduce me to my editor on this project. Yet long before that his work and the attitudes behind helped inspire a path of my own— the sort that could lead to such a title and subtitle at all. I’ve been fortunate to get to know Hentoff a little through the past 20 years, to gain some firsthand advice and criticism from him and even to find my work just pages from him in issues of The Village Voice. But even had I lacked that access and association, I would have grasped and taken hold of the animating ideas behind Hentoff’s work.
As Rohter reported in his Times piece: “Early in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” … Mr. Hentoff declares that “the Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being.”
Hentoff has—in his essays, reviews, liner notes and books—expressed the connection between the Constitution and jazz through both potent metaphor and matters of fact. He articulated an appreciation for truth and beauty in both contexts, and braided them together in elegant and forceful fashion. He’s also made clear that fundamentalism on either subject—jazz or the Constitution—is a fool’s game.
Here’s a little of the review I wrote for Truthdig about his 2010 book, “At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene.”
Hentoff has long channeled his sensibilities into what he calls his “day job—reporting on keeping the Bill of Rights alive,” reflected most prominently through his 50-year tenure as a columnist for The Village Voice and via his books. And those feelings have fueled his chosen labor of love: documenting and otherwise propagating jazz. The two endeavors dovetailed from the start. Hentoff, who was born in 1925, has lived through a good chunk of jazz’s history, including its heyday within American popular culture….
Hentoff is neither the first nor the last jazz lover to exalt the music as both metaphor and laboratory for whatever we mean when we speak of an American experiment. Ralph Ellison expressed all that with more literary distinction and greater connection to the context of African-American arts. But if Ken Burns’ 19-hour PBS series “Jazz” in 2000 offered something of a caricature of jazz as the symbol of American values and virtues, Hentoff’s body of writings has come closest to painting an honest working portrait of the idea.
Rohter reported that “when the director David L. Lewis first approached him six years ago, Mr. Hentoff was surprised anyone would want to make a film about him: ‘I am not exactly a household name,’ he said.”
I suppose the same could be said about Thelonious Monk. Yet both are guiding lights, not to mention emblematic Americans, in my household.
If you’ve seen this film, please comment on it here. I hope to do the same soon.