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Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

American music critic
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American music critic
Countries United States of America
Occupations Historian Journalist Writer Music historian Record producer Composer Children's writer
Gender male
Birth June 10, 1925 (Boston)
The details

Nathan Irving "Nat" Hentoff (June 10, 1925 – January 7, 2017) was an American historian, novelist, jazz and country music critic, and syndicated columnist for United Media. Hentoff was the jazz critic for The Village Voice from 1958 to 2009. Following his departure from The Village Voice, Hentoff moved his music column to The Wall Street Journal, which published his work until his death. He often wrote on First Amendment issues, vigorously defending the freedom of the press.
Hentoff was formerly a columnist for Down Beat, JazzTimes, Legal Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Progressive, Editor & Publisher and Free Inquiry. He was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his writing was also published in The New York Times, Jewish World Review, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Commonweal and in the Italian Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo.

Early life

Hentoff was born in Boston, Massachusetts on June 10, 1925, the son of Lena (née Katzenberg) and Simon Hentoff. As a teen, he attended Boston Latin School and worked for Frances Sweeney on the Boston City Reporter, investigating antisemitic hate groups. Sweeney was a major influence on Hentoff; his memoir, Boston Boy, is dedicated to her. He was awarded his B.A. with the high honors from Northeastern University and did graduate work at Harvard University. In 1950, he was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris.


Hentoff began his career in broadcast journalism while also hosting a weekly jazz program on WMEX, a Boston radio station. In the 1940s, he hosted two radio shows on WMEX: JazzAlbum and From Bach To Bartók. Hentoff continued to do a jazz program on WMEX into the early 1950s, and during that period was an announcer on WGBH-FM on a program called Evolution of Jazz. By the late 1950s, he was co-hosting a program called The Scope of Jazz on WBAI-FM in New York City. He went on to author numerous books on jazz and politics.

Hentoff joined Down Beat magazine as a columnist in 1952. From 1953 through 1957, he was an associate editor of Down Beat. He was fired in 1957 after allegedly trying to hire an African-American writer.

Hentoff co-authored with Nat Shapiro Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It (1955). The book features interviews with jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Hentoff co-founded The Jazz Review in 1958, a magazine that he co-edited with Martin Williams until 1961. In 1960, Hentoff served as the A&R director of the short-lived jazz label Candid Records, which released albums by Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach, among others.

Hentoff became a member of the Board of Directors of The Jazz Foundation of America in 2002, and worked with the foundation to help save homes and lives of America's elderly jazz and blues musicians, including musicians who survived Hurricane Katrina. Hentoff wrote multiple articles to draw attention to the plight of America's pioneering musicians of jazz and blues. These articles were published in the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice.

Beginning in February 2008, Hentoff was a weekly contributing columnist at WorldNetDaily.com. In January 2009, the Village Voice, which had regularly published Hentoff's commentary and criticism for fifty years, announced that he had been laid off. In February 2009, Hentoff joined the libertarian Cato Institute as a senior fellow.

In 2013, a biographical film about Hentoff, entitled The Pleasures of Being Out of Step explored his career in jazz and as a First Amendment advocate. The independent documentary, directed by David L. Lewis, won the Grand Jury prize in the Metropolis competition at the DOC NYC festival and played in theaters across the country.

Political commentary

Hentoff was known as a civil libertarian, free speech activist, anti-death penalty advocate and anti-abortion advocate. He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and State of Israel. Hentoff espoused generally liberal views on domestic policy and civil liberties, but in the 1980s, he began articulating more socially conservative positions—opposition to abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and the selective medical treatment of severely disabled infants. Hentoff argued that a consistent life ethic should be the viewpoint of a genuine civil libertarian, arguing that all human rights are at risk when the rights of any one group of people are diminished, that human rights are interconnected, and people deny others' human rights at their own peril.

While at one time a longtime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hentoff became a vocal critic of the organization for its advocacy of government-enforced university and workplace speech codes. He served on the board of advisors for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, another civil liberties group. Hentoff's book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee outlines his views on free speech and excoriates those whom he feels favor censorship in any form.

Hentoff was critical of Clinton Administration for the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. He also criticized the Bush Administration for policies such as the Patriot Act and other civil liberties restrictions on the basis of homeland security. An ardent critic of the Bush administration's expansion of presidential power, Hentoff in 2008 called for the new president to deal with the "noxious residue of the Bush-Cheney war against terrorism". Among the national security casualties have been, according to Hentoff, "survivors, if they can be found, of CIA secret prisons ("black sites"); victims of CIA kidnapping renditions; and American citizens locked up indefinitely as "unlawful enemy combatants". He advocated prosecuting members of the Bush administration, including lawyer John Yoo, for war crimes.

Hentoff stated that while he had been prepared to enthusiastically support Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, his view changed after looking into Obama's voting record on abortion. During President Obama's first year, Hentoff praised him for ending policies of CIA renditions, but has criticized him for failing to fully end George W. Bush's practice of state torture of prisoners. In a May 2014 column, titled My Pro-Constitution Choice for President, Hentoff voiced his support for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's potential 2016 run for president. Hentoff cited Paul's support for civil liberties, particularly his stand against the indefinite detention clauses in the National Defense Authorization Act as well as Paul's opposition to the Obama administration's use of drones against American citizens. Hentoff subsequently rescinded his endorsement of Paul in light of the Senator's support for normalizing relations with Cuba and his failure to completely repeal the Patriot Act.

Awards and honors

Hentoff was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1972. He was awarded the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award in 1980 for his columns on law and criminal justice. In 1983, he was awarded the American Library Association's Imroth Award for Intellectual Freedom. In 1985, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Northeastern University. In 1995, Hentoff was given the National Press Foundation's Award for lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism. 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. That same year, the Boston Latin School honored him as alumnus of the year. In 2005, Hentoff was honored by the Human Life Foundation at their third annual "Great Defender of Life" dinner.

Personal life

Hentoff grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue in Boston. He recalls that as a youth, he and his father during the High Holidays would travel the city to listen to various cantors and compare notes on their performances. He said that cantors made “sacred texts compellingly clear to the heart,” and he collected their recordings. In later life, Hentoff was an atheist and has sardonically described himself as "a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists". He expressed sympathy for Israel's Peace Now movement.

He died of natural causes in his Manhattan apartment on January 7, 2017, at the age of 91.



  • Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men who Made it, with Nat Shapiro (1955)
  • The Jazz Makers, with Nat Shapiro (1957)
  • The Jazz Life ISBN 0-306-80088-8 (1961)
  • Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste. ISBN 0-9608096-0-0 (1963)
  • The New Equality (1964)
  • Our Children Are Dying (with John Holt) (1967)
  • A Doctor Among the Addicts (1968)
  • A Political Life: The Education of John V. Lindsay (1969)
  • Journey into Jazz (1971)
  • Jazz Is (1976)
  • Does Anybody Give a Damn?: Nat Hentoff on Education (Random House; 1977)
  • The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America (1980)
  • American Heroes: In and Out of School (1987)
  • John Cardinal O'Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church. ISBN 0-684-18944-5 (1988)
  • Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. ISBN 0-06-099510-6 (1993)
  • Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music. ISBN 0-06-019047-7 (1995)
  • Living the Bill of Rights: How to Be an Authentic American. ISBN 0-520-21981-3 (1999)
  • The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance. ISBN 1-58322-621-4 (2004)
  • American Music Is (2004)


  • Jazz Country (1965)
  • Call the Keeper (1966)
  • Onwards! (1968)
  • I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down (1968)
  • This School is Driving Me Crazy (1976)
  • Does This School Have Capital Punishment? (1982)
  • Blues for Charlie Darwin (1982)
  • The Day They Came To Arrest The Book (1983)
  • The Man from Internal Affairs (1985)


  • Boston Boy: Growing Up With Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions. ISBN 0-9679675-2-X (1986)
  • Speaking Freely: A Memoir (1997)


  • The Nat Hentoff Reader. ISBN 0-306-81084-0 (2001)

Edited volumes

  • Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It (with Nat Shapiro) (1955)
  • Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (1969)
  • Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz by Twelve of the World's Foremost Jazz Critics and Scholars ISBN 0-306-80002-0 (with Albert McCarthy) (1975)
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  • ^ "Nat Hentoff, a jazz critic, free speech advocate, and 'Boston Boy' memoirist, dies at 91". Boston Globe. 8 January 2017. Retrieved 9 January 2017. 
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  • Hentoff, Nat (1987). American Heroes: In and Out of School. Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385295659. 
  • Hentoff, Nat (2004). The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (illustrated, reprint ed.). Seven Stories Press. ISBN 9781583226582. 
  • Hentoff, Nat (2004). American Music is (reprint ed.). Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306813511. 
  • ^
  • Hentoff, Nat (1968). Onwards!: a novel. Simon and Schuster. 
  • Hentoff, Nat (1968). I'm really dragged but nothing gets me down. Simon & Schuster. 
  • Hentoff, Nat (2001). The Nat Hentoff Reader. Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306810848. 
  • Baldwin, James; Nat, Hentoff (1969). Black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism (reprint ed.). R. W. Baron. 
  • Hentoff, Nat; McCarthy, Albert J. (1975). Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz by Twelve of the World's Foremost Jazz Critics and Scholars (illustrated, reprint ed.). Perseus Books Group. ISBN 9780306800023. 

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