[25 April 2014]
What do jazz and the first amendment have to do with each other?
Nat Hentoff, that’s what.
The journalist who helped define an era (mid 20th-century America); a genre (alternative journalism); and a scene (jazz) is now subjected to the scrutiny of both a bio-pic as well as a book.
In 2007, reporter David L. Lewis embarked on the project of producing a documentary film on the life of Hentoff, an eminent jazz critic, cultural commentator and reporter who worked for a range of publications – and produced a slew of books and album recordings – throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Lewis explains his motivation in the introduction: “We are losing a generation of our greatest journalists, men and women who built their legacy on the printed word. Their stories deserve to be told as powerfully as they have told so many to us.”
Thus motivated, Lewis recorded seven hours of interviews with Hentoff along with about a dozen interviews with contemporaries and friends, which he eventually refined into an 87-minute documentary film. Along with the film he produced a 214-page book comprised of interviews with Hentoff and his colleagues, and it is the latter which is the subject of this review.
The title – The Pleasures of Being Out of Step – offers the key to Hentoff’s approach to jazz, journalism and politics alike. His range of interests and attitudes frequently perplexed both readers and friends, but there’s a consistency conveyed through that title. It conveys a valence that is musical, cultural and political all at once. “So, you’re always looking at people who are in step,” explains Hentoff early in the book.
Reporters find themselves interviewing and writing about people who are controlled by their own adherence to “political correctness”, and the freedom to step outside of that political correctness – fearlessly and without compunction – is for Hentoff what constitutes the mission and mark of a great reporter. It enables one to see the subject of one’s study for who they truly are. Only by being on the outside – “out of step” - can one truly understand those on the inside.
And Hentoff had no qualms about being on the outside. Considered a left-winger throughout much of the ‘60s, nobody quite knows what to call him today (now in his late 80s, he’s still writing as voraciously as ever). He opposed abortion and supported American intervention in Iraq, yet denounced George W. Bush and his lieutenants and testified in key court hearings in support of civil rights and free speech. Of Jewish background himself, he even argues anti-Semitic speech deserves protection. Most recently, he’s made headlines with his impassioned demands that Barack Obama be impeached for exceeding executive authority.
Yet Hentoff made his name first in the early days of the jazz scene. A writer for such key publications as Down Beat and the Jazz Review, he was sought after by record labels, penned countless liner notes and his name became a byword for understanding jazz music. He produced several foundational albums through his work with Candid Records, and was friends with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and a host of other definitive jazz artists.
But he was a political activist as well. Unbeknownst to many of us today, jazz artists once faced the same censure for the daring and unrepentant truths of their lyrics that punk and heavy metal artists were to face thirty years later. Hentoff was, early on, among those who testified in court defending the scene that he was so deeply entrenched in. His love of jazz music – and his evocative and eloquent writing about it in mid-20th century music magazines – proved a vital contagion in spreading the scene among young readers. Yet his libertarian defense of free speech proved equally vital and vibrant. The friend of Ellington and Mingus became friends with Malcolm X as well.
The juxtaposition of these two titular items – jazz and the first amendment – help underscore the fact that Hentoff saw himself, first and foremost, as a journalist. He became established early on as a jazz reporter, but when he approached the Village Voice and offered to write for them, he told them very deliberately he would not write about jazz. What comes through here is the image of an aspiring writer and journalist in fear of being typecast. Indeed, Hentoff’s repeated efforts to avoid finding himself professionally pigeon-holed within the field of jazz journalism that he so loved, render him an indelibly human character.
In the end, perhaps, he did become type-cast, but at least he became type-cast as an expert in more than one thing. If one is to be pigeon-holed, there are worse areas in which to be pigeon-holed than jazz and civil rights.
The method of Lewis’ book – which describes itself as an ‘oral history’—is well-developed, yet also leaves something to be desired. It consists entirely of interviews with Hentoff and his colleagues, family and contemporaries: the likes of Floyd Abrams, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Karen Durbin, Dan Morgenstern, Phil Woods, and more. The interviews are well done and crafted together in a relevant and engaging way.
Yet so much of the book details events and cultural trends long forgotten to the average contemporary reader, that it becomes at times confusing. I found myself having to pause periodically to look up names or events that Hentoff and his contemporaries feel no need to elaborate on, so important were they in decades past. I suppose that’s the point – to educate the reader and broaden their horizons – but it might have been helpful had Lewis provided periodic interventions or even chapter introductions to better contextualize the periods and events that he presents, rather than simply having the characters launch into a discussion about them.
Of course, the book might best be taken as a companion to the documentary film with which it was paired. One could enjoy the film, and then use the book as an entry to reflecting on the times – and the issues that defined them – in a more serious way.
By adopting the ‘oral history’ method, at least the book avoids becoming hagiographic. It doesn’t shy away from the controversial sides of Hentoff’s character. His controversial position on abortion – he is, as they say, anti-choice (or as he would say, pro-life) – is alluded to throughout, and in the end comprises an entire chapter. Nor do the participants temper their opinions: several of his friends and colleagues disagree with his position, and some even describe the atmosphere it produced at the Village Voice, where some of the newer writers considered him part of an old boys’ club that was not interested in providing a forum for feminism or gay rights (he was eventually let go by the paper, and spares nothing in his recollection of the event). Having worked in the newspaper business myself, I could almost hear the arguments play out.
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step is the snapshot of an era; multiple eras, in fact, but all of them contained in the life of Hentoff and all of them a fascinating and useful history to be imbibed by us today. From the exciting intrigue and innovation of the early days of jazz and bebop culture, to intimate glimpses of the inner workings of the Village Voice, the book shows us the life of an American journalist, activist, and cultural critic who helped to define his times as much as he was himself a product of those times.
And what lesson do Hentoff’s words offer for the present day? Right and wrong are murky concepts when it comes to politics and journalism alike, but if there is any lesson here, it lies in the title. The courage to be willing to be “out of step” with the times and with “political correctness” worked for the brave and unrepentant subject of this book, and while there is a price to be paid for being “out of step”, the benefits of having such courage are evocatively conveyed through the life and achievements of Nat Hentoff.