RIP, Nat Hentoff

The other day I was listening to Giant Steps, yet again, and this time I pulled out the album and re-read the liner notes. I was amazed at the prescience and knowledge of the writer. Here are the first two paragraphs:

“Along with sonny Rollins, John Coltrane has become the most influential and controversial tenor saxophonist inn modern jazz. He is becoming, in fact, more controversial and possibly more influential than Rollins. While it’s true that to musicians especially, Coltrane’s fiercely adventurous harmonic imagination is the most absorbing aspect of his developing style, the more basic point is that for many non-musician listeners, Coltrane at his best has an unusually striking emotional impact. There is such intensity in his playing that the string of adjectives employed by French Critic Gerard Bremond in a Jazz-Hot article on Coltrane seemed hardly at all exaggerated. Bremond called his playing ‘exuberant, furious, impassioned, thundering.’

“There is also, however, an extraordinary amount of sentimentality in Coltrane’s work. Part of the fury in much of his playing is the fury of the search, the obsession Coltrane has to play all he can hear or would like to hear — often all at once — and yet at the same time make his music, as he puts it, ‘more presentable.’ He said recently, ‘I’m worried that sometimes what I’m doing sounds like just academic exercises and I’m trying more and more to make it sound prettier.’ It seems to me he already succeeds often in accomplishing both his aims, as sections of this album demonstrate.”

I looked down at the bottom to see which Jazz journalist had written this piece back in 1959 and, to no surprise at all, it was the great Nat Hentoff. When I woke up this morning, there was news in The New York Times that Nat Hentoff had died at age 91.

Hentoff was an important inspiration for me back when I first decided to become a journalist. I thought he was consistently the best of the jazz critics, but what was particularly special about Hentoff was his ability to go beyond jazz and comment with great passion, wisdom and insight on our world. I especially remember his regular columns on the First Amendment in the Village Voice back in the 1970s and 1980s. I still go back and look at his articles in Downbeat on race or on my favorite artists, and I find each one of his liner notes to be a lesson in jazz history, written without the benefit of historical perspective. We could sure use more voices like that today.

12 comments

  • Nat Hentoff has shaped my thinking about jazz. R.I.P.

  • please seek out the documentary on hentoff titled “the pleasures of being out of step”. simply put, hentoff is (not was; will remain) a national treasure.

  • Gregory The Fish

    I wish more white jazz fans were more like Nat. I try to be.

  • Wow! That seller from Germany is getting some nice prices. Someone just paid $637 for Andrew Hill “Point of Departure” He mentions Ear in other listings but on this one he just says “1st original US plastilite pressing.” Also $461 for Larry Young “Into Something” and $480 Wayne Shorter “Night Dreamer” on these two he clearly states Ear.

  • Nat was a huge influence on my listening and understanding of the music. He will be missed.

  • Great reviewer.

  • I found Nat Hentoff and his contemporaries at the sge of 13, learned jazz and the art of a wordsmith, thanks is not enough.

  • Some of Hentoff’s work has been collected in book form. It should be considered essential reading for any lover of jazz. The king is dead; long live the king.

  • I first discovered Nat Hentoff on Boston radio in the early ’50s on AM station WMEX when I was in high school. His theme song was the Bluebird 78 by Rex Stewart called “Mobile Bay.” I never heard him identify it on air. There were times when Hentoff came off as pedantic and had a dictionary at his elbow. Next, I began reading his articles and reviews in Down Beat. The late IAJRC member, Chuck Sweningsen, worked at Down Beat at the time. He told me he had to heavily edit Hentoff’s copy. I faithfully read his material in Down Beat because I liked his writing and found him challenging. He also pointed the way on what to listen to and for. Even when I disagreed with what he said, I took note and proceeded to see if I was mistaken. Most of the time, I found I still disagreed with him. After he diverged from jazz writing, I parted ways with him. I vehemently disagreed with his views on abortion.

  • Hentoff was born in 1925, as was another legend of the jazz world, George Wein, who thankfully is still with us. Whereas Hentoff influenced me through radio and print, Wein influenced me through the wonderful musicians he featured in his two Boston clubs, Storyville and Mahagony Hall!

  • It’s very interesting to learn of Coltrane, especially pre-Giant Steps, being worried that his playing sounds like ‘academic exercises’, and it makes a lot of sense…never read the Giant Steps notes before.

  • It’s amazing how many times you see the name “Nat Hentoff” on Jazz Lp’s.
    I always got great pleasure reading these reviews.
    RIP

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