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Jazz Historian And Writer Nat Hentoff Dies At 91

By Tom Cole | NPR
Monday, January 9, 2017

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The American historian, critic and columnist Nat Hentoff fell in love with jazz as a kid in Boston — primarily because of the freedom and emotion it expressed. For 50 years, he wrote about jazz and social justice issues for The Village Voice. He died at home on Saturday while listening to Billie Holiday. He was 91.



For writer and historian Nat Hentoff, it was all about freedom in the jazz he loved and the First Amendment he fiercely defended. Hentoff had a hand in more than 30 books, nonfiction and fiction, on jazz, censorship, the Bill of Rights and education He wrote for publications including the Village Voice, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Nat Hentoff died Saturday at the age of 91. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: A young Nat Hentoff was walking down the street in his hometown, Boston, when he heard a sound coming from a record store.


NAT HENTOFF: So I hear this sound, and I rush into the store. What? What? What was that?


COLE: It was clarinetist Artie Shaw's theme song, "Nightmare," as Hentoff told NPR in 2010.


HENTOFF: The only other music that had really hit me that hard was when I was even younger in an Orthodox synagogue and I heard the cantor. And they used to improvise very passionately. Years later, I found out that Artie had based "Nightmare" on one of the melodies that the cantors sang.


COLE: And so began Nat Hentoff's lifelong devotion to jazz and the musicians who made it. He wrote for Downbeat and co-founded another jazz magazine. He penned album liner notes and produced recordings.

Through all of that, he came to understand who the musicians were, where they came from and what they were trying to say in their music. He saw the connection between the freedom of expression in jazz and the basic civil rights and responsibilities we all have as citizens of the United States. Here he is on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1991.


HENTOFF: If there is a basic, fundamental engine that makes this peculiar experiment, constitutional democracy - I'm quoting Jefferson - work, it's that we all have a right to free speech no matter how offensive.

COLE: Hentoff's adherence to those principles got him in trouble with critics on the right and the left. He was unwaveringly consistent. He was opposed to the death penalty and abortion. He relished his role as a provocative outsider, and he loved the music that helped open his ears, eyes and mind. Nat Hentoff died at home in Manhattan listening to Billie Holiday. Tom Cole, NPR News.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose, so the Bible said, and it still is news. Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own. Yes, the strong get smart while the week ones fade. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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