"Nat Hentoff is a legend" states the blurb on the back cover of The Nat Hentoff Reader (a book I picked up on a whim at our church's annual book sale). I won't argue with that assessment. I've long been a fan of iconoclastic voices like his that challenge and provoke, that don't fit comfortably into the usual paradigms, and resist easy labeling. Hentoff is probably best known for his dogged defense of the First Amendment. I admire his consistency in flaying censors of every stripe (one of his earlier books has as its title Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other). Both campus leftists burning conservative student newspapers and religious conservatives trying to get books banned from the local library are targets of Hentoff's rhetorical blows, and he's that rare man of the left that believes unborn children have civil liberties worth fighting for.
But where Nat Hentoff shines most brightly is when he's writing about a subject he loves as much as the U.S. Constitution -- jazz. He's penned countless reviews and liner notes, hung out with the greats, and even recorded some of them. In a piece included here called "Jazz: Music Beyond Time and Nations" the author recalls his jazz epiphany as an eleven-year-old walking down a Boston street. Upon hearing a strange sound coming out of a record store (Artie Shaw as it turned out) this middle-class Jewish youngster let out a shout of exhilaration. A life-long love affair was born. Hentoff writes that if forced to choose between losing his sight or hearing, he'd choose blindness because of a deep hunger that only music fills.
One of the jazz legends that Hentoff had the privilege of knowing intimately was one John Birks Gillespie. The Nat Hentoff Reader contains a two-part 1995 profile of the remarkable human being known simply as Dizzy. He writes:
I knew Dizzy for some forty years, and he did evolve into a spiritual person. That's a phrase I almost never use because many of the people who call themselves spiritual would kill for their faith. But Dizzy reached an inner strength and discipline that total pacifists call "soul force."
He always had a vivid presence. Like they used to say of Fats Waller, whenever Dizzy came into a room, he filled it. He made people feel good, and he was the sound of surprise, even when his horn was in its case.
But in later years there was also a peaceableness in Dizzy. There was nothing passive about it. It was his soul force that resolved tensions.
For example, in the 1980s, there was to be a concert at Lincoln Center honoring Dizzy. He and a big band were, of course, to be at the center of the celebration. A few days before, I went to a rehearsal. Everyone was there but Dizzy.
No music was being played. The only sounds were a bitter argument between Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan. Each had some compositions on the program, and at the start the argument was about who was to have more of his pieces played. Then it became very personal and poisonous.
As tensions rose in the room Hentoff describes the embarrassment of the other musicians, until Dizzy appeared from the back of the auditorium where he'd been quietly listening. Without a word he stepped to the podium and cued the band to play "I'll Always Be in Love With You." As the bad vibes blew out the door Max and Gerry forgot what they were arguing about.
Hentoff adds that Dizzy "filled the room with reasonableness without getting involved in the battle. Most of the leaders I've known through the years would have scolded the antagonists for wasting valuable rehearsal time and acting like children. But Dizzy, by his very presence, had broken the tension."
If you're a fan of jazz, free speech, or just plain good writing, I think you'll enjoy this collection.
Quotes from The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001), pp. 118-9