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Remembering Jazz Critic And 'Village Voice' Writer Nat Hentoff


This is FRESH AIR. Nat Hentoff, the author, jazz critic and outspoken advocate of free speech, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91. Hentoff wrote mostly about jazz in the '50s and '60s and produced recordings by many great musicians, including Charles Mingus and Pee Wee Russell. In 1958, Hentoff began writing for The Village Voice, a relationship that would last for 50 years. His writing moved from jazz to politics, education and other topics. He was a staunch free speech advocate, an independent thinker whose stance sometimes surprised liberal communities. He opposed capital punishment, but many feminists were shocked when he wrote in opposition to abortion. Hentoff also wrote for The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Terry interviewed Nat Hentoff in 1986 when his memoir, "Boston Boy," was published.



You grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. And your parents seemed to really try to instill in you a sense of us and them, the Jewish people and everybody else, and everybody else you weren't supposed to really be friends with or hang out with.

NAT HENTOFF: Well, that was mostly my mother. My father was a traveling salesman, and before that, he had been in the Army. But he was fairly urbane. He went to all kinds of cities. He traveled in the South and all through New England, and he had less of a sense than my mother that all gentiles were anti-Semitic and that therefore they were to be kept away from. My mother, though, did believe, as many men and women in that neighborhood, that anti-Semitism was as close as the first gentile you met in the first hour of the day went out on the street. They weren't entirely wrong in Boston at the time because it turned out to be the most anti-Semitic city in the country. But they did feel that part of their mission as parents was to protect their young, as all parents feel, from hurt, from harm. And the way to do that, they felt, was to instill in the young a profound suspicion of gentiles - you can never trust them, my mother would say - and to instill the sense that your only protection was solidarity with other Jews.

GROSS: How did you react to that? Is that something you tried to follow in your early years?

HENTOFF: No because I was a reader. I was an obsessive reader. To me, one of the great pleasures of the week was going to the public library and trying to con the librarian into letting me take out more than the two books I was allowed. And so I knew from reading that this insularity, first of all, was not unique to Jews. It happened everywhere else. And it didn't work, and it didn't make any sense that if you were to make your way in the world, in a sense you had to view everybody with suspicion until he or she proved himself or herself. But to lock yourself into that kind of self-encapsulation was to deprive yourself of something - you never knew what you were depriving yourself of because you never let yourself get to know anybody except Jews.

GROSS: You got interested in jazz at a pretty young age. What was your first attraction to it, and what really spoke to you about the music when you heard it?

HENTOFF: Well, it goes back to when I was much younger than when I started being interested in jazz. We had to go to the synagogue from the time we could walk, not all the time but for the holiest of, you know, the Rosh Hashanah, New Year's, Yom Kippur. And I was just struck by the singing, the cantor, the hazzan. He is an improviser. It's really like Jewish blues, and it's usually a man who has considerable virtuoso as a performer who is basing his work on centuries-old traditions of liturgical music but has to tell his own story like a jazz musician, otherwise it doesn't work. And the music is, in turn, defiant, ecstatic, lyrical, terribly sad, joyous. It's powerful stuff.

And I didn't hear anything like that aside from the synagogue until I was about 11 years old walking down Washington Street, which is the main business street of Boston or was then, and coming out of the public address system of a record store, it sounded like 15 hazzans except they were all playing instruments. They weren't singing - a hazzan on a trombone, a hazzan on a trumpet. And it turned out to be - I wish I could say in tribute to my taste at the time that this was Duke Ellington's band or Count Basie's band, but no, it was Artie Shaw's "Nightmare," which is OK because I always thought Artie Shaw was underrated. And I rushed in. I had to know what the record was and I bought the record even though I didn't have a record player, I didn't want to let it get away from me.

GROSS: You took clarinet lessons when you were young. Did you want to be a jazz musician?

HENTOFF: I was disabused of any possibility that I could be a decent jazz musician when I was about 14 years old. I was practicing the clarinet by an open window, and I heard a crude, curt shout from below, hey, kid. And I looked down and there is a very short person of about 12 years old. You want to go to a session? Apparently, he was missing a clarinet player. So I went to the session, and I could read the charts pretty much. I could not improvise. This guy - this 12 year old difficult person as he has been all of his life says - picked up his horn, and it was the most beautiful, lyrical, flowing, totally improvised music I had heard outside of Louis Armstrong on the real, you know, classics. His name was Ruby Braff Now, Ruby taught me right away that I wasn't going to be a jazz musician.

GROSS: Did you start hanging out in clubs when you were still under age?

HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. I - when I was about 14. Fortunately, I had the kind of Richard Nixon beard even then so that people thought I was older, and I would go to Sunday jam sessions at a place called the Ken Club, and that's where I first heard Sidney Bechet, and Wild Bill Davidson and people like that. And then once I was in radio at the age of 19 or before that actually, I made my home a place called the Savoy. It was a club just over the - at Symphony Hall in Boston there was a bridge maybe half a block after that, and it is sort of the dividing line between the black section of town and the white section of town. And the Savoy was just over that bridge, and that's where I learned so much about music and more to the point talking to the musicians between sets after hours.

GROSS: You actually became very friendly with a lot of musicians...

HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. Right.

GROSS: ...Especially like before you were professionally writing about music.

HENTOFF: Oh, sure. Well, some of them like Rex Stewart and Ben Webster and to some extent Duke Ellington sort of took me on as a foster son. That is I was obviously interested, I was obviously terribly impressed by them, and they took the time - and I was very grateful for that - to talk to me not only about music but other things as well. I mean, after all, these are people who had traveled not only all over the United States, but all over Europe.

And being outsiders anywhere, including the United States because they were black, they were very trenchant observers. And to hear Rex Stewart talk politics was really to listen to an expert of a much, much sharper, I must say, than Walter Lippmann, who was - whom I was reading at the time.

GROSS: When you started writing about jazz as a journalist and as a critic, was it hard to write about people who you already felt such admiration for? You were in awe of them, you'd become friends with some of them...


GROSS: ...But, suddenly, you were in a different position. You were reporting on them and you were reviewing their work. Was it a difficult transition to make?

HENTOFF: It was only difficult when I didn't like their work.

GROSS: Well, I'd imagine that would be terrible.

HENTOFF: Yeah. I never had that problem with Duke because I really - he - I just never found anything by Duke that wasn't very interesting, although there were gradations. The one time where that turned out to be most unfortunate, the problem one has as a critic when you're reviewing something by a friend, the smartest thing, of course, is to not review it. I wasn't smart.

Paul Desmond was my closest friend. He was the eldest saxophonist with Dave Brubeck. He was the guy who brought some music to that otherwise clanging, old railroad car that was called the Dave Brubeck Quartet. And Paul and I really were very close. We had the same tastes and obsessions, and he put out a record once. I was doing all - practically all of the jazz record reviewing at the time for DownBeat, and it was just not a good record. I don't know who talked him into it, but it was sort of like good housekeeping jazz, the kind of jazz that anybody would like and not remember.

And I thought about it, and I said I can't lie about it because that's not fair to the people who use these reviews to buy records. What I should have done is to give it to somebody else. What I did do was to give it the same treatment I would give the record of anybody else who made that kind of record, and I slammed it. And that was the end of the friendship. I regret that very much.

GROSS: Did that kind of problem persist where it was hard to write critically about someone whose work you basically admired and who you felt some friendship with?

HENTOFF: No, I never - the other times that that came up, the other musicians would be ironic and sardonic, but it never ended the friendship. Like, Horace Silver once said to me, so I'm an angular pianist. Would you play that for me?

DAVIES: Nat Hentoff speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1986. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in 1986 with author, jazz critic and First Amendment advocate Nat Hentoff. He died on Saturday.


GROSS: I think that some artists think of critics as being parasites, that they don't make the art, they just write about it and criticize it.

HENTOFF: Well, I - that's one of the reasons I was delighted to finally stop being a critic. I had some of that feeling.

GROSS: You felt that way?

HENTOFF: Yeah, yeah. I was proud of not the record reviews or the performance reviews because some of those were real tough and probably caused somebody some jobs. And even though I felt I was listening with as much - objectivity is impossible there, but with as much, and let's say, informed subjectivity as possible, I didn't feel good about it. I did feel very good about the long interviews I did with Lester Young, with Duke, with a whole lot of people because they had now become, some of them, part of history.

When I finally stopped being a full-time critic, I still kept writing about music. But ever since, I do not review records I don't like. I only write about records I'm trying to convince other people to get. And it's a much better feeling, makes life more pleasant with my daughter, too, because she's a professional musician. And she used to say, how dare you, how dare you say this about somebody when you can't even tell a C chord from I don't know what. And I would say, musicians can be lousy critics, too. It's not that - that's not the question. But anyway, I'm much more comfortable not getting in the way of other people's living.

GROSS: But that was an interesting point your daughter raised because you never wrote C chord kind of criticism anyways.

HENTOFF: No, no.

GROSS: I mean, you didn't approach it from a technical view.

HENTOFF: But I got a good lesson - I got a good lesson once. Gunther Schuller and I used to do a series for public radio at the time, and he thought that Oscar Peterson was the most extraordinary pianist that had ever been in any form of music. And I thought - well, I'll tell you what I thought in terms of a story Duke Ellington figures in. Marian McPartland, another pianist, had been in the United States only six months, and she was playing at a place in New York called the Hickory House, and that was the place where Duke, one of the few nights when he was off the road, would come in and have dinner. And he heard her first set, and she came off the stand and Duke gave her his characteristic large smile and said, my, my, my, you play so many notes. And Marian said six months went by before I realized - because I was green as grass - that he was saying, all you play is notes. There is no music there.

Now, Peterson, to me, is a perfect example of this. Except rare occasions, he is all over the keyboard. He can do anything, so he never bothers to leave anything out, by contrast, let's say, with Count Basie. But Schuller was saying that because he's a musician with fine ears in terms of technique that this was a great musician. I knew better. Even though I couldn't tell a C chord from a I don't know what, I knew better.

GROSS: You eventually started producing records as well, and you've produced records by Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor, Pee Wee Russell just to name a few. Did that put you in an uncomfortable situation? And what I'm thinking is that a lot of jazz musicians have become so accustomed to being treated badly and to being ripped off financially from record companies that they might have been suspicious of you in that record producer capacity. Did it put you in an uncomfortable position?

HENTOFF: No because we had a set up under Archie Bleyer. Archie was the guy who ran Cadence Records and had had a lot of hits at the time. And I ran the jazz label, which was called Candid, with Bob Altshuler who was an old-time jazz afficionado. He was well known to the musicians too and our - you know, there was no attempt to - here's the contract, take it to your lawyer before you sign it, that sort of stuff. No. I didn't have any problem with that. You know why? Because I knew I was straight. And if you know that, there's no problem. But I enjoyed that experience a lot because, first of all, I was giving work to musicians. More personally, that's a record collectors dream to be able to say I want this fellow, this fellow, this fellow, let's all go into the studio and play. It was the least difficult job I've ever had because once I had asked a leader to take over, he was the leader. And I had nothing to do really except order sandwiches and keep time on the various takes. Once in a great while, they'd get stuck on a number. They just couldn't make it work. So then my job would be - and this is hardly profound A&R work, but it was pretty effective - I'd go down and say to the leader, well, why don't we play a blues? And that always worked, never failed (laughter).

DAVIES: Nat Hentoff, speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Hentoff died Saturday. He was 91. On tomorrow's show...

JOE BUCK: When kids would say, Mr. Buck, how do I get into broadcasting? Start smoking.

DAVIES: Joe Buck didn't follow this advice his dad, Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck, gave to other kids. But Joe did go on to become an Emmy Award-winning sportscaster himself. He has a new memoir. We'll talk about his good luck, his childhood and why he gets so much grief from some fans. Join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. We'll close with music from Charles Mingus from a session produced in 1960 by Nat Hentoff.