Nat Hentoff- historian, jazz critic, novelist, columnist- died January 7, 2017, at the age of 91.
He died at home, surrounded by family, and listening to Billie Holliday, of old age.
Jazz was the golden thread running through Hentoff’s long life. He started an influential radio show on it in Boston in the 1940s; he joined Down Beat magazine in 1952 and was an associate editor for most of the decade.
His was an open, inquisitive mind: put off by Charlie Parker’s work- he thought it too dense, too much to absorb- he took friend’s advice to play Bird’s records slower, and parse out what was there. Hentoff changed his mind.
In 1958, Hentoff joined New York’s Village Voice as its jazz critic, a post he held, and enlivened the world from, for fifty years. He looked the part: a bearded, rumpled, hipster. And when The Voice laid him off- for getting increasingly obsessive about far-right politics and less about jazz, it was whispered- he seemed to at least partially confirm the point by moving his column to The Wall Street Journal, pecking columns out until nearly the end.
Hentoff was a 1950/60s libertarian, opposed to every form of government intervention in personal liberty. In those days, that meant support for Civil Rights, opposition to communist witch hunts, being anti-death penalty, and resisting religious fervors of all stripes. He called himself a life member of The Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Neck Atheist Jews.
He also wrote 25 nonfiction books, nine novels, and two memoirs. He had opinions on everything and kept a syndicated column going on the side to voice the non-jazz ones. The American Bar Association honored him for his work on law and criminal justice issues, just to name one of the closetsful of honors he acquired. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1972.
Over time, however, Hentoff’s willingness to press his absolutist libertarian views reached a point where their absolutism overwhelmed their consistency. In his 80s he became a senior fellow at the Koch Bros. think tank, the Cato Foundation, which opposes nearly very cause he championed.
Even Hentoff found that sojourn exotic. “My contact with [Cato] was strange,” he wrote. “They're ideologues, like Trotskyites. All questions must be seen and solved within the true faith of libertarianism, the idea of minimal government. And like Trotskyites, the guys from Cato can talk you to death.”
He picked up a column on the far-right website WorldNetDaily. He became violently anti-abortion and his scorn for LGBT rights seemed to know no bounds. He embraced the view now championed by evangelicals, that maximizing freedom made it perfectly reasonable to harness the power of the state to protect them from their view that those they dislike are using government to oppress them rather than allow them their discriminatory urges.
He endorsed Rand Paul for president, apparently cool with the senator’s famous claim that the correct calibration of American civil rights would be that blacks and whites can sit next to each other, as a matter of law, on a bus that takes them to a diner that will let the white patron in and reject the black for his color.
It was as if his quest for freedom had been pursued so far, it rounded on him in the end. But, because he defined his worldview, it all made perfect sense. “I would bet there is no place in the United States where the First Amendment would survive intact," he wrote. And by the end of his long life, he had made himself a useful idiot for the proof of his claim.