If you’re a reader of jazz books, reviews and sleeve notes, then the name Nat Hentoff will mean many things, not least of all will be erudite and informative writing about jazz like few others of his or indeed any generation. Nathan Irving ‘Nat’ Hentoff passed away yesterday (7 January) aged 91.
Hentoff was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1925 and graduated from the Boston Latin School. He was awarded his B.A. with the highest honours from Northeastern University going on to do graduate work at Harvard University; in 1950, he was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris.
He began his career in broadcasting in 1945 on WMEX, a Boston radio station, hosting Jazz Album and From Bach To Bartók, going on to work at various radio stations, including several in New York, through the 1950s.
He joined Down Beat magazine as a columnist in 1952, becoming associate editor from 1953 to 1957. In 1958 he co-founded The Jazz Review, a magazine that he co-edited until 1961. In June 1955, Hentoff co-authored with Nat Shapiro Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It that features interviews Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman. Hentoff went on to author numerous other books on jazz and politics. Hentoff was the jazz critic for The Village Voice from 1958 to 2009 and following his departure from The Village Voice, Hentoff moved to The Wall Street Journal.
Hentoff probably wrote thousands of liner notes for jazz albums over his long career, including for records by John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Anita O’Day, Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In fact there are few artists of a certain age that he didn’t write about. And to prove it wasn't just jazz that interested him, he wrote many liner notes for blues albums and the 1963 notes for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. He also worked as a record producer, overseeing sessions for Bud Shank and Clark Terry, as well as Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus.
Nat Hentoff died in his Manhattan apartment where, according to his son, Nick, he was surrounded by family and listening to Billie Holiday. Few people have enriched our love of jazz more than Nat Hentoff, he will be remembered as long as people read about, and listen to jazz.
All of us who try to write about jazz have read Nat Hentoff’s words, and all of us have probably tried, in vain, to emulate him just a little.