Last night we lost Nat Hentoff, a defender of civil liberties and—notably, for this readership—a lifelong champion of jazz. He was 91. His son Nick reported that members of the family were nearby and a Billie Holiday record was playing when Hentoff died in his Greenwich Village apartment in New York. Influential as a jazz critic for DownBeat, the Village Voice and other publications, he was even better known for his books and columns explaining and defending First Amendment freedoms.
He once said that his unyielding protection of civil liberties and the First Amendment was, “Of all my obsessions, the strongest.” He often expressed his conviction that the United States’ destiny was inseparably bound to the responsibility of the electorate to be informed. In an interview eight years ago, he told The New York Times, “I think we’re in a perilous state, in that, to paraphrase [President] Madison, the way to keep this republic is to have an informed electorate.” Instead, he said, we have “constitutional illiteracy, which is rampant.”
He expanded on that and on his involvement with jazz in a 2014 interview with the website Fire.org., which is what Hentoff is referring to in his frequent mention of the word “Fire.”
A personal note: Nat and I were acquaintances in New York in the 1970s and eventually became friends. He was supportive and helpful in many ways. In our phone calls, he was as open, frank and tough-minded—sometimes moreso—than in the interview you just saw. We talked about music, of course, but always came back to the First Amendment and the deteriorating standards of print and broadcast journalism. Both of us were saddened by what is happening to the profession and, by extension, to the citizens’ right to know. We didn’t always agree, and we argued about our differences—on President Obama, for instance. Hentoff was one of the great arguers. I’ll miss him.
For a comprehensive obituary, see today’s <>Los Angeles Times<>.