Nat Hentoff, Iconic Writer on Jazz and Civil Liberties, Dies at 91

Influential scribe pulled from personal relationships with jazz greats, in plainspoken prose

Nat Hentoff, the most famous and influential jazz writer in the history of the music, died yesterday. He was 91, and his death was announced by his son Nick via social media. “He died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” Nick wrote on Twitter.

Equally lauded for his sometimes-controversial writing on the essentiality of civil liberties, Hentoff’s lengthy and prolific career saw him publish everything from memoirs to young-adult novels to liner notes for classic jazz recordings (and some canonical titles out of jazz, like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). For decades he contributed a syndicated column to the Village Voice, where he covered mostly political and social issues, and he worked for DownBeat, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Washington Times and many other publications. He had an enduring tenure as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and from 1998 to 2012 he wrote a monthly column for JazzTimes, called “Final Chorus,” which appeared on the last page of each issue. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.

Raised in Boston and based in New York, Hentoff sidestepped the technical analysis and showy prose of some of his colleagues in jazz criticism, favoring conversational writing that relied on a deep well of narratives and insights garnered through his friendships with iconic musicians. Like the midcentury country music he also adored, Hentoff told stories about a cast of unforgettable characters. Casually, he could recall “picking up the phone early one morning and hearing music. After a couple of bars, I knew whose it was. Then the composer, Charles Mingus, came on: ‘What do you think of that? I just recorded it.'” When Hentoff asked his pal Duke Ellington, who looked worn-out from a lifetime of touring, about the possibility of retirement, Ellington famously replied: “Retire? To what?” And so on. While some of jazz’s finest scribes could write in a way that required poetic deconstruction, Hentoff’s paragraphs left you with pub-ready anecdotes. Often, tales from his work as a jazz producer would make it into his prose. In 1957 Hentoff helmed, along with Whitney Balliett and Charles H. Schultz, the hour-long TV special The Sound of Jazz, which included the bittersweet reunion of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. “[W]hen Billie Holiday and Lester Young looked into each other’s eyes during ‘Fine and Mellow,’ there were tears in all our eyes at the wonder of being in the presence of such searching intimacy,” Hentoff wrote in JT.

If Hentoff’s writing evinced the earthiness of the American newspaperman, his methods were similarly old-school, well into the digital age. He wrote on an electric typewriter and faxed his columns to JT, and he refused to use e-mail, preferring to handle business by phone. On the horn he could be gracious-many jazz writers felt the uplift of a call from Hentoff, saying he liked a particular piece and to keep up the good work-or gruff, especially if reached on deadline. Jazz, as he often wrote, was a “life force” that re-energized him after defending the Constitution exhausted him. “I sometimes imagine what my life would have been like if it weren’t for jazz,” he told the radio program Riverwalk Jazz. “Once you get into it, you can never get enough of it. … Every once in a while writing about my day job, I get so down I have to stop. I literally stop and put on a recording, and then that sound, that feeling, that passion for life gets me up and shouting again and I can go back to [the] grim stuff of what’s happening in the rest of the world.”

For more on Hentoff’s life and work, read this lengthy interview by JT publisher Lee Mergner.

For a selection of Hentoff’s “Final Chorus” columns, go here.