A few words on the passing of Nat Hentoff
The jazz critic, Village Voice columnist, prolific author LP liner notes, and advocate for free speech and civil liberties, died this weekend of natural causes at the age of 91
The last year has been a rough one due to the deaths of so many beloved artists and personalities. It almost became a bit of a joke among some that the year should end before so-and-so succumbs. There was even a Go Fund Me created to ‘protect Betty White’ – lest 2016 take her, too.
This year has not started much better.
— Nick Hentoff (@Nick_Hentoff) January 8, 2017
Nat Hentoff died this weekend at the age of 91. I suppose it should not surprise anyone that someone of that age should go, but when the news hurts, nonetheless.
If you love jazz, or were a reader of the Village Voice during the days when the paper was the leading cultural newspaper of the nation, you know who Hentoff is. But I am quite sure that many younger readers haven’t a clue, so let me say a few words.
Hentoff was originally known for his association with jazz. He began his career in the late ’40s hosting two radio shows in Boston, one dedicated to jazz, the other called From Bach To Bartók. Hentoff joined the staff of Down Beat in 1952. He founded his own magazine in 1958, Jazz Review, which only lasted a few years before folding.
But Hentoff is remembered for two things: his years at the Village Voice, and for the liner notes that bore his name on so many great jazz recordings.
Hentoff began writing for the NYC weekly around the same time he founded Jazz Review, but his gig lasted 50 years – at first mainly writing about jazz, then columns politics, becoming a leading voice concerning civil liberties.
That he was let go by the Voice in 2009 was a sign that the paper was being destroyed by its owner, New Times Media. It is even mentioned in the Wikipedia page for the paper – and how often does one person’s layoff merit inclusion in the history of a newspaper?
“I came here in 1958 because I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about. There was no pay at first, but the Voice turned out to be a hell of a resounding forum,” Hentoff wrote in his final column for the Voice. “Though a small Village “alternative” newspaper, we were reaching many around the country who were turned off by almost any establishment you could think of.”
Hentoff was also reaching readers through the back covers of hundreds of jazz LPs. In 2009, someone got Hentoff’s permission to create a database of the LPs he wrote liner notes for. It is, as you can imagine, a long list.
What one should note, however, is that the list includes some of the most important recordings of the era. Why, exactly, jazz LPs always had liner notes is hard to figure, but they were as much part of the LPs as the cover art. Miles Davis was among the first to rebel and force Columbia to release his albums minus the notes, or, like with Kind of Blue, with notes written by a fellow musician.
Hentoff, though, was associated with some of the more adventurous LPs being released. When I think of him I think of his notes for the LPs from Charles Mingus released on the Candid label. These records were often a reaction to the limitations placed on the artist by the record labels. Mingus, for instance, had been forced to record his song Fables of Faubus without any vocals because the words made fun of then Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, famous for sending out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. In the Columbia records version, released in 1959 as Mingus Ah Um, the piece is an instrumental. But a year later, on Candid, he recorded the piece as he originally wrote it.
“I was disappointed when I heard an earlier recorded version of The Original Faubus Fable” (as the new version had to be called). “In the club, the mood of the caricature was much more bitingly sardonic and there was a great deal more tension,” Hentoff wrote in the liner notes to Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.
Both LPs are classics, but only one gets to the heart of what Mingus wanted to record.
Hentoff, as the NYT’s obituary mentions, often got under the skins of liberals due to his opposition to abortion and “his attacks on political correctness and his criticisms of gay groups, feminists, blacks and others he accused of trying to censor opponents.” But Hentoff was critical of any limitations to speech.
In his final years he wrote columns for The Wall Street Journal, often younger people rediscovering the greats. In his article on the music of Charles Mingus from 2012, Hentoff wrote of young musicians during the Mingus Competitions at Manhattan School of Music.
“Mingus wouldn’t be surprised at how far reaching his music keeps becoming. “We’re still talking,” he said to me once, “in terms of blacks and whites, but we’re either all Americans, or forget it.”
As his son reported via Twitter, Hentoff died this weekend, listening to Billie Holiday. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate exit for the great man.