Remembering Nat Hentoff (1925-2017)

One of the greatest thrills of my life so far has been knowing Nat Hentoff. Nat, a personal hero and one of the greatest music and social commentary writers of all-time, passed away yesterday at the age of 91, surrounded by family and the music of Billie Holiday.

There are so many recordings that totally changed my life when I first heard them and, in many cases, it’s thanks to the way Nat wrote about them that I actually got to hear them in the first place. He had this wonderful, very enticing way of writing about music that just made me want to immediately run to the record store and listen to whatever it was that he was writing about. I loved reading his column in JazzTimes as a teenager and thought it pretty cool that he included his home phone number at the bottom of each article.

Shortly after moving to New York in the fall of 2007, I got an internship at the Blue Note Jazz Club. One of my first tasks there was to transcribe a few interviews that Nat had recently conducted at the club.

We’d often fax the completed transcriptions to Nat, but, occasionally, on my way home, I’d swing by his building on West 12th Street and leave the transcriptions with his doorman.

Eventually word got back to me that he liked my transcription style, so I decided to share a recent recording of mine (my very first) with him.

I was very nervous as I walked to his building to drop off my recording; at that point, I had only shared my music with maybe one or two other people in the whole jazz business and knew that sharing my music with Nat, the pinnacle of jazz criticism, was a risky move.

As soon as I walked out the door of his building after dropping off the recording, it occurred to me that so many musicians must do the same thing, so I decided that it couldn’t hurt to leave the doorman a few bucks to ensure that my recording was delivered. I thought it over as I paced, quite nervously, for a few minutes outside his building. I was so visibly nervous, in fact, that when I finally walked back into the building and reached my hand into my pocket, the doorman jumped, thinking, as he told me later, that I was reaching for a gun. He breathed a big sigh of relief, however, when all I pulled out was a few dollar bills. We laughed it off and the package was, thankfully, delivered.

I was shocked when, a few weeks later, I received a call from Nat. More shocking, however, was the content of his voicemail. He loved the album and said that he planned on eventually writing about it.

At that time, Nat was still very busy writing for the Village Voice, JazzTimes and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Whenever I called him or he called me, he always seemed in hurry. He didn’t waste time with small talk and “how are you”’s. Instead, he’d call and, immediately upon my answering, would launch into why exactly he was calling. When the conversation was finished, he simply hung up. Very rarely was there a “bye”.

At that point in my life, I, a very naive 20 or so year-old, still hadn’t had much experience being around people I idolized and his hurried, no-nonsense way of speaking to me (mixed with his yelling at me to “speak slowly and louder”) made me quite nervous. However, as we started talking more frequently and got to know each other better, my nerves began to die down and I began to find his way of communicating both charming and refreshing. A romantic myself, Nat’s old school way of conversation felt, somehow, like my connection to “old New York”, the same old New York that was filled with all of those wonderful, intellectual writers and fast-paced show business personalities, the same old New York of which Nat had once been a part.

Sometimes, he’d pick up the phone, say, “I can’t talk now,” follow it with either “I’m on deadline,” “I’m trying to save the constitution,” or “I’m protecting your civil liberties,” and then abruptly hang up.

Over the next six or seven years, we spoke quite frequently (a few times a week at one point), and it stayed that way until this past Spring when his hearing made phone conversations difficult.

He told me amazing stories about Duke Ellington, who, Nat said, sent him a Christmas card in March or April of the year he died because he wanted to make sure to get his Christmas greetings out before his passing (as it turned out, he died that May); Charles Mingus, who used to call him to play or whistle new compositions and melodies over the phone; Charlie Parker, who told him he loved country music for the stories; Earl Scruggs, who saved him from a beating down South one time; Malcom X, who used to phone his house as “Mr. X”; and so many others. He told me about Fats Waller buying him his first steak dinner (with Nat gone, are first person Fats Waller stories now extinct?). He’d often tell me that he wished he could’ve introduced me to Willie “The Lion” Smith. He said that he thought the two of us would’ve gotten along nicely. I always got a kick out of that.

Nat was a fighter, and a champion. He told me about working on “The Sound Of Jazz”, a wonderful hour-long program on CBS in 1957 that featured, among others, Count Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. Regarding Holiday, he told me that some of the CBS executives didn’t like the idea of having a black woman who had been in jail on the show and asked him to remove her from the program. In response, Nat threatened to pull the entire program if she wouldn’t be allowed on. Fortunately for us, they let her remain on the program, which turned out to be Holiday’s very last performance with Lester Young. YouTube “Fine and Dandy” to watch this powerful performance for yourself. (Nat told me that Holiday gave him a big kiss on the cheek afterward and that that kiss had been the greatest award he ever received.)

I was lucky enough to experience Nat’s fighting side first hand. Eventually, Nat did profile me in the Wall Street Journal, and it was interesting to watch how he fought for what he wanted. As he was preparing to write the piece, he’d often call and say that he was having a hard time getting in touch with his WSJ editor. After a month or so of this, Nat called to say that he wrote his editor a letter of resignation. However, he called a few days later with the news that his editor had finally called, basically begging him to come back. Nat agreed, and began writing the piece on me. He turned it in and called me as soon as he had received his edits.

“They took out of the first paragraph,” he said. “We need that paragraph. It sets the mood for the entire piece”. He was angry. “Give me ten minutes”, he said, abruptly hanging up the phone.

Ten minutes later my phone rang. “Okay. It’s back in, but I think this is my last piece for the Wall Street Journal.” And it was.

Nat was the first non-musician to be named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. A big fan of saxophonist Houston Person, he was shocked when I told him that Houston had not been named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that, if he wanted, he could nominate Houston for the award. He jumped at the opportunity, but asked me to facilitate his nomination and submit it online for him, which I was more than happy to do. He worked on a nomination letter for a week or so and then called to read it to me. His final sentence will always remain one of my very favorite sentences: "Houston Person is always as contemporary as an expression of love.” Whew…

Nat’s work ethic was like nothing I’ve ever seen and will continue to inspire me throughout my life.

I remember calling to wish him a happy birthday on either his 89th or 90th birthday. He called me back the next day, apologizing that he hadn’t called me the day before. “For my birthday present,” he told me. “I just wanted a day alone to write.”

Another time, I was volunteering at one of the luncheons for the NEA Jazz Masters Awards and, after lunching with Billy Taylor, James Moody, Gerald Wilson, Roy Haynes and so many other NEA Jazz Masters, I walked Nat to his car. He told me that he felt like he had just attended a family reunion, but when I asked if I’d see him later that night at the big awards ceremony and concert, he said, “No. I’ve got to work.”

Around 2013, he started telling me about his health starting to worsen, but that didn’t seem to bother him as long as he could write. For the next year or so of phone calls, whenever I’d ask how he was doing, he’d simply say, “I'm still writing, and as long as I'm writing I'm okay.”

He never once complained to me until his vision started failing. It was heartbreaking to hear that this wonderful man who lived to write could barely read anymore. But he was determined to write for as long as he could. Even though he could barely read, he collaborated with his son Nick on articles in 2016, dictating his words to him; they even somehow managed to profile me again this past March, in what, I believe, turned out to be Nat’s final piece on Jazz.

I last saw him this past September when I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with him at his home. I brought along a copy of “Invitation to Openness,” Les McCann’s book of photography, and it was thrilling to watch him light up as he’d see the faces of so many of his old friends.

Having a champion in Nat Hentoff is something I will always treasure. I remember him calling all excited one day, just to tell me that, while listening to one of my albums, his neighbor, enjoying the music from the hallway, knocked on his door just to ask what he was listening to. 

He’s even partly responsible for getting me into writing. When I told him that I was going to play at New Orleans' Preservation Hall, he encouraged me to document that experience in writing, which was a formative experience on it’s own.

Nat taught me so much about music, writing and life in general. His words, attitudes and teachings have influenced my music just as much as the musics of my favorite pianists, and his work ethic was quite instructional and inspiring, too.

As I look back on the things he taught me, I will forever be impressed by his commitment to writing and his fighting for the things that most mattered to him. His examples of persistence and, above all, always being himself, is something I learned a whole lot from and will stay with me forever. As I said, he was a fighter and a champion, and he will always be my hero.

I often used to take notes of things he’d say after we hung up the phone. Looking back through my notes earlier today, I found one particularly poignant note that pretty much sums it all up. I don't remember the context, but that doesn't matter: ”You only have one life,” he said. “Why do something that doesn't let you be you?” Amen.