This week I'd like to take a brief break from my usual snarky tone to pay tribute to one of my heroes, Nat Hentoff.
Hentoff is one of the best critics America has ever produced. Beginning in the 1950s, he was one of the original great jazz critics, alongside the likes of Martin Williams. He managed the impressive feat of being acclaimed for his criticism, readable and popular with readers and respected by jazz musicians-a famously sensitive and touchy group.
He has also been a tenacious journalist, advocating for liberal causes and civil liberities. For 50 years, Hentoff was an institution at the Village Voice. Last Tuesday, he published his final column for the Voice.
It's scary to think that the position of the media is so dire that the likes of Nat Hentoff are being laid off, and that the corporate bosses at the Village Voice-once a bohemian enclave, a tight-knit family of writers-would be so callous and foolish as to fire a half-century veteran.
But I'm not willing, ready or able to write an obituary for print media. I'd like to pay tribute to Hentoff-who, for better or worse, is in large part responsible for my desire to do music journalism. There are many people who know his writing better than me. So I'll stick with two anecdotes of my own.
The first is from high school. Someone started circulating an old, dog-eared, faded copy of Hentoff's 1961 book The Jazz Life, a series of vignettes of the day's leading musicians. The rule was you could keep the book until you finished it, but you then had to pass it along to another aspiring jazzman.
I can play a little guitar, but I have neither the talent nor discipline to be a good jazz musician. But reading The Jazz Life, I decided I didn't want to be a jazz musician-I wanted to be a jazz critic. Hentoff's gift for sharing music he loved and portraying his subjects made me want to do the same-or at least try.
My second story is from freshman year. I hoped for a time to bring Hentoff to Duke for a Duke Conversation. I carefully faxed him a request at the Voice office and a few days later received a call from an unfamiliar number.
"This is Nat Hentoff." I nearly fainted. He explained kindly (and how can an 80-year-old not sound grandfatherly?) that his speaker fees were probably too high.
But more importantly, he said, he simply couldn't afford the time. With the Bush administration abusing the Constitution in every way imaginable, he had work to do.
Tuesday, Hentoff wrote that he hadn't lost his sense of rage, and vowed to go on with his efforts, Voice or not. I was amazed in that phone call and again amazed reading his farewell at that passion, 20 years after most of his peers have retired. I pray I will have that same fire and passion for my work when I am 84. Thank you, and fight on, Nat!
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