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The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to say “Goodbye” one more time on these pages to Nat Hentoff, a Jazz author and critic who has enlightened and inspired us many times over the years, this time in the form of the following piece by Terry Teachout that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 10, 2017.
“When Nat Hentoff died on Saturday at age 91, one of his sons broke the news on Twitter. That might well have amused Mr. Hentoff, a technological Luddite* [see below] who never abandoned the typewriter and never established a social-media beachhead.
He might also have been amused — if grimly so — by the fact that many of his obituaries devoted more space to his latter-day career as a civil libertarian than to the writings about jazz with which he made his journalistic name. Sad to say, that makes perfect sense. Not only had the music that Mr. Hentoff loved best (he died listening to the records of Billie Holiday) ceased to be central to the American cultural conversation by the time of his death, but he was a First Amendment absolutist who lived to see free speech under siege in his native land, which explains why his impassioned writings about it should now loom so large in memory. Still, few who know his work at all well are in doubt that he will be remembered longest as one of the foremost jazz commentators of the 20th century.
To be sure, the word “commentator” doesn’t quite convey the nature and range of Mr. Hentoff’s jazz-related activities. Though he wrote his share of concert and record reviews in his youth, he wasn’t exactly a jazz critic, nor was he a scholar or a musician. Instead, he was something equally important—an intelligent enthusiast with good taste and a receptive ear. The National Endowment for the Arts summed him up well when, in 2004, it honored Mr. Hentoff with one of its Jazz Master awards, describing him as a “jazz advocate.” In that capacity he was nonpareil: No writer did more for jazz.
Mr. Hentoff himself believed that “if anything I’ve written about this music lasts, it will be the interviews I’ve done with the musicians for more than 50 years….My hope is that some of them become part of jazz histories.” That was just what happened. One of the last living links to the founding fathers of jazz, he knew and interviewed most of the great musicians whose paths he crossed through the years, and a considerable number of the familiar quotes and anecdotes that long ago passed into the common stock of jazz reference can be can be traced back to his pieces. It was Mr. Hentoff, for example, to whom Miles Davis praised Louis Armstrong in these famous words: “You know you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played — not even modern.”
In addition to his interviews, Hentoff wrote the liner notes for countless classic jazz albums, including Davis’s “Sketches of Spain,” “Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellotone,” Bill Evans’s “New Jazz Conceptions,” Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like a Child” and Charles Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus.” These, too, are crammed full of oft-quoted remarks that were originally made to Mr. Hentoff by the musicians who recorded them. Nor did he limit himself to merely writing notes: Mr. Hentoff also produced noteworthy albums by such celebrated jazzmen as Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell.
Jazz was not Mr. Hentoff’s only musical enthusiasm. He wrote about many other kinds of artists, among them Ray Charles,Bob Dylan and Bob Wills, for the Journal and virtually every other newspaper and magazine of consequence. But it was jazz that spoke most strongly to him, and it may well be that his signal achievement as an advocate was to help choose the roster of musicians who performed on “The Sound of Jazz,” the legendary 1957 TV special on which the illustrious likes of Hawkins, Holiday, Monk, Russell, Count Basie,Roy Eldridge,Gerry Mulligan,Ben Webster and Lester Young were seen playing in a casual jam-session setting. “For me, it was a jazz fan’s fantasy come true,” Mr. Hentoff recalled 50 years after the show first aired on CBS. It was also a priceless gift to posterity: To this day “The Sound of Jazz,” which can be viewed on YouTube, continues to be widely regarded as the finest jazz program ever telecast.
Mr. Hentoff himself came to feel that “The Sound of Jazz” was “the most important thing” he ever did. Maybe so, but he did too many things too well to rank them, and though he couldn’t play a note, there was nothing inappropriate about his being dubbed a “jazz master” by the NEA. He served jazz selflessly, and all those who love it as he did are the poorer for his passing.”
*[Luddite = a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16); a person resisting technological progress.]