This week, author, political columnist, jazz critic and – to quote his wife – “social mischief maker” Nat Hentoff passed away at his apartment in Greenwich Village “surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” according to his son, Nick Hentoff, on Twitter.

Holiday was not merely music to live for and die to; Hentoff knew her. Over the years covering the jazz scene in America from the 1950s onward he got to know many of the greats (including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane) and the music was a passion of his life. His contributions to the music industry – magazines, books and productions – alone deserve recognition at his passing. But many, including myself, know him for his political commentary as well.

Hentoff embraced the opportunity to add social criticism to his jazz journalism early in his career. In New York City and across the country, he found solidarity with musicians and credits the jazz scene as expediting the civil rights movement. He became close to diverse civil rights leaders from Malcolm X to Bayard Rustin.

A champion of free speech, Hentoff wrote with gentle rage against injustice and oppression. He once considered himself liberal, but discovered when it comes to free speech, “an area that means a lot to me, liberals were just as much censors as conservatives. They wanted to kill free speech.” Later he referred to himself, “if anything, I’m a lower cased libertarian.” A former member of the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union, he outraged the left when he became an outspoken advocate for the rights of the preborn. He also inflamed the right as a “liberal pro-life” speaker who urged opposition to the death penalty and nuclear weapons.

I met Hentoff while I was working on the staff of Congressman Chip Pickering whose father, federal district Judge Charles Pickering, faced a scrofulous (Hentoff’s word choice) assault on his character when nominated by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

I say “met.” I wouldn’t say “we knew each other.” I’m sure before each time we spoke he had to consult his notes to remember my name. A half-a-century of journalism results in thousands of sources, so our few exchanges were a lopsided relationship. He would ask questions or request information; I would attempt to respond to his rhythmic melodic voice with the appropriate answers while suppressing the urge to ask him to tell me stories about his friendship with Lenny Bruce or Allen Ginsberg or covering historic performances in The Village.

Hentoff had taken a special interest in Judge Pickering’s confirmation and wrote a number of columns on the matter appearing in the Village Voice, the Washington Times, the Jewish World Review and others.  The atheist Jew from Boston lambasted the left for their treatment of the Southern Baptist judge from Jones County.

Hentoff wrote, “in some 50 years as a reporter, I have seldom seen such reckless, unfair, and repeated attacks on a person—not only by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee but also by organizations that gather financial contributions because of their proclaimed dedication to civil rights, civil liberties, and honest research.” He called the left’s efforts a “character assassination” and refuted point by point their criticisms of Pickering.

Following the broadcast of a 60 Minutes piece by Mike Wallace who – like Hentoff – found Pickering the opposite of the left’s criticisms, Hentoff called Wallace and thanked him. He told Wallace, “You gave the man his reputation back.”

Then Hentoff wrote another column recounting the Wallace piece and castigating New York Senator Chuck Schumer, whom he called “the Democrats’ hitman on Pickering.”

“Paraphrasing what a defense attorney said to Joe McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy hearings on alleged communists in our land,” Hentoff wrote, “At long last, Sen. Schumer, have you no sense of decency?”

A few years ago, in a documentary about his life (“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”), Hentoff said, “the Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being.” It’s as if he wanted human interaction to be a jazz performance: improvised, individual, sometimes in counterpoint but still respective of others to be creative.

Hentoff would sometimes give an example: “One of my favorite stories is the really extraordinary drummer and leader Max Roach. He said to me, ‘You know, you write a lot about the Constitution. What do I think we do? What we do in jazz, we are individual voices, right? Have to be. And we come together, and that voice is different and sometimes larger than the sum of the parts. Isn’t that what you’re talking about?’ And that to me was a perfectly organic link between jazz and who we are as a people.”

Hentoff died at 91, pro-life, pro-jazz, pro-speech and contrarian.


Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.