The jazz journalist who championed civil liberties
Nat Hentoff 1925–2017
Nat Hentoff’s great loves were jazz and civil liberties, causes the writer championed in some 35 books and innumerable columns for The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and other publications. Musically, he embraced jazz innovators like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman. Politically, he played the provocateur, fiercely defending the right of people to say what they want, no matter how offensive or obscene. “The whole idea of the Bill of Rights and jazz,” he said, was “freedom of expression that nobody, not even the government, can squelch.”
Born in Boston to Russian- Jewish immigrants, he grew up surrounded by “anarchists, communists, Trotskyites, and other revolutionaries,” said The New York Times. Hentoff fell in love with the rebellious sound of jazz while attending Boston Latin, the oldest public school in America. At Northeastern University he became editor of a student newspaper and made it a muckraker. “When it turned up a story about trustees backing anti-Semitic publications, the university shut it down.”
After moving to New York City in 1953, he became a prolific jazz writer, contributing liner notes to scores of albums. But when he joined the Voice as a columnist in 1958, the start of a 50-year gig, Hentoff “lobbied to write about anything but jazz,” said The Washington Post. He went on to riff on race, education, civil liberties, abortion— which he opposed—and censorship, condemning both conservative school boards that banned books and feminists who tried to shutter pornographic bookstores. He relished challenging conventional thinking, a lesson he said he learned from jazz saxophonist Ben Webster. “He said to me, ‘Listen, kid, when the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.