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Nat Hentoff, Renowned Columnist and Jazz Critic, Dead at 91

Free speech advocate also penned sleeve notes for ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’


Nat Hentoff, longtime political columnist, free speech activist and renowned jazz critic, has died at the age of 91.

Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic

Nat Hentoff, longtime political columnist, free speech activist and renowned jazz critic, has died at the age of 91.

Hentoff died Saturday of natural causes in his Manhattan apartment, his son Tom told the Associated Press. Another of his sons, Nick Hentoff, tweeted that Nat “died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday.”

The Boston-born Hentoff began his career in broadcast journalism while also hosting a weekly jazz program on Boston’s WMEX. In 1953, Hentoff moved to New York City and began writing for jazz magazine Down Beat; he was fired from that job in 1957 after attempting to employ an African-American writer, the AP reports.

The following year, Hentoff joined the Village Voice, where he served as columnist for the next 50 years, writing about a myriad of subjects involving politics, education, religion and, most importantly to him, freedom of speech and First Amendment issues.

In addition to his syndicated column, Hentoff continued to write about jazz, co-founding the Jazz Review and authoring over a handful of books on the genre, including The Jazz Makers (with Nat Shapiro), The Jazz Life and Jazz Is.

Hentoff wrote over 30 books over his career, including novels, memoirs, young adult books and non-fiction works. His columns appeared in magazines ranging from Playboy (for whom he interviewed Bob Dylan) and The New Yorker to the Washington Post and New York Times.

Hentoff, an early admirer of Bob Dylan’s, also penned the long sleeve notes found on the back cover of the singer’s 1963 LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

“Throughout everything he writes and sings, there is the surge of a young man, looking into as many diverse scenes and people as he can find… and of a man looking for himself,” Hentoff wrote of Dylan.

“It is this continuing explosion of a total individual, a young man growing free rather than absurd, that makes Bob Dylan so powerful and so personal and so important a singer. And you can hear it in these performances.”

In 1976, Hentoff documented his experience witnessing Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the Rolling Stone article, “On the Road With Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Rolling Thunder Revue.”

Hentoff also wrote the liner notes for artists like Charles Mingus, Aretha Frankin, Ray Charles and Max Roach; on the latter’s We Insist!, Hentoff is also credited as producer.

In 2004, Hentoff was the first non-musician to be named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. A documentary about Hentoff’s life, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff, was released in 2014.


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