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.