Nat Hentoff: Remembering a Boston Boy
“Whaddya need? I’m on a deadline.” Thus would begin my first phone conversations with Nat Hentoff, the jazz lover, journalist and self-described troublemaker who died in his New York City home on January 7, 2017. He was 91.
That was Hentoff’s standard gruff greeting, and all who heard it quickly learned there was no time for small talk. You asked your question, got your answer, and went on your way.
This changed when I asked him about Counterpoint, a newsletter that he wrote and produced in 1947. He asked how I learned about it, and I told him that the Dorothy Prescott Papers in the Library of Traditional Jazz at the University of New Hampshire had an almost-complete set. That got him started—Dorothy had been a good friend and fellow member of the Jazz Society, a group of enthusiasts who staged concerts in 1944-46. The long-forgotten Counterpoint carried me past the deadline greeting.
Nat’s claim to fame during his Boston years was an eight-year tenure with WMEX radio. He hosted both jazz and classical music programs in the studio, and remote broadcasts from the Savoy and Storyville jazz clubs. (His engineer on the remotes was Arnie Ginsburg, later known as “Woo Woo” Ginsburg, a Top 40 deejay.) Improbably, Nat also covered sports, announcing boxing matches from the Boston Arena. At Storyville, George Wein had Nat emcee the Sunday afternoon jam sessions.
Hentoff started his jazz show on WMEX in 1945 with a narrow point of view and a reputation as a moldy fig. By 1949 that had changed, and trumpeter Don Stratton claimed he heard Hentoff play his first bebop record. “It was “Parker’s Mood,” Don told me. “And after, Nat said, “Charlie Parker… he can really play the saxophone when he wants to.” We couldn’t believe it! Hentoff played Bird!”
Nat Hentoff and Down Beat Magazine
Hentoff became the Boston correspondent for Down Beat in August 1951, and by then his local musical interests included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Joe Gordon and Nat Pierce. His role at DB gradually expanded to include feature articles, record reviews, and finally his column, which he aptly named “Counterpoint.” Hentoff wrote in his memoir: “I had started a column for Down Beat that was sufficiently quarrelsome and arrogant to bring a good deal of mail, the tenor of which suggested that I set my face to the Atlantic Ocean and keep walking in that direction. Pleased at the reader interest, the publisher of Down Beat asked me if I wanted to become New York editor.” He accepted, and in September 1953, moved to New York and replaced Leonard Feather as the magazine’s associate editor.
Nat Hentoff stayed at Down Beat until 1957, when he launched a freelance career that soon expanded beyond jazz, to education, civil rights, political activism, and most prominently, civil liberties. He published widely in magazines including the New Yorker, the Village Voice, the Evergreen Review, and the Saturday Review. Hentoff became part of the intellectual fabric of America in the second half of the 20th century.
Nor did he abandon jazz. Shortly after leaving Down Beat, Hentoff and Whitney Balliet served as the artistic directors for The Sound of Jazz on CBS television. He was a founder of The Jazz Review, and a founder of Candid Records in 1960. Etcetera.
I never asked Nat Hentoff for a lengthy interview while I was writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles. It wasn’t necessary. I found the facts I needed in Down Beat, and in his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions. Instead, I asked very specific questions and was often rewarded with expansive answers. He was enjoying himself, and he ended one of our conversations with a jovial “You, sir, are swinging!” That got me smiling. It still has me smiling.
Nat wanted to write something about The Boston Jazz Chronicles, but because he was a character in it, he didn’t write a standard review. Rather, he used it as a springboard to write a combination review and reminiscence on his Boston days, “Make Room for Boston in Jazz History,” for JazzEd magazine’s July 2012 issue.
Nat Hentoff was passionate, outspoken and iconoclastic. Anyone described with words such as these is bound to have detractors as well as supporters, and Hentoff had his share. Few who read him remained neutral.
But I’m not thinking about any of that now. In the days since his death, I’ve been thinking about the young Nat Hentoff, and rereading Boston Boy and those early 1950s Down Beats. I was struck by the final sentence in his introduction to Boston Boy. Wrote Nat: “Looking back at the roots of what I became, for better or worse, I am grateful, after all, to have been a Boston boy.”
Thank you for all of it, Nat.
To the music. Candid Records was one of Nat’s signature accomplishments, and one of the groups he recorded in December 1960 had deep Boston roots, the Toshiko Mariano Quartet. Here is Toshiko’s “Long Yellow Road,” a tune she later revisited with her orchestra. Fine solos by both Toshiko and Charlie here. The bassist is Gene Cherico and the drummer is Eddie Marshall.