Nat Hentoff started his career writing the music column for The Village Voice from 1958 to 2009. In 2009 he wrote his last Voice column because new management let him go. In 2004 Hentoff was named one of six NEA Jazz Masters by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the first non-musician to win this award. He also received honors from the American Bar Association, the National Press Foundation, and, because of his opposition to abortion, the Human Life Foundation. His son, Nick, said his father died at his Manhattan home, surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday.
Hentoff was born in 1925, the son of a Russian-Jewish haberdasher. After graduating, Hentoff worked as a disc jockey and moved to New York to edit DownBeat, from which he was fired in 1957, because, he alleged, he had attempted to employ an African-American writer. Then, in 1958 he started his work for The Village Voice.
Hentoff was deeply opposed to abortion, angering many of his colleagues at the Village Voice and elsewhere. In 2008, he turned against the campaign of Barack Obama over what he regarded as the candidate's extreme views, including rejection of legislation that would have banned partial birth abortions.
The documentary "The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff" was released in 2014. Hentoff was frequently criticized for his harsh attitude. One colleague’s description of Nat’s work and approach to covering and commenting on public affairs even deserved a place in his last column for Voice:
"Nat Hentoff is never chic. Never has been, as those of us who have known him over the centuries can attest. Never will be. Count on it. He is not tribal in his views and is terribly stubborn. He challenges icons and ideas that are treasured in the community he lives in. He puts on his skunk suit and heads off to the garden party, week after week, again and again."
The then-unknown singer Bob Dylan was first noticed by Hentoff at a Greenwich Village club in 1961 and two years later he wrote liner notes for Dylan's landmark second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." "The irrepressible reality of Bob Dylan is a compound of spontaneity, candor, slicing wit and an uncommonly perceptive eye and ear for the way many of us constrict our capacity for living while a few of us don't," Hentoff wrote.
Nat was a passionate defender of First Amendment rights. "A journalist, historian, novelist, and music critic who spent 50 years writing for The Village Voice," the Voice said on its website. As a columnist, Hentoff focused tirelessly on the Constitution and what he saw as a bipartisan mission to undermine it. He even parted from other First Amendment advocates, quitting the American Civil Liberties Union because of the ACLU's support for speech codes in schools and workplaces.
Photo Credits: The Nation