January 8, 2017

RIP Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff  has died at the age of 91, surrounded by his family and listening to Billie Holiday. Few journalistic influences have been stronger on your editor than Hentoff, first as a voice of jazz in the 1950s and then as a voice for free speech. If you want to know where the Progressive Review came from, you can't come up with a much better answer than Nat Hentoff. In the 1950s, when your editor was in college, those of us poking around rebellion had only a few mentors in the media - among them the beats, jazz musicians and Hentoff. I started reading Hentoff's jazz columns in Down Beat  in high school and, even before the civil rights movement,  Hentoff helped white young readers like me understand and appreciate not only jazz but also the black culture behind it. Hentoff's voice of freedom made the cause even broader. - Sam Smith

NY Times -  Nat Hentoff, the author, journalist, jazz critic and civil libertarian who called himself a troublemaker and proved it with a shelf of books and a mountain of essays on free speech, wayward politics, elegant riffs and the sweet harmonies of the Constitution, died on Saturday. He was 91.

Mr. Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice for 50 years, and produced articles for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine and dozens of other publications. He wrote more than 35 books — novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects.

... In the 1950s, Mr. Hentoff was a jazz critic in Manhattan, frequenting crowded, smoky nightclubs where musicians played for low pay and audiences ran hot and cold and dreamy. “I knew their flaws as well as their strengths,” he recalled, “but I continued to admire the honesty and courage of their art.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, he wrote books for young adults, nonfiction on education, magazine profiles on political and religious leaders and essays on racial conflicts and the Vietnam War. He became an activist, too, befriending Malcolm X and joining peace protests and marches for racial equality.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he produced commentaries and books on censorship and other constitutional issues; murder mysteries; portraits of educators and judges; and an avalanche of articles on abortion, civil liberties and other issues. He also wrote a volume of memoirs, “Speaking Freely”

While his sympathies were usually libertarian, he often infuriated leftist friends with his opposition to abortion, his attacks on political correctness and his criticisms of gay groups, feminists, blacks and others he accused of trying to censor opponents. He relished the role of provocateur, indirectly defending racial slurs, apartheid and pornography.

Guardian - As a columnist, Hentoff focused tirelessly on the constitution and what he saw as a bipartisan mission to undermine it. He tallied the crimes of Richard Nixon and labeled President Bill Clinton’s anti-terrorism legislation “an all-out assault on the bill of rights”.

He even parted from other first amendment advocates, quitting the American Civil Liberties Union because of the ACLU’s support for speech codes in schools and workplaces.

Leftwing enough to merit an FBI file, an activist from age 15 when he organized a union at a Boston candy chain, Hentoff was deeply opposed to abortion, angering many of his colleagues at the Village Voice and elsewhere.

... After graduating, Hentoff worked as a disc jockey and moved to New York to edit DownBeat, from which he was fired in 1957 because, he alleged, he had attempted to employ an African American writer. A year later, he joined the Village Voice and remained until he was laid off in December 2008.

... “Over the years, my advice to new and aspiring reporters is to remember what Tom Wicker, a first-class professional spelunker, then at The New York Times, said in a tribute to Izzy Stone: ‘He never lost his sense of rage.’ Neither have I.” 

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