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NAT HENTOFF : THE MOVIE

They’ve gone and made a movie about one of my jazz journalist heroes.  A theater movie no less.  The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes On The Life Of Nat Hentoff, a documentary by David L. Lewis, opened at the IFC Center in New York City on June 25, 2014 and as we celebrated his country’s birthday at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles on July 4.  I mention that because in no other country in the world could Hentoff have stood up and shouted his published words.  The much revered, he said, first amendment gave him that right he told me in a recent telephone conversation.  HUAC also did take note, however.

The title refers to Hentoff’s drive for saying and doing the opposite of what “should” have been said or done on a variety of subjects.  Or was it?

The following report is is not going to be a polemic of commentary on his stand on abortion –his friends became his enemies because of he came out against– his left wing causes, or any manner of the political endeavors covered in the film.  The dailies did all that.  I’m gong to stick to jazz and his opening of doors to musicians, the championing of them, his productions, his record company affiliations, his columns on the subject in the Village Voice, and particularly for me his liner notes many of which remain in my home, soon to be at the UNLV Library Archives.

In the film Hentoff’s personals are well delineated by his wife fellow Voice journalist Margot.  His speeches narrated by André Braugher.  Commentary by Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraka.  And those liner notes read by Dan Morgenstern standing in the stacks at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. Morgenstern’s face is often hidden behind classic album covers seemingly to modestly exculpate himself from the reading.  Albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

My involvement with him: Hentoff was a guest at my “Jazz Insights” series at the New School where we did a 1-on-1.  I’ve seen the current DVD three times just to make sure I didn’t miss any quotable moments (see below).  His co-advisory –with Whitney Balliett– of the best damn television show on jazz ever, The Sound of Jazz, I show to my undergraduate classes at New Jersey City University each and every semester.  And why not; it is after all a jazz history class viewing marvelously UN-produced moments with Lady, Prez, Bean, Frog, Jeru, the Count, Little Jazz, Monk, Giuffre (*), and more, all live, untethered and unencumbered.

[* Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Count Basie and band, Roy Eldridge, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Giuffre.]

The careers of Lady and Prez were winding down as the tv screen showed the reunion of the two after having worked so intimately together, but drifted apart.

Similarly this current documentary, in cinema verité fashion by cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, is raw footage of as candid a Nat Hentoff as may be exposed on film, even to his two-finger typing –yes, typing initally on an office Remington then a Selectric– method in a very disorganized home office.

Some PR boilerplate: The prolific Boston-born Hentoff has authored twenty non-fiction books, nine novels, and two memoirs; articles and columns in the Voice, New Yorker, Down Beat, for which he moved to New York to become editor*, Jazz Times (his last columns), New York Times, Washington Post, Playboy, Esquire, Atlantic, The Progressive and the New Republic.  He was the first non-musician Jazz Master awardee of the National Endowment For the Arts.

[* I am proud to say that I was miraculously one of the minions who many years later followed him into that position as New York Editor as was Morgenstern who preceded me.  I also remember "subbing" for him at a concert accompanying one of his daughters.]

His own magazine, Jazz Review, a large format publication, covered the scene in ways no other had ever done: no pandering to commercial interests just straight ahead adult commentary and interviews.

“If pressed,” Hentoff said in that telephone conversation, “I was [journalistically] most satisfied at the Voice when there was a dialogue and columnists challenged each other.”  I mentioned to him that was reminiscent of columnists for Metronome Magazine, the Swingtime “Moldy Figs” headed by George T. Simon, and the upstart Down Beat bebop hipsters peopled by contemporaries of Hentoff’s.  He acknowledged my reference noting that both could get heated at times.

His friendships with some of the legends of this music transcends his interest in their music alone.  People like Monk, Coltrane and especially Mingus and Roach remain moments for all of us to cherish.  He championed Mingus’ and Roach’s break from the Newport Jazz Festival’s choice of music colloquially known as the “Rump” Festival featuring those who were not included on the George Wein Festival.  To these ears the pair’s Debut Records became the template for Hentoff’s own Candid label.  But more importantly the Afrocentric players trusted him.

Hentoff was among the early progenitors of folkie Bob Dylan and his ilk on West Third St. in the Village and beyond.  He liked Dylan’s originality, but, as everyone else, was not fond of the use of electricity in Dylan’s band, which was a shock to the folk system.  Contrary to legend, Wein said that Pete Seeger was not backstage at a Newport Folk Festival with an ax ready to cut the cables.

I asked both Hentoff and his publicist about the efficacy of making this a limited run theatrical release rather than a PBS “American Experience” or as part of a movie Festival.  The answer was the same.  Director Lewis, whose creds run deep said that it was too late for Festival entry.  “We now wait for the theatrical run to be completed,” Kelly Hargraves, the press rep said. “Then we’ll sell the DVD; then perhaps tv,” she said.

After my third viewing of the DVD I distilled a few “Hentoff-ian” notable simpatico to me quotables:

#  [When something goes wrong] “I listen to jazz; that always gets me up.”

#  [On his religious non-affiliation] “I’m a Jewish atheist; a special edition of the branch.”

#  [When he first heard Artie Shaw's "Nightmare" blaring out from a record store in Boston] “It was like a chazan (cantor) singing; a geschrei (scream).”

#  [On being fired from Down Beat] “I believe it was because I hired a black secretary who turned out to be Egyptian.”  (I used his temperance penchant as a template for my own story ideas for the mag.)

#  [On jazz as a discipline] “It has immediacy.”

And finally quoting a mentor: “Take it easy; but take it!”

© arnold jay smith July 2014

 

 

 


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