Music

Free Speech and Free Jazz

A documentary captures the life of civil libertarian and music critic Nat Hentoff.

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Nat Hentoff

For well over 60 years, Nat Hentoff has been a one-of-a-kind public intellectual, an unrelentingly outspoken champion of both modern jazz and all of the liberties that flow from the First Amendment. In The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, a new documentary directed by David L. Lewis, we hear Hentoff explaining these twinned inspirations. "The reason we have jazz," he says, "the reason we have almost anything worthwhile, is the fact that we're a free people. And that came about because of James Madison, and those improvisers."

Lewis does a superb job of illustrating Hentoff's long career with firsthand interviews of the man himself and many of his colleagues, with classic musical performances and vintage TV footage. At one point we see the long-departed comedian Lenny Bruce, sucking on a cigarette and addressing the camera directly, saluting Hentoff as a fellow hipster. (Hentoff was one of the rare critics who was valued by trailblazing artists.)

The son of Boston Jews, Hentoff started out as a teenage radio host in his hometown—"the most anti-Semitic city in the country," he recalls unfondly. He moved on to the jazz magazine DownBeat in the early 1950s, where he became one of the country's most perceptive critics, championing the work of such now-celebrated players as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. He turned the writing of album-cover liner notes into an art, perfecting this craft for records by Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and even—in a side trip—Bob Dylan. ("He told me stuff that wasn't true," Hentoff recalls with a chuckle, "but I got the essence of him, I think.")

He also became a record producer, going into the studio with such musicians as Cecil Taylor, Coleman Hawkins, and Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. Wherever there was jazz, it seemed, Hentoff was there. And he helped produce The Sound of Jazz—a 1957 CBS TV special that brought together Lester Young, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and the inimitable Monk, among many others—which was a landmark of televised jazz that has never been surpassed. (You can still marvel at it on YouTube.)

In tandem with all this activity, Hentoff was also a fearless First Amendment absolutist. When American Nazis announced plans to stage a march through the heavily Jewish city of Skokie, Illinois, Hentoff loudly condemned efforts to stop them from doing so. As he wrote, "James Madison insisted that the greatest danger to liberty is an infuriated majority smothering a minority. Therefore, freedom of speech must be protected against the community itself."

Although he started out on the political left, Hentoff developed points of view over the years—especially during his long tenure at New York's Village Voice—that alienated many leftists. Usually antiwar, he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a humanitarian enterprise. And his unflagging opposition to capital punishment ultimately led him to oppose abortion as well. (Respect for the sanctity of life, he felt, had to be "a seamless garment.")

Hentoff turned 89 years old on June 10. He's white-haired and somewhat stooped now, but he's still sharp, recalling even the most long-ago moments of his extraordinary life with clarity and great good humor. We can hope that it's too early to be talking about monuments to the man, but when that time comes, this film will be a perfect one.

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  1. “the reason we have almost anything worthwhile, is the fact that we’re a free people. And that came about because of James Madison, and those improvisers.”

    Sounds like racist rape apology hate speech to me.

    1. Goddammit Loder, you didn’t even give a trigger warning!

  2. OK, I can’t resist this one, especially on Saturday:

    “Not only did Obama lose (hooray Constitution), but so did abortion

    “By Nat Hentoff

    “Published Nov. 12, 2014…

    “So how did I become a pro-lifer, the most controversial position I have ever taken?

    Just about all my conclusions about any issue have come from fact-based reporting. On this one, practically everyone I knew was pro-choice, but I became curious when more physicians — not pro-lifers, doctors — became involved in prenatal care….

    “[Quoting a medical textbook called *The Unborn Patient*] “The concept that the fetus is a patient, an individual whose maladies are a proper subject for medical treatment as well as scientific observation, is alarmingly modern.

    “”Only now are we beginning to consider the fetus seriously, medically, legally and ethically.”

    “But in neither this nor other medical textbooks was God mentioned. And, hey, I even learned each fetus has DNA of its own!”

    http://jewishworldreview.com/c…..11214.php3

    1. ” And, hey, I even learned each fetus has DNA of its own!”

      This motherfucker never went to school, did he? That is some bone deep ignorance there.

      1. A fetus *doesn’t* have its own DNA?

        1. How can a baby have its own DNA? It didn’t make that DNA…

        2. He just found that out, well into his adulthood. That was my point.

      2. I’m guessing that was sarcasm.

      3. He’s 89 years old. He’s older than James Watson, for crying out loud. I’m guessing that high school biology class in the 30s did not teach DNA.

    2. I’ve lauded Hentoff before for having the intellectual honesty that so many of the Left lack these days. You don’t need religion or faith-based arguments to recognize that the unborn are human beings, too.

      1. If only more liberals possessed the love Hentoff holds for both life and liberty.

        It’s worth noting that he’s since moved away from his support for the Iraq War, especially with all of the illegal CIA renditions Bush and Obama introduced.

    3. Are you also pro-life? Just curious.

      1. You’re asking Eddie if he’s pro life?

        Is the universe big?

        Do fish like water?

        1. Does the Pope shit in the woods?

          I don’t know, but Eddie does.

  3. I’d read some of his stuff when he listed far enough to port to be in danger of capsizing; figured one more V.V. commie. He then started writing for one of Kurtz’ mags (Skeptical Inquiry?) and his defense of speech, ANY speech, and freedoms in general made me take another look.
    Kinda like Hutch, I now respect the guy even in disagreement; seems he’s incapable of dishonest argument.

    1. Kinda like Hutch

      Not like Starsky? 😉

    2. I’ve always liked Hentoff. I don’t remember exactly when I discovered him. Ye Olde Hometown newspaper carried his columns in a rotation with other syndicated columnists. Charley Reese, Jack Anderson, Nat Hentoff, and I can’t remember the rest. Even when I disagreed with him, I always thought he was a good writer and a principled guy.

  4. James Madison and those improvisers

    Great name for a band.

    1. Oh, I helped write the Constitution, baby
      Then I drafted the Bill of Rights
      Oh, I helped write the Constitution, baby
      And then I pushed through the Bill of Rights
      My battle for the Constitution
      Was one of my most satisfying fights.

      Oh, I became the President
      And I fought the War of 1812
      Yeah, I was elected President, baby,
      And I fought the War of 1812
      I fought the British to a draw, baby
      And then I told them to fuck themselves

    2. Your last fight when you didn’t kill anyone.

  5. NPR gives the touching and moving story of a nun who left the convent without permission to become a journalist, a teacher and a wife and mother.

    Cue inspiring music.

      1. Because teh poor.

    1. The woman should be imprisoned for life if she did not have the foresight to use this as the soundtrack for the two videos.

  6. “The reason we have jazz,” he says, “the reason we have almost anything worthwhile, is the fact that we’re a free people. And that came about because of James Madison, and those improvisers.”

    You didn’t build that!

    1. yeah it was james madison who built it

      1. Could jazz ever come into existence without government roads? No, I didn’t think so. So jazz is a product of government, not free people. Showed you, idjit.

        1. You didn’t riff that.

        2. sure jazz bands and their records could eaisily criscross the north american continent in the preinternet days without a huge interconnected road system.

          it is to laugh when you deride the concept of you didnt build that when a liberal says it an tthen talk about howe veryone should be grateful to the gilded age robberbarrons for all the achievements of a capitalist economy that we wouldn have if not for them. are you really that blind?

          1. You didn’t spellcheck that.

          2. Capitalist economy? In present-day America?

            Is that you, David Suzuki?

          3. an tthen talk about howe veryone should be grateful to the gilded age robberbarrons

            You got me! Aaaauuugghhh!

            /straw man

            1. Flaming Ballsack. YOUR SO STUPD

    2. “There is no jazz musician in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You start your own jazz band out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your instruments to the nightclub on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired musicians the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your tour bus because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding groupies would come and seize everything on your tour bus… Now look. You started a jazz band and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next musician who comes along.”

  7. And his unflagging opposition to capital punishment ultimately led him to oppose abortion as well. (Respect for the sanctity of life, he felt, had to be “a seamless garment.”)

    His opposition to abortion also resulted in his colleagues at the Village Voice refusing to associate with him. Village Voice staffers, showing the reason and intellect of the modern left, would step off of elevators when Hentoff got on.

    1. Tolerant people don’t tolerant intolerance. If you don’t support a woman’s right to kill her unborn child, then you are intolerant. So by stepping off the elevator, they are showing tolerance.

      1. Also, when a progressive says what everyone in their social circle believes, that’s evidence of how brave they are. When someone dissents despite the damage it might do to their reputation, that proves they’re a coward who is probably being paid by the Kochtopus.

        1. How does a Kochtopus carry money to pay people. It doesn’t have any pockets!

    2. See, this is why I can’t stand the authoritarian Left. With every SJW move that they make, we move more and more toward a society where that type of thinking is considered “tolerant”. Heck, I was recently libeled by somebody on Twitter as a racist and sexist because I described myself as a pro-life, antiwar constitutional conservative. Never mind the fact that I’m a minority.

      I wish that Hentoff was the face of modern-day liberalism; if he was, I would admire the Left so much more. I get along pretty well with pro-life liberals.

      1. The relationship between tolerance and freedom is inherent. Intolerance is underwritten by government favoritism and violence. When people are free ? meaning that they are also necessarily deprived of the use of force ? they find ways to get along.

        http://cafehayek.com/2014/11/q…..-1187.html

        That right there is something the left simply cannot comprehend.

      2. …”Heck, I was recently libeled by somebody on Twitter as a racist and sexist because I described myself as a pro-life, antiwar constitutional conservative. Never mind the fact that I’m a minority.”

        I’m guessing by “minority”, you mean an ethnic minority.
        Regardless of that definition, you are a “minority” for other reasons.
        I mean no offense, just a comment.

        1. You’d be surprised at the number of consistent life ethicists out there.

  8. Lenny Bruce you say?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfNhiRGQ-js

    I love Lenny Bruce.

  9. Also Jazz. Yeah they are not the greatest Jazz band out there, but they are the only Jazz band I have seen live, and this is not there greatest song.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPT3CGe4FS0

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra0p0u59N7o
      My favorite C Jam Blues… I have a strong bias when it comes to Paul Chambers.

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    http://www.Safe-Anon.tk

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  12. Ascribing the invention of Jazz to freedom and white people is about as laughable as Al Gore claiming credit for the internet.

    1. Alternative theory?

      1. Jazz was born out of oppression. African-Americans invented their own style of music as they were barred entry into the schools, clubs, and concert halls where the prevailing, majority music was learned and played. Jazz music is a direct descendant of slave music, which was a direct descendant of African music. Jazz was subversive, a rebellion against oppression. This isn’t theory, it’s history.

        1. Naaa, Jazz was born out of Black people imitating John Phillip Sousa. They didn’t have a conductor to maintain order so they improvised leading to a “spontaneous order”.

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