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The World of Cecil Taylor, 1929–2018: An Appreciation

It was the night Garth Brooks played Central Park: August 7, 1997. While a throng of 750,000 crowded into the North Meadow, and who knows how many others watched live on HBO, I crammed myself into the claustrophobic basement of the Village Vanguard along with a hundred or so other contrarians to see Cecil Taylor.

The pianist, then 68, began with the kindest, most delicate of notes, about three or four, with his right hand, and then commenced his assault on — or rather, exploration of — the piano, not only its eighty-eight keys and three pedals, but its guts and frame itself. Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall joined in, and for the next hour they unleashed a torrent of sound: confrontational but sensitive, free-form but collaborative, turbulent but rhapsodic. It all washed over you. Taylor ended, solo, with those same three or four genteel notes, and without saying a word, left the stage. It was the equivalent of a mic drop, and the audience erupted. It was an experience, conceptually stimulating with an inherent drama, and even though he didn’t read his poetry or engage in one of his modernist dance maneuvers, it was as much performance art as it was a simple concert or a gig. There was a second set, but I was spent, and anyway there was another group of like-minded souls lined up the narrow staircase waiting to get in.

By then, Taylor, who passed away on Thursday at his Brooklyn home at age 89, had begun to receive his due. He was the recipient of a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1990, and won a MacArthur grant the following year. But it wasn’t always like that. It rarely is for those who go their own way.  

Taylor was a native New Yorker, born in Long Island City in 1929, and by the early 1950s he was studying Stravinsky and Bartók at the New England Conservatory. In 1956, he recorded his first album, Jazz Advance, a relatively conventional recording compared to what was to come, but even then his take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is mind-bending.  

By the early 1960s, he’d begun a run of fabulous albums — The World of Cecil Taylor, for one — for the visionary label Candid, where Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice writer, served as the a&r director. “I am not afraid of European influences,” he once told Hentoff. “The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.”

Taylor’s marriage of a certain European aesthetic with an African-American one put off large portions of both audiences as well as its gatekeepers. He was an abstract artist when black music was seen as entertainment, something either dangerous or merely fun. As Val Wilmer wrote in her 1977 book As Serious as Your Life, recently republished in a new U.K. edition, “The music of Cecil Taylor is not a particularly encouraging backdrop for sexual overtures.” At a certain point in the 1960s, he was forced to wash dishes and do odd jobs to pay the bills.

“The epicurean aristocrat of the piano,” as the critic Howard Mandel called Taylor, in Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, “reviled by jazz’s canon-makers as if he were the Marquis De Sade.”

Taylor and Ornette Coleman were the twin spires of the free jazz movement — Taylor played at Coleman’s memorial three years ago at Riverside Church — or, as A.B. Spellman wrote in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “They were the first two musicians to appear on the scene who placed themselves totally outside the mainstream and had the temerity to suggest that all the assumptions of hard and cool bop would have to be overhauled before the individual voice could once again replace the cliché in jazz.”

And as the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons told Wilmer, “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what music’s about. It’s not about any cycle of fifths, it’s about sound.”    

In a career that touched on seven different decades and that included poetry and dance — he often collaborated with the dancer Min Tanaka, the subject of the documentary The Silent Eye, by Amiel Courtin-Wilson — his mark has been profound. Virtually any musician who played free is indebted to Taylor. He’s influenced too many pianists to list.

In 2016, not long after the new Whitney Museum opened in the Meatpacking District, it made one of its boldest moves by featuring Cecil Taylor. But the octogenarian pianist was not only featured in concert — the entire fifth-floor gallery was given over to exhibiting his life’s work: album art, poetry, documentary clips projected on a large screen in the center of the space, archival texts, and listening stations with headphones for museumgoers to take in his world of sound. 

When friends pose the question, “What was the best live show you ever saw?” I don’t hesitate. For me, it is unquestionably that August night in 1997. It doesn’t exist in photographs or on YouTube. It’s only a memory. And a beautiful one.

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Making Sense of “Cruising”

William Friedkin’s Cruising first appears in the Quad Cinema’s exhaustive Al Pacino retrospective this week, unspooling unassumingly on Wednesday night — atypical for a movie that has made, over the course of its history, quite a bit of noise in the Village. Starting with its production in 1979, and on through its release the following year, this sweaty cop thriller, set in the world of waterfront leather bars, would become the focal point of a heated debate that raged throughout New York City, its gay community, and the pages of this very publication.

Friedkin, who also penned the screenplay, based the film on three primary sources: a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about an undercover cop investigating a serial killer of gay men; Friedkin’s conversations with Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective (and a consultant on Friedkin’s The French Connection) who spent several months undercover in the city’s s&m clubs and proclaimed the experience “messed up his mind”; and a series of Voice articles by Arthur Bell detailing several grisly, unsolved killings of gay men picked up in leather bars. In 1977, Paul Bateson was arrested and charged with those crimes. In the kind of coincidence that wouldn’t make it past your average script’s first draft, Bateson had appeared as an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist.

The writer-director made several trips to the Mineshaft and the Anvil, two of the most notorious hardcore bars on the scene; introductions and protection were provided by Genovese crime-family member Matty “The Horse” Ianniello. (Those s&m-inviting businesses, like most gay bars and clubs of the era, were under mob ownership.) But Friedkin remained an aloof observer of gay life, and Cruising was undeniably a script written from a straight, Other-ing perspective — a fact that sounded alarms when news of its existence leaked to gay activists just as the film’s production commenced in New York during the summer of ’79.

The first salvo in the battle came, ironically enough, from the same Voice writer whose columns on the gay serial killer had caught Friedkin’s eye. In the July 16 edition of his “Bell Tells” column, Arthur Bell wrote that Cruising “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” Bell opined that Friedkin was “not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it,” and offered up a suggestion for action: “I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”

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Bell’s readers, to put it mildly, took him up on the challenge. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the filmmaker recalls, with against-type understatement, how “attempts to prevent the film from being made became a cause célèbre in New York.” Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made. Friedkin, who didn’t like working in the studio, shot the film’s many apartment scenes in real buildings; residents in adjoining units played music so loud it drowned out the dialogue. (Most of it had to be re-recorded after the fact.) People on the streets did their part by blasting air horns and whistles.

Activists also took more official routes to stifle the picture. Appeals were made to Mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives provided by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, or to cut off the support of that organization (which issued permits for shooting in the city). Koch, unsurprisingly, denied the request. “To do otherwise would involve censorship,” he explained. “It is the business of this city’s administration to encourage the return of film making to New York City by cooperating to whatever extent feasible with film makers.”

But the company was inconvenienced in plenty of other ways. Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin shrugged.) Bell had also called upon gay men the production had hired as extras and background color to “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; about twenty of those men quit, and some who remained served as spies for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to better disrupt location shoots. In a later column, Bell relayed, with relish, the trouble the company had in shooting a simple scene of Pacino’s character leaving a building on Jones Street. Residents refused to leave the stoop, and then ruined each take by making faces at the camera or blocking the actor’s movements. (Bell subsequently reported retaliation against troublemaking residents by the film’s crew.)

The disruptions came to a head on the night of July 26, when (according to the Times) about a thousand protesters gathered at dusk, moved to the film’s production headquarters at Pier 40, and then marched through the Village, chanting “Cruising must go!” The protest ended with a sit-in that stopped traffic in Sheridan Square for a half-hour before the protesters were broken up by about a hundred police officers. Two arrests, per the Times report, were made. “One cop was kicked in the balls,” wrote Richard Goldstein in the Voice’s August 6 issue. “It made page one of the Post.”

“It was a surprise, you know, to me,” Pacino tells the Voice now, of the protests. “You’re an actor, really. You’re going into what the role means, what that means, and you’re not looking around at who you are in relation to the whole thing. You just aren’t. Or at least I wasn’t. I try to do that now. If it taught me anything, it taught me that. You have to know what you represent and what you’re doing and how it affects the world around you. A little bit, you need to know that stuff. Because if you don’t, that kind of thing can happen.”

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Reporting on the march for the Voice, Goldstein opined, “Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can.” Whether one agrees that protesting a work of art sight unseen is a net good, Goldstein’s objections have the kind of nuance and insight badly missing from Friedkin’s script, which, by the maker’s own admission, saw this gay subculture as “just an exotic background for a murder mystery.”

It’s a question, to dip into the current lexicon, of representation. Goldstein explains that the city’s waterfront bars were “designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to those bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life. Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has.”

Yet as the anti-Cruising movement was gaining steam, other voices stepped up with their own objections. Right alongside Goldstein’s extended commentary in the August 6 issue of the Voice, John Rechy made “A Case for ‘Cruising,’ ” as the piece was headlined on the front page. In the article, Rechy granted the foundation of his colleague’s concern, while noting carefully, “It would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship.”

Nat Hentoff did not hedge his bets, or mince his words. The founding Voice columnist and First Amendment absolutist took to the paper on September 24, after the completion of Cruising’s New York photography. Noting that he had “resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper,” Hentoff nonetheless granted that “one would have to be an utter dolt not to understand the anger and fear of homosexuals at what they thought it was about (and what it actually may be about, for all I know).” Yet Hentoff, in sharp contrast to his Voice cohort, saw such understanding as doing more harm than good. “There are often extremely honest, powerful motivations for censorship,” he wrote. “And that is precisely why thought control has to be resisted at every point, because once one group does succeed in obliterating expression it considers intolerably threatening, then another group will insist on lighting its own pyre.”

Yet Hentoff’s rhetorical remove, or for that matter our own historical one, cannot downplay the validity of the fears and concerns voiced by gay activists that summer. It wasn’t like mainstream Hollywood movies had a sterling reputation for nuanced characterizations of LGBTQ people. Was there a place for a film that explicitly dramatized gay life as a sordid bacchanalia of rough sex and blood lust? Should there be?

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And thus, Cruising became a rallying point, and perhaps one the gay liberation movement needed. It had, after all, just passed merely the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (also covered legendarily in the Voice), and the movement’s signal cause (AIDS activism) was still on the horizon. Outsiders raising their voices against a potentially incendiary Hollywood production, from a superstar actor and an Oscar-winning director, made for a story, and a sexy one. As Goldstein noted, the picture “brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.”

Pacino and Friedkin on the set of “Cruising”

Or did it? In a cover story for the February 1980 issue of the gay magazine Mandate, editor in chief John Devere visited the set — as an extra, recruited (as so many were) in New York City gay bars, and without divulging his status as a journalist — and deflated some of the narrative around the production. “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising,” he wrote, while “significantly fewer gays protested the filming, and the protestors, day after day, were usually the same basic group of people, about 25 in number, who were of course joined by others daily.” And to the concerns of suburban moviegoers viewing the version of gay life depicted in Cruising as disproportionately representative, Devere offered up a counterpoint: “One recurrent observation was that the men who frequent the world being depicted — the Eagle, the Spike, the Mineshaft, the Anvil — were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted. Middle-of-the-road gays, they thought, were the ones who didn’t want the leather fringe seen by Middle America, even though the world certainly exists. Many felt that the protests were as much a protest against the leather world itself as they are a protest against Friedkin’s film.”

The elemental questions surrounding Cruising — of who is permitted to tell a culture’s stories and who is not; of the limits of free speech and peaceful protest; of the significance and consequences of representation in popular art — haven’t gone anywhere in the nearly forty years since the film’s release. But they weren’t contemplated much in the original reviews, which mostly dismissed it outright. In the February 11, 1980, issue of the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes summarized it (perhaps accurately) as “a hopelessly garbled film,” while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin seemed unable to explain entire swaths of his plot. (He insisted, “The violence in this movie is by a heterosexual killer,” and confessed, “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one.” Huh?). “That Friedkin has made a tedious movie is too bad, but he has gifts and will make a decent one again,” Stokes wrote. “That he lacks even the courage of his bad convictions is shameful.”

Other critics were even less charitable. New York’s David Denby wrote, “The movie is sordid and depressing because it’s been made without insight or love and from the depths of a soul about the size of a thumbtack.” The Times’ Vincent Canby called it “exceptionally unpleasant, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because it makes no attempt to comprehend it. It just stares.” And Daily News’ Rex Reed, while insisting Bell’s “hysterical columns have done more harm to his fellow gays than anything in Cruising,” nonetheless wrote that the film “sickens, insults, and distorts.” (And that last one is saying something, considering the source.)

But what of those early, dire warnings that helped sound the alarm for the Cruising protests? Bell predicted Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Goldstein believed its release “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.” While neither of those predictions is necessarily false, when one looks at the struggle of LGBTQ people in the Eighties and beyond, determining the causality or culpability of Cruising is a complex task. An argument can perhaps be made that because Cruising was so effectively protested, it was denied the commercial success that might have brought dire repercussions for the community to pass.

And yet, in the decades that followed, something curious happened. Critics — particularly gay critics — revisited Cruising, and came to find value in it through the lens of (ironically enough) representation. Several such pieces greeted its long-delayed DVD release in the fall of 2007. Christopher Wallenberg of the New York Blade wrote, “It remains a curious cultural artifact remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” The Voice’s Nathan Lee doled out the strongest praise ever seen in these pages: “Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing — and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot — to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.”

And in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix offered up this thought: “With over 72,000 AIDS deaths in New York to date, it stands to reason that a large slice of the men you see in the club scenes are no longer with us. But here in their disco grottoes, behind their mustaches and muttonchops and leather, behind their tough-guy masks, they’re smiling. They’ve found a place in the world where everything finally makes sense.” And maybe, through that prism, Cruising finally does, too.

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Sending Off Nat Hentoff, With Memories and Jazz

Hundreds of people gathered at St. Peter’s Church in Midtown on Friday to remember the two things Nat Hentoff held most dear: freedom and jazz.

The memorial celebration for Hentoff, the prolific journalist, jazz critic, and Voice columnist for more than 50 years who died last month at age 91, featured music, remembrances, and a panel discussion.

 

Hugo Hentoff, Nat Hentoff's grandson, greets guests before the service began.
Hugo Hentoff, Nat Hentoff’s grandson, greets guests before the service began.
John Whitehead, left, meets Micheal Meyers, right, for the first time at the memorial for their friend Nat Hentoff at which both of them were panelists.
John Whitehead, left, meets Micheal Meyers, right, for the first time at the memorial for their friend Nat Hentoff at which both of them were panelists.
Tom Hentoff, left, Story Hentoff, center, and Hugo Hentoff, right, sitting at the front row of their father and grandfather's memorial.
Tom Hentoff, left, Story Hentoff, center, and Hugo Hentoff, right, sitting at the front row of their father and grandfather’s memorial.

“I like that he was very consistent in his views and didn’t adhere to any specific ideology,” Hugo Hentoff said of his grandfather. “Groups try to claim him, but really he was him.”

Michael Meyers, president and executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition described his friend as “one of the earliest ones who said, ‘Yeah, of course Nazis have the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, of course!’”

“He was an absolutist when it came to free speech,” Meyers added.

Journalist Tom Robbins, center, watches an excerpt from a documentary film about Nat Hentoff played at the memorial service.
Journalist Tom Robbins, center, watches an excerpt from a documentary film about Nat Hentoff played at the memorial service.
FROM LEFT David Lewis, John Whitehead, Joe Alterman, Tom Robbins, Michael Meyers, and Dan Morganstern spoke on a panel about the life and work of Nat Hentoff.
FROM LEFT David Lewis, John Whitehead, Joe Alterman, Tom Robbins, Michael Meyers, and Dan Morganstern spoke on a panel about the life and work of Nat Hentoff.
American jazz promoter and producer, George Wein (center), who was an early friend and associate of Nat Hentoff.
American jazz promoter and producer, George Wein (center), who was an early friend and associate of Nat Hentoff.
Randy Weston.
Randy Weston.

Randy Weston, a jazz pianist and friend of Hentoff’s performed his song “Berkshire Blues” — because the two met many years ago in the Berkshires. “We talked a lot about one thing: freedom,” Weston told the audience. “We talked about that.”

Ruby Hentoff, Nat's granddaughter, sings "Where You Live," which was written and performed on piano by Nat's daughter, Miranda Hentoff.
Ruby Hentoff, Nat’s granddaughter, sings “Where You Live,” which was written and performed on piano by Nat’s daughter, Miranda Hentoff.
John Kruth, writer and musician. "The guy changed my life," Kruth said of Hentoff. "By his example, what he believed in, what he wrote about, how he educated people. He had a great life. I wish there were a hundred more of him."
John Kruth, writer and musician. “The guy changed my life,” Kruth said of Hentoff. “By his example, what he believed in, what he wrote about, how he educated people. He had a great life. I wish there were a hundred more of him.”
Village Voice production manager and art critic R.C. Baker (far right) jokes with Peter Barbey, center, the owner of the Voice, and Sylvia Topp, a longtime Village Voice contributor.
Village Voice production manager and art critic R.C. Baker (far right) jokes with Peter Barbey, center, the owner of the Voice, and Sylvia Topp, a longtime Village Voice contributor.
The Big Four Brass Band.
The Big Four Brass Band.
David Massengill, a folk singer, looks down at the memorial service for Nat Hentoff.
David Massengill, a folk singer, looks down at the memorial service for Nat Hentoff.

The service ended with the Big Four Brass Band parading into Saint Peter’s Church.

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A Young Jazz Pianist Remembers His Biggest Champion: Nat Hentoff

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 Hentoff had recently conducted the Blue Note. 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 nervous as I walked to his building. At that point, I had only shared my music with maybe one or two other people in the whole jazz business and knew that playing it for Nat, a dean of jazz criticism, was a risky move. So I was shocked when a few weeks later, I received a call from Nat. More shocking, however, was what he said: He loved the album, and said that he planned on eventually writing about it.

Back then Nat was still busy writing for The Village Voice, JazzTimes and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Whenever we spoke over the phone, he didn’t waste time with small talk. Without a hello, he’d immediately launch into his reason for calling. When the conversation was finished, he simply hung up. Very rarely was there a “bye”.

I was a naive twenty-something with little experience being around people I idolized, and Nat’s hurried, no-nonsense way of speaking made me quite nervous. But as we got to know each other better, I began to find his way of communicating both charming and refreshing. Nat’s old school way of conversation felt, somehow, like a connection to a bygone New York, a city of old school intellectuals with outsized personalities.

Sometimes he’d pick up the phone, say, “I can’t talk now, 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, up to several times a week, 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 the spring of the year he died because he wanted to make sure to get his Christmas greetings out before his passing (as it turned out, Ellington died that May). He told me about Charles Mingus, who used to call him to play or whistle new compositions and melodies over the phone, and Charlie Parker, who told him he loved country music for the stories. Nat said Earl Scruggs once saved him from a beating down South, and that Malcolm X used to phone his house as “Mr. X.” He told me about Fats Waller treating him to his first steak dinner. He’d often tell me that he wished he could’ve introduced me to Willie “The Lion” Smith and 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. 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.

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’d missed me. “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 greats, 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, he said, “No. I’ve got to work.”

Around 2013, he started telling me about his deteriorating health, but it didn’t seem to bother him as long as he could write. For the next year or so, 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 complained to me until his vision started failing, 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, was 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.

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 music of my favorite pianists.

I often used to make note of things he’d say after we spoke. Looking back through my notes to write this essay, I found one particularly poignant one. 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.

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You Wrote, You Got Paid: Hentoff Treated All Work — And Those Around Him — With the Same Glorious Regard

When I first came to work at the Village Voice in 1977 (almost forty years now, to the day) I never wanted to fully acknowledge the illustrious company I suddenly found myself keeping. How cool would that have been, hyperventilating in the elevator at 80 University Place just because I was sharing a masthead with the people I’d come of age reading: Jack Newfield, Alexander Cockburn, Robert Christgau, Richard Goldstein, Andrew Sarris. Andrew Sarris! How would I have known the greatness of Douglas Sirk without Andrew Sarris?

After a while, however, you acclimate. Here you are. In this club. The idea that Jack Newfield, muckraker, asskicker in the mold of Jacob Riis is not only talking to you but actually appears to value what you might have to say. That this is a more or less normal, day-to-day occurrence. Well, you just have to take that in stride. Not plotz every time it happens. But Nat. Nat was a different story.

Nat, as welcoming as he could be, existed on another plane. Was it because he wrote the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was it because he had those signed pictures of Mingus and Lenny Bruce in his house? Was it because he never quite seemed part of the crowd? (Was that the Boston thing, a bit of mysterioso amid those working-class New Yorkers?) Was it the pipe? The air of distraction, the way you’d see him on the street, rubbing the dog crap off the bottom of his shoe without once looking up from the paper he was reading? Who knew? But if he said Lucky Thompson could really play you knew you better go get five Lucky Thompson records. If Nat asked about it later and you had to admit you weren’t really sure about Lucky Thompson, he wouldn’t argue, just faintly smile, like it takes all kinds.

Once Nat told me that no writer, especially someone whose work appeared on newsprint, should ever get a swelled head. It was all what used to be called piece work. You wrote, you got paid, if you wanted to keep getting paid, you kept writing. If it was a column about the First Amendment, a children’s book, a New Yorker piece, or the back of an Art Farmer record, the same rules applied. But I never quite got it until I noticed that Nat had written the back of the menu at Lundy’s, the massive, now long closed, seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, where once upon a time a bowl of the best clam chowder went for 95 cents.

I can’t exactly remember the story but it had something to do with Bob Thiele, who produced dozens of great records for Impulse, stuff with Coltrane, Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and most every other genius to come down the pike. Nat wrote many of those liner notes. Thiele was from Sheepshead Bay. He knew old man Lundy and told him that a great restaurant needed a menu with some literary class. So Nat wrote that too. It was piece work, glorious piece work.

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The Voice of the Voice: Nat Hentoff, 1925–2017

Before age and health caused him to hole up in his West 12th Street apartment in the past few years, you could often spot Nat Hentoff trudging the Village streets, toting a huge, Santa-size sack of books and periodicals. He’d be headed home from his impossibly cluttered closet of an office wherever the Voice was then camped. Or else he’d be on his way to Bradley’s, the old piano bar on University Place where he would perch on a stool to eat, read, talk — and talk. Among the many gifts that Hentoff bestowed on the newspaper where he labored for fifty years was his eagerness for discussion and debate. If this bow-shaped man, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, wasn’t pacing the Voice‘s halls with his latest column in hand, he was deep in conversation with whoever crossed his path. It didn’t matter if it was the paper’s youngest intern or an equally illustrious columnist — Hentoff would furrow his brow, pull on his beard, and listen. And then expound. And then listen again.

Hentoff, who died on January 7 at the age of 91, started writing for the Voice in 1958, shortly after the paper was launched. As he wrote in his last column as a staff writer, in 2009, “I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about.” Born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a tough, left-leaning Roxbury neighborhood. As he described in his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy, at the age of twelve he publicly scarfed down a salami sandwich while seated on the family porch near a synagogue. He wanted to know what it felt like to be “an outcast,” he wrote. A devotee of jazz, he ran a local radio station for several years, then followed the music to New York, where he wrote for Down Beat and other publications.

Nat Hentoff will hopefully long be known for his prodigious writing. Books, columns, criticism — my God, the man wrote album liner notes for everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. But the secret to his craft was that he was a great listener, and gave his subjects the room to stretch out. My friend David Lewis, who made a marvelous documentary about Nat, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, pointed that out to me after he had waded deep into the mighty Hentoff archive: Jazz musicians loved Nat, Lewis reported, because he was the only critic who let them speak in their own voice.

For sure, there were grand explosions at the Voice between Nat and the rest of us over stances this contrarian would embrace. Abortion was the big one. Later it was Scalia, Iraq, Bush, mosques. Irascible in every way, he was perfectly capable of picking up the argument you’d had in the hallway in his column, blasting you in public for whatever wrongheaded opinion you’d voiced. He relished the debate, loved stoking the fire.

And yet no one was a stronger, more loyal colleague. One day, as my first tour as a Voice contributor was coming to an end in the 1980s, after the editors had failed to offer a staff writer slot and I headed to another weekly, Nat presented me with a sheaf of papers. It was a petition he’d circulated on my behalf, denouncing the editor for failing to give me the job. He’d never even told me he was doing it.

His motto was one he attributed to tenor great Ben Webster: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.” But despite his solo approach to journalism and politics, the notion of solidarity was a core issue for Nat. He played a key role in bringing the union to the Voice in the late Seventies after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. And the one person he scorned, refusing for years to talk to him, was a talented writer Nat believed had whispered union secrets to management back then. When the writer passed by, Nat would sneer, “Gypo Nolan!” It was a perfect Hentoffian slur, obscure enough that few understood his devastating reference to John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer.

It was at the Voice that Nat met Margot, also a writer, his wife of 58 years. She survives him, along with five children and ten grandchildren. His son Nick said he died at home of natural causes, surrounded by his family, listening to Billie Holiday sing.

His visits to the Voice offices were fewer and fewer in his last years at the paper, but his great, resonant voice rattling through the newsrooms always announced his presence. He spoke like he wrote, in measured sentences, offered with emphatic assuredness, always laced with a quotation from Duke Ellington or Louis Brandeis. And like the jazz musicians he adored, he could never resist breaking away from the melody to deliver some delightful echo of an earlier day. It was ever a pleasure and honor listening to Nat Hentoff being out of step.

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Nat Hentoff’s Giant Steps

I think Nat loved reporters almost as much as he loved musicians. He recognized his own place in the ecosystem of journalism, and he was keenly aware of the failings of the profession — especially the institutions and conventions of what today we call the mainstream media. That’s what made him a pioneer of what came to be known as alternative journalism.

But for a man with so many opinions, Nat was remarkably respectful of rank-and-file journalists. While we were making the documentary The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, he never once told me who to talk to or who not to talk to; what to say or how I should say it; what I should ask or what I couldn’t ask. He never asked to approve anything we did, and he never expressed disapproval. He never pulled rank.

One afternoon, we spent three hours talking about jazz at the Nola Recording Studios on 57th Street — the same studio where, during a stint as a record producer, he recorded classic albums by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Abbey Lincoln. He hadn’t stepped foot inside the place in forty years, but he had jazz in his bones. When we were finished, I asked him how I had done. “Well,” he said, fixing me with an authoritative gaze, “you asked the right questions.”

Another day, we were discussing his opposition to abortion rights, and I asked him, without warning, about his own wife’s decision to have an abortion back in the day. I had given my crew a heads-up to be on their toes, because I didn’t know how he would react. But Hentoff didn’t miss a beat. Whether you agree or disagree with his answer (it’s in the film), it was all fair game to him. He was in the arena. He knew how sharp his own sword was, and he welcomed the battle.

Cameras were a different matter. It took some convincing for him to allow us to shoot at his supremely cluttered office, down the hall from the living quarters he shared with his wife, Margot, on 12th Street. What you don’t see in the film is that the whole apartment was like that. Stacks of books, piles of records and CDs, boxes of papers and overstuffed file cabinets rising shoulder-high from every square foot of floor space. It seemed that his whole life was spread out in that apartment. Who knew what treasures were contained therein?

We wanted to spend some time shooting this living testament to a life of learning, to use the footage as a visual thread through the film, tying together the different parts of his life. The night before the shoot, Nat called and canceled. He was worried, it seems, that the neighbors would think the space was a firetrap, and he would have to answer to the co-op board. We could only shoot in his work space. The cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, squeezed in and delivered some beautifully intimate footage of Nat, who was composing a column on his IBM Selectric as if he were composing on another kind of keyboard entirely.

It’s a challenge to make a film about an 85-year-old writer — there aren’t a lot of action sequences. It took a full six months to convince Nat to let us shoot another simple scene, at the Village barbershop where he got his hair cut for decades. It was in the garden apartment of a townhouse on 12th Street, just a couple of blocks from Nat’s home.

At first, Nat told me the proprietor wouldn’t allow it. But the owner, Eugene Rubino, seemed to love Nat, and Nat’s beard, and Nat’s stories. He signed the release, and when I showed it to Nat, there were no further excuses. So I booked my crew and made my arrangements. And the day before the shoot, as if on cue, Nat called and canceled. It was one of the few times he got angry with me. “Why do we have to do it? I don’t want to do it!” he shouted at me.

I wheedled and cajoled, explaining to him that I was the filmmaker and he had to trust that I knew what was needed to make the film. I finally shouted back at him through the phone, “You have to do it!” That worked. He spent an hour telling stories about his father, and Lenny Bruce, and the jazz clubs that used to dot the Village landscape. And then he called me a few days later. “I’m so glad we did that,” he said. And then, politely, “Thank you.”

Once, as I was going through family photos with Margot, she went to a dresser drawer in the living room. I left the apartment with four reel-to-reel tapes in CBS Records boxes. They contained a lengthy interview Nat did with Bob Dylan for Playboy magazine that had never been published.

I clutched my briefcase under my arm like a football, looking over my shoulder and around corners as I strolled through the Village, just blocks from where it all began. I got home and let them sit on my shelf for months before I got them digitized, swearing the engineer to secrecy. As it turned out, like everything Dylan recorded, portions had already circulated among Dylanologists for years. It was still a thrill, and the story behind the interview made it into the film.

But over the course of six years, I never showed Nat a single frame of footage, and he never asked. The Pleasures of Being Out of Step premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina in April 2013, and Nat couldn’t make it. So the week before, we rented out a theater at the Anthology Film Archives, over on Second Avenue, and invited Nat and his family to a private screening.

He sat way up front, and I sat in back, and the rest of the small audience sat in clumps scattered around the other seats. “Well,” he said, when the lights came up. “I’ve written two volumes of memoirs, but nothing has brought my life back to me like that.” It was the images and sounds from his past that made the difference, he explained. Which still strikes me as a pretty profound thing to say about the power of film, coming as it did from someone who was the ultimate man of words. But what do I know? I’m just the reporter.

David L. Lewis is the producer and director of The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, a feature-length documentary on Nat Hentoff. He is currently the metropolitan news editor for WNYC/New York Public Radio.

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Nat Hentoff, Legendary Voice Journalist and Critic, Dies at 91

Nat Hentoff, a journalist, historian, novelist, and music critic who spent fifty years writing for the Village Voice, passed away on Saturday evening.

According to his son Nick, he was 91.

Hentoff’s work first appeared in the Voice in 1958. He covered city politics, penned scathing media criticism, and wrote prodigiously about jazz. Hentoff was named a Guggenheim fellow in 1972, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.

In his last column for the Voice, in 2009 (he had been let go by new management), Hentoff, a civil libertarian who was equally happy to heap scorn on George W. Bush as he was Barack Obama, embraced this description of himself by an old colleague: “He puts on his skunk suit and heads off to the garden party, week after week, again and again.”

It was here that I was able to practice, since 1958, what I learned from my non-chic mentors. And I’ll be putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties, now that I’ve been excessed from the Voice.

I was in my twenties when I learned my most important lesson from Izzy Stone: “If you’re in this business because you want to change the world, get another day job. If you are able to make a difference, it will come incrementally, and you might not even know about it. You have to get the story and keep on it because it has to be told.”

You can read some of Hentoff’s hits through the years here. The Voice will have more on his work and his legacy in the days to come.

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Nat Hentoff Fights On in a Lively, Illuminating Doc

It’s challenge enough to try to fit all the life we have to live into our 80 or so years, so imagine the difficulty of trying to cram one such life into 85 minutes of documentary. Compound that problem a couple hundred times and you can appreciate the task faced by David L. Lewis. The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, his feature-length tribute/study/profile of longtime Village Voice First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff, that brilliant and combative journalist, critic, screed writer, and novelist, must not only cover Hentoff’s own triple-stuffed life but also thumbnail histories of jazz, the civil rights movement, the alternative press, and the multitude of characters knocking about those worlds. What other doc is obliged to show us vintage footage of Charles Mingus and William F. Buckley, both stout, self-possessed, sui generis fellows glimpsed here amid dazzling improvisations: Mingus on bass and Buckley (seen in a TV debate with Hentoff) on bullshit?

Lewis packs in as much as a movie can hold. (For more, see Hentoff’s books, or Lewis’s excellent new oral history from CUNY Journalism Press; it has the same title as the film.) A self-proclaimed “lowercase-L libertarian,” Hentoff wrote for the Voice for more than 50 years, in his youth helping establish the paper’s feisty tone and in his later years often taking on the left itself, especially in a series of columns arguing against the right of women to have an abortion. In Lewis’s brisk and engaging film, former Voice editor Karen Durbin argues that Hentoff’s pro-life stance “doesn’t have intellectual underpinnings.” Columnist Margot Hentoff, Hentoff’s wife, offers some insight, laughing early on about how her husband has always found nothing more fun than a fight; later, she tells us that, in the years before Roe v. Wade, she once went to Cuba to end a pregnancy, a decision her husband supported only because he’s not the kind of man to tell his wife what to do.

The film has its insights, but perhaps its greatest value is in how it offers something of a record of what time with the talkative, tireless Hentoff is like. He beams as he recounts trouble he caused with his columns, just as he beams when speaking of the one subject that engages him as much as civil liberties: the jazz giants of the 20th century. Stanley Crouch turns up in the film to marvel that Hentoff’s notes for Sketches of Spain marked the first time any critic had truly understood the greatness of what Miles Davis and Gil Evans were up to.

Hentoff, indefatigable, served for years as the New York editor of Down Beat, later as a founder and editor (with Martin Williams) of the Jazz Review, the first publication to consider America’s greatest music with anything like academic rigor. Then he even produced jazz records himself, good ones.

The doc breezes through all of this, soaking a bit in the music and the big personalities of Mingus, Miles, and other stars of jazz’s high-water mark, a high-water mark Hentoff was among the first to note. We hear a too-quick snatch of Hentoff’s interview with a young Bob Dylan for Playboy, see a too-short clip of Billie Holiday singing on a jazz TV show Hentoff briefly ran, and get much-too-quick anecdotes about Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and a host of other remarkable people. Also fascinating: a rapid tour through some of the First Amendment controversies Hentoff stirred in his weekly Voice column; always principled, Hentoff argued for the free-speech rights of American Nazis.

For a man so given to scraps, one who just this May endorsed Rand Paul for president, Hentoff comes off as an amused, amusing, endlessly fascinating man, one with more stories to tell than he could have fit into his almost three dozen books or his half-century of columns. (Former Voice editor Tony Ortega appears, looking pained, to try to explain the decision to lay Hentoff off at the end of 2008. Hentoff, then 83 years old, was soon contributing to the paper as a freelancer.) Early on, the Voice of 50 years ago gets likened to the bar talk of the Village’s smartest people, and Hentoff has lost none of that rowdy conviviality — he’s a great pleasure to watch, listen to, and read, even when you couldn’t disagree with him more.

The film isn’t the final word on Hentoff, of course. He has thousands left in him. But it is a fine and lively précis, a celebration of a life well lived (and well fought).

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The Voice Lives!

There has been a recent media rush proclaiming that the Voice is dying as evidenced by a diminishing staff. In some of these death notices, my having been fired (the euphemism is “laid off”) after 50 years is meant to be hard proof of the imminent departure of the newspaper: “When Nat Hentoff Left . . . The Writing Was on the Wall: How Management Killed The Village Voice” (instapundit.com, August 18) and “The Village Voice Is Dead, Long Live Nat Hentoff” (legalinsurrection.com, August 18).

So how come I’ve been back here for more than a year? These morticians must not be reading the paper.

I’m not on staff. My base is the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., where I’m a senior fellow. But Voice editor Tony Ortega asked me back for a monthly column because he knows that two of my main passions in investigative columning are education and the Constitution—and I felt I still had work to do in this city.

Every month, I’m entirely free to dig into the continuing “racial achievement gap” in this largely segregated Bloomberg school system and, with regard to the Constitution, Ray Kelly’s smug dismissal of black and Latino students’ equal protection under the 14th Amendment. (He has also discarded their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.)

With regard to Ortega’s immersion in the history and spirit of the Voice, he is the only editor—once the Voice had been here long enough to have an identifiable past—to feature the newspaper’s history in regular fashion, in his Clip Job project, which, until May of last year, resulted in daily blog posts of significant and often still startling Voice breakthrough stories and commentary from its early years. These could make an illuminating book of the zeitgeist of this historically influential city for historians. The guy cares about this paper.

But, I’m still sometimes asked, how could I have come back to a paper that had fired me so summarily after it had become an inherent part of my identity? Sure, I was shocked and angry, but I did enjoy an unexpected dividend not permitted to people who are still alive: I was able to read what could have been my obituaries up to that point. I had no idea that so many people across the country cared. So among those obits after I type my last chorus, there will now be more from the living Voice.

Getting back to the so-called evidence that the Voice’s life is hanging by a thread, the most quoted dirge is by former Voice writer Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed: “But the news Friday that four editorial staffers were laid off or had their hours cut to part-time at The Village Voice—two features writers, a news blogger, and a listings editor—makes the sad fact of that paper’s eventual demise, evident for years, more immediate.”

Hold your tears, said the Poynter Institute on August 20 in “The Village Voice Is Not Dead Yet, Contrary to Reports.”

For years, Poynter’s News University in Florida has been a widely respected newsroom training ground through its links to other journalism programs. It’s on my computer list of research favorites.

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon checked into Gray’s story and reported that the Voice actually “has 15 full-time edit staffers, two part-time staffers, and four ‘Bargaining Unit Freelancers,’ a union-contract term for ‘people who freelance enough to qualify for benefits.’”

Included in that tally is full-time Voice theater critic Michael Feingold. I’ve been in New York since 1953, and Feingold has exceeded all other theater critics in the city (and those I’ve read in other cities) in the creative and challenging depth of his reviews. He’s still swinging here with zest and surprises.

As for Voice layoffs, they have become a common blight at what used to be called alternative weeklies, as well as at metropolitan dailies across the country. Journalists have become like ObamaCare doctors trying to hold on to Medicare payments for their services.

Now, let’s look at how far from the grave the Voice actually is. If I were still teaching graduate-school journalism at New York University, I’d spend a long time with students discussing what makes Graham Rayman’s 2010 series “The NYPD Tapes” so probing an investigation and deep illumination of how Ray Kelly runs his police department. Note that it was a continuing in-depth series, unlike so much of what gets swiftly printed on paper and in pixels these days.

In one of his poems, T.S. Eliot foretold the ever-growing shallowness of so much current journalism: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

By further contrast, this year, Rayman has shown similar depth and immediacy with the violent dangers on Rikers Island, beyond any court sentence.

Once again, this is a continuing Voice investigation. Back in 2008, Rayman brought us news of guards turning into matchmakers—pitting inmates to assault and abuse one another—and leading to the indictment of several Rikers guards. And this August, again with details appearing only in the Voice—he reported how a phony Correction Department task force to block the violence only made things worse.

Another Voice reporter who explores the inside story, Nick Pinto has not joined the many reporters across the country who felt the Occupy Wall Street story had had its time. He’s now into the plans of Occupy foot soldiers who are looking for more radical and visual ways to bring attention to the insatiable 1 percenters—as well as those who have the gall to upset the way bail works in this city.

At the same time, Pinto brought a harsh light to the injustices experienced by airport-security workers mired in grim working conditions at meager wages, while airport security is supposed to be an urgent government concern.

Who cares? You sure might in your travels.

There are still some skittish journalists jiving that the Voice will soon disappear. I’ve been in this news business across the country for a long time. I was also writing elsewhere than at the Voice during the half-century I was on staff here. (I used to tell my kids not to depend on any single source for a living.)

I knew what I was doing when I came back as a sideman and not a staffer. I wanted to show Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly, among others, that I’m annoyingly still around.

And I sure didn’t come to say Kaddish for the Voice.