Radicalized, Part 3: Remembering Nat Hentoff, The Itinerant Subversive


With each passing day, I keep thinking of Nat Hentoff, who died two weeks ago.
I keep thinking Nat would know what to write…
Onstage the a few nights ago at Symphony Space, emceeing a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Nat’s legacy and felt his presence through a sense of purpose that linked ideas, action and music.
Here’s how I began my own remembrance of Nat at The Daily Beast:

The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.

According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.
And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.
I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”

As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile.

And here’s a 2004 interview I did with Nat for Wax Poetics:
Here’s the pull-quote I’d use now:
“I was an itinerant subversive from the start.”
Some of the references are dated but Nat’s messages—about music, cultural identity, fundamentalism, and the Supreme Court—are timely as ever.

So Free You Can Taste It
An Interview with Nat Hentoff
By Larry Blumenfeld
A salami sandwich — that was Nat Hentoff’s defining moment, if you believe his early memoir, Boston Boy. In that book — one of many he’s written in a long and storied career — Hentoff recalls growing up in a Jewish household and experiencing rebellion for the very first time: He sat on his family’s porch on Yom Kippur — a holy day of fasting and atonement — and ate a huge salami sandwich. It was not so much “that awful sandwich,” he wrote, as the act itself that mattered to Hentoff, the knowledge of “how it felt to be an outcast.”
“I was an itinerant subversive from the start,” Hentoff says. And he was.
Born in Boston in 1925, Hentoff grew up in the then predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Roxbury within an otherwise largely anti-Semitic city. He developed a strong sense of social justice while still very young. He also developed an early love and appreciation for jazz — a music he would come to write about as a “life force.” And in the jazz community, Hentoff would find fellow itinerant subversives, including Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Jo Jones, and Paul Desmond.
“These were my teachers,” Hentoff says, “people who took risks every single night.” While a student at Boston Latin High School, Hentoff spent most of his free time at jazz clubs like the Savoy Café. He befriended Ellington and others, including, later on, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.
In the decades since his nights at the foot of the Savoy’s stage, Hentoff has become a mighty force, nurturing and documenting the “life force” he found as a boy. He was an editor at Down Beat magazine in the 1950s. In 1957, with critic Whitney Balliett, he created “The Sound of Jazz,” perhaps jazz’s most notable appearance on television. His 1955 book, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya (written with Nat Shapiro), let musicians tell their own stories in order to illuminate the artistry behind the music and to defuse popular myths.
Hentoff wrote liner notes for some of the most groundbreaking recordings in jazz history, including John Coltrane’s Expressions and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. In 1960, he produced the Maw Roach classic, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, probably the clearest intersection between Hentoff’s civil rights activism and his love of jazz.
Indeed, Hentoff is among this country’s most forceful and influential writers on politics and civil rights He was written regularly for The Village Voice for more than four decades. His “Sweet Land of Liberty” column for the Washington Post is syndicated in 250 newspapers. Among the many diverse honors Hentoff has achieved — from the Guggenheim Foundation, The American Bar Association, the National Press Association, and the American Library Association — is his latest award from the National Endowment for the Arts: The title of Jazz Master, the first ever named for a non-musician.
These aren’t easy times for jazz, nor for First Amendment rights. But Hentoff’s passion remains unabated. When he says, “The essence of freedom is jazz; it is constitutional democracy when it works,” I’m inclined to believe him — about both sides of the equation.
No one will ever silence Nat Hentoff, no one would dare even try. That said, he’s a tough man to get on the phone, even for a longtime acquaintance like me. Still, he found some time and I rolled tape.
Having attended Harvard as a graduate student and having studied at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship, what inspired you to delve so deeply into writing about music, professionally?
I started getting hooked on music – especially jazz and then folk music and country music when I was 11. I got into radio in Boston when I was 19, and they gave me a jazz program because they couldn’t fill that time. And then I got a folk music program too.
Eventually, we did remotes from the jazz clubs — particularly the Savoy and George Wein’s Storyville, and I got to know a lot of musicians. I interviewed a lot of them on the radio show. So I’ve been immersed in the music since about 11 years old. And while I did a radio show, I was also a stringer for Down Beat. So I’ve been writing about music since age 20 or 21.
As Merle Haggard told me a long time ago, “Man there are times when you get down so low that only music will pick you up.” And I’ve appreciated that all through my life.
When you came of age thinking and writing about music, musical worlds were not as separate as they are today – say, the way that jazz and pop and rock don’t really intermingle today — were they?
First of all, I’m of an age where rock didn’t exist to start with. But there were always divisions. Alan Lomax, who was an extraordinary collector of blues and folk, didn’t know anything about jazz.
The problem is — and it’s true all through journalism — that some people connect the dots and some people don’t. It’s a matter of the contexts being fluid. If you can perceive them, the connections are there. And I’m lucky enough to always have had that ability.
But what I’m suggesting is that maybe there was more of a sense of culture surrounding music back then, of music as more than just another consumable…
Well, now I’m afraid might sound like Bill Clinton here: It depends upon how you define “music.”
Hip-hop culture is more than music, if you call that music in the first place. Music has always been a central way that people express themselves. I don’t know what the cavemen did, but I’m sure that there was some kind of tone, what we would have called music.
One of the worst things now is that, when budget cuts mean that they cut something out of schools, they almost always take music out among the first thing that they omit.
I don’t know if it’s still going on, but the Sarasota Florida jazz club and a woman there, arranged for all the 5th grade students from public schools who were learning American history to learn the subject intertwined with the history of the music. Because these players — Ellington, Jo Jones, Clark Terry — they have a lot to do with American history. And you could say the same thing for Charles Ives and Samuel Barber, etc. So music is inextricably part of all sorts of culture, and of history.
Was writing about jazz decades ago a much different experience than writing about jazz today?
Well, writing about jazz has always been something that you do almost like a jazz musician: You either wait for the phone to ring or you call people. Very few people have made it a steady way of making a living. Leonard Feather did, but he had other things he could do too. I don’t think many people now are full-time jazz writers. I don’t see that that’s changed much.
But, clearly, you were writing about more than just recordings and gigs, weren’t you?
There’s something to that question. At Down Beat — and I wasn’t the first to do this — I got very much into the economies surrounding the music. The ripoffs from record companies and clubs. And I didn’t see too many people getting into that. Most of the time — for good or bad — it was music appreciation. Which was fine. It got people excited and interested in the music. But as you say, there’s more to music than simply recording and personalities.
One thing that Ken Burns was correct in highlighting in his much-discussed documentary was the analogy between the jazz aesthetic and the United States Constitution. Since both are subjects that you have deep expertise in, does that correlation hold up for you?
Well, for one thing, John Marhsall — who was the first, and in some ways, the most powerful Supreme Court justice in the beginning of the 19th Century — said that the constitution is a living document. And unlike Scalia, who keeps an 18th century dictionary to find out what the framers had in mind, jazz is the same. Sidney Bechet, in that very good memoir of his, said, “You can’t hold the music back.” And that means that you can’t categorize of fix anything in the music in terms of saying, “Only this is jazz, and this isn’t jazz.” And the same thing goes for the evolving Bill of Rights. You can’t talk about the 4th Amendment right to privacy only in terms of what the framers said. They didn’t know about wiretaps, let along telephones.
What was the inspiration behind the book Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya in 1955?
The reason Nat Shapiro and I did that was that, at the time, there was a widely held belief —really a myth — that jazz musicians are inarticulate by and large, except on their horns. And the movie “Young Man with a Horn” fed into that. There was a sense among a number of the listeners – not the writers- that all you have to do is pick up your horn, and you blow. And we had the idea that you could have a book where the musicians told their stories, in part to show that they could tell their stories. And that led later on to Martin Williams and others putting together The Jazz Review, which was written almost entirely by jazz musicians.
In jazz circles, there’s always a devotion to the history of recorded music. The recordings are really the sacred texts, the historical record of what has happened, right?
One of the great holes in our understanding of classical music is that Beethoven didn’t record. I’ve always had the sense when I was writing, especially when I was doing liner notes — of: What can I say that will be off use to someone in another generation? When I do liner notes, I interview the musicians. When I did notes for Coltrane, we’d always go through the same ritual. I’d call up and I’d say that the record company just gave me this. And he’d say, “I wish you wouldn’t write the notes because if the music doesn’t speak for itself, what’s the point?” And John was a very kind man, so I’d say, “John, it’s a gig.” So then we went on.
In terms of recordings, are there any you’d pick out above others as music every American should hear and appreciate?
Oh, that’s so hard to do. It goes all over the spectrum. If you want real kicks that will last, it’s Beethoven’s Ninth, and the Beethoven last quartets, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, which shows that he could swing as well as anyone else. By the way, the best Wynton Marsalis I’ve ever heard was on classical trumpet, playing the Brandenburg Concerto. He really got into it.
It’s Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Basie. I love that new Sony/Legacy set of Basie, going back to the ’30s.
Now, let’s say you had the opportunity to enlighten George W. Bush or John Ashcroft by slapping headphones on them. What would you play for them?
First, before the headphones, I would want them to read the Bill of Rights and the history of what it took to get those rights way back in England. And the history of the Constitution, and what it took to get and keep those rights here.
Then, it’s hard to tell. You can’t just tell someone who has no interest in music, “Hey listen to this.”
Ashcroft used to sing in a barbershop quartet with some of the Senators, so he must have some sense of music. I guess I would start him with — since he’s religious, you know — black spirituals. And then I’d move to Ray Charles, and then maybe Ellington’s Sacred Music, and see where it went from there.
Bush, I would think, might have sense of country music, having been in Texas so long. So I’d start him off with Bob Wills, who was part jazz and part country (as is Merle Haggard, by the way).
You know, there’s been so much talk during the past decade or so about jazz as “America’s classical music” or “America’s indigenous music.” It sometimes makes me uncomfortable. How do you feel about those banner-like statements?
I agree with them! Max Roach used to say that. I didn’t agree with him entirely but he used to say, “Jazz is our classical music.” Well, there’s also Charles Ives, who, by the way, had heard a lot of jazz. But there’s no question in my mind that, of all the things we’ve contributed culturally – and there’s been a lot; Mark Twain leaps to mind – and at least in terms of music, this is the most important gift we’ve ever given to the world. So I have no objection to all that. Why do you?
It’s not so much an objection. But don’t you think such sentiments run the risk of trivializing or simplifying some complex stories?
The answer to that is you listen to the blues, you listen to Freedom Now Suite, and it does tell a lot about America — including some of the very bad parts of our history.
And don’t you think that jazz is more about working out what is truly American than announcing it?
Oh, yeah. That’s what I meant before about saying that you can’t hold the music back, that you can’t categorize it. Ellington used to tell me that he hated the term modern jazz. He sued to say, “I heard some of those things in the ’20s.”
Any attempt to put labels on it so that the labels are the truth is ridiculous and totally against the history and the spirit of the music.
These days, writing as you do about politics and the First Amendment in particularly dynamic and confusing times, do you feel at times awash in a sea of Orwellian logic?
That’s what I write about all the time. Ashcroft has said on public radio, “We’re not weakening the Bill of Rights, we’re strengthening the bill of Rights.” Those ironies and dangers are always the case with government, but it happens to be more so now because what they’re doing is more dangerous.
And in the context of your long history of writing about these subjects, is what’s going on now scarier than what has happened in the past?
Well, Jonathan Turner, the law professor at American University made a very good point a few years ago that never before in our history has an administration had this capacity to survey people — to know what we’re thinking and doing. That’s all part and parcel of the Patriot Act. You know, Orwell presaged that but even Orwell couldn’t have imagined what Total Information Awareness System is — which they killed. But they now have something called Matrix, that private organization in Florida that sells information to the states. It’s financed by Homeland Security and the Defense Department. So they can really find out, in a very short period of time, stuff about you that you wouldn’t even know is there. That company was founded and until recently owned by a big-time drug smuggler. He had to resign when that came out.
Some people may perceive your new book, The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance, as just more of the polemical works that have begun to dominate the bestseller list. But it’s intended more as information you need to know, right?
Well, that’s why I wrote the book. And that’s why I am very encouraged that right now, around the country, there are more than 218 towns an cities and three state legislatures — Alaska, Hawaii , and Vermont — that have passed Bill of Rights defense resolutions calling their members of Congress to look again at the Patriot Act and to roll back some of it. And it’s happening — there are now five bipartisan bills with very right-wing but libertarian members of Congress in alliance with Democrats. There’s never been a coalition like this in American history: You’ve got the ACLU, the American Conservative Union, Phyllis Schafly’s [CK spelling] forum, People for the American Way [CK affiliation], all working in concert. People are waking up.
You lived through the strong, visceral reactions to John Coltrane’s music and to Ornette Coleman’s music. And we both know the history of the upheaval caused by Stravinsky’s music. Can a musician’s work inspire such reaction today?
It depends on what they do. You never know what’s going to happen until someone comes along Like ‘Trane or Charlie Parker. If it’s that far away from what people expect, and if there’s a lot of passion behind it, sure — it could happen again.
But could it happen around an instrumental work? Or are we now illiterate and uncaring when it comes to anything but lyrics?
Well, that’s part of the problem, what you’d call – and Stanley Crouch writes well about this — the “dumbing down” of culture, especially with rap music. There’s a paradox there, because it’s so difficult to hear the words. But that’s what they focus on.
Except for what they now call “old country.” I mean in the real country music, the words are important but you can’t divide the word and music. That’s why Charlie Parker was such a fan of country music. He used to say, “Listen to the stories.”
And the jazz community — people who listen to the music, care about ht music they hear —the instrumentals do matter. But maybe the people writing about music should get more into that. It’s a good point you make.
Are there any young jazz musicians whose work is inspiring to you right now?
Well, I’m trying to think. Certainly, what Jason Moran is doing is inspiring. Also that vibist, Stefon Harris, and his Grand Unification Theory. It’s wonderful.
I give Bruce Lundvall at Blue Note a lot of credit. Sure, he has to make the bottom line work, but he takes chances and that’s laudable.
Jason appears to exist out of time, with an agenda all his own…
That’s what I respect about him. He can hear back and know what he wants to do. And when he goes back to the kind of roots he’s interested in, he can absorb it. But he has his own signature sound, his own way of doing things.
Wycliffe Gordon is a perfect example of that too. You can hear the whole history of the trombone in Wycliffe Gordon, and yet you know it’s Wycliffe Gordon when he plays.
I’ve long envied you exposure and access to one of the musicians whose work inspired Jason Moran most of all — Thelonious Monk. What can you tell me about Monk, the man?
I was lucky I got know him well, to spend time with him in his apartment and all that. Despite he way the press portrayed him at the time once they realized there was a Thelonious Monk, he was a very thoughtful, intelligent guy. Sure, there were times when he wouldn’t speak for quite a while because he was thinking. Or maybe he had no particular reason to speak because no one else was saying anything of consequence. My favorite epiphany of Monk was when Gigi Gryce burst into his apartment one day. Gig was a very, very great a lot player and arranger, and he said excitedly, “Hey, I got into Juilliard.” There was a long silence and then Monk said, “Well, I hope you don’t lose it there. “
In The Jazz Life, there’s a long chapter on Monk in which I quote him at length. He was a very articulate guy, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He reminded me of when he and Coltrane were at the Five Spot. One night Coltrane got off the stand and he looked like he had just lost a relative, he was so down. I asked, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “You know, Monk’s music is so intricately connected, and I got lost. And it was like falling down and elevator shaft.”
There has always been talk of Monk being insane or socially underdeveloped. Sometimes I think that such comments about Monk or, say, Ornette Coleman, are just misconceptions stemming from laziness…
The thing about Monk, and the same with Ornette, is that they were very sensitive guys and — bold as their music was ­— they were also somewhat shy. They didn’t have the time or the interest in the type of socializing small-talk stuff most people engaged in. So people thought they were strange or different. Toward the end, it seemed to me that Monk had clinical depression or something. During the time I knew him, if he felt you were worth talking to, he would talk to you, and it was really rewarding. The same with Ornette.
I’m interested in your thoughts on being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment, especially since you were the first non-musician to receive that honor. How did that make you feel?
My first reaction was I owe these musicians so much since the age of 11. Jazz has been a central part of my life, and not just professionally, in terms of writing about it. If I go a few days without listening to the music, I feel empty. One of the reasons I write so much about the Jazz Foundation of American is that I figure that’s one way to partially, incrementally, pay it back.
This sounds corny, but I was stunned to get this. I am a failed musician — I played clarinet and soprano sax. To be in the company of the people who are truly jazz masters, it’s like somebody said to me, “Well, you got the same award the George Orwell or Charles Dickens, who was a great reporter, by the way, before he was a novelist. So I was very pleased and, I hate to use the word — it sound like Uriah Heep — but I was humbled.
If we end our interview now, and you turn on CNN to find that Bush or Ashcroft have done something newly disturbing to you, what music would you put in the CD player to help deal with it?
(Laughs) Oh, well, I guess if I’m angry then I might put on Freedom Now Suite, which I A-and-R’d—and, frankly, that didn’t mean much, I just sent out for the sandwiches.
Otherwise, to make myself feel better: The Lester Young small combo things, you know the Kansas City sessions for Commodore [Lester Young, The Complete Commodore, Signature and Keynote Sessions] Maybe Billie. Maybe Wycliffe…
The music is so vast and so diversified and so continually alive and growing, that you never get enough of it. Dizzy once said to me, “Music [using the term as generically as possible] has been there since the beginning of time. The best you can hope for is to get a piece of it.” Well, there are a lot of pieces of it in jazz.

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