If you had to pick the Boston writer who made his way into print more frequently than any other in the twentieth century, and who ranged over more subjects during that period, you could do worse than start the bidding with Nat Hentoff.
Nathan Irving Hentoff was born in Boston to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1925; his father, like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, was a traveling salesman. Nat attended Boston Latin School and Northeastern University, graduating from the latter with highest honors in 1946. He started writing for publication while still in his teens for The Boston City Reporter, investigating antisemitic hate groups. He played clarinet and soprano sax as a boy, and became interested in jazz after hearing another clarinetist son of Russian Jewish parents—Artie Shaw, born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. Jazz and politics would be the two subjects that over the course of his sixty-five-year writing career would be his most frequent subjects.
Hentoff got his start on radio, hosting jazz programs on Boston station WMEX, including live broadcasts from the Savoy Ballroom and Storyville, jazz venues owned by George Wein. In 1952 he took on the first of several long-term engagements with print publications, covering jazz for DownBeat. He had a fifty-year tenure as columnist for The Village Voice, a twenty-six-year run for The New Yorker, and lengthy tenures at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal as well.
Given the volume and scope of his writings, Hentoff was frequently asked what he considered his most lasting achievement. He had, after all, churned out 19 non-fiction books, nine novels and two memoirs, and contributed freelance articles to just about every major magazine that was published in his adulthood. Instead of a book, he chose the comparatively ephemeral medium of television. In 1957 he assisted in the production of “The Sound of Jazz,” a live Sunday afternoon program on the CBS network that brought together a number of jazz greats, some of them in cranky moods, perhaps from gigs that ran late the night before.
The performance reunited singer Billie Holiday and tenor saxophonist Lester Young. They had once been platonically close, giving each other nicknames that stuck with them, “Pres” for him, “Lady Day” for her. The two had drifted apart for reasons that were unclear, but real. “You can hurt his feelings in two seconds,” she had said. “I know because I found out once that I had.” Young avoided Holiday during rehearsals; he was depressed and ill, and had to be replaced on all of his numbers except for Billie’s, “Fine and Mellow.” As he stood up to take his solo on that song, the two exchanged glances and she smiled, an exchange you can view today on YouTube, which brought tears to the eyes of those in the studio. Afterwards, Holiday came up to Hentoff. He thought she was mad at him because she’d forgotten his instructions to the musicians to dress casually, and had bought a $500 dress for the show. Instead, he wrote, “She just kissed me. It was the best award I’ve ever gotten.”
I spoke with Nat by phone in 2016, not long before he died. I was working on a biography of Johnny Hodges, the long-time alto sax with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and Nat had written two newspaper articles about Hodges describing a knife fight that broke out at an Ellington dance date in Boston in the late 1940s. Hodges, in his imperturbable style, had played through the incident calmly while dancers scrambled for safety and his bandmates looked on nervously. I’d been told by one of his fellow jazz critics that Nat’s mind was going, and that you couldn’t trust his memory anymore. I asked Nat about the articles and he said no, he didn’t recall writing them, a forgivable lapse in a man who was 91 at the time.
But did he remember Duke and Johnny Hodges? I asked.
“You could never forget their music,” he said.
(By Con Chapman)
Con Chapman is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France.