Nat Hentoff is in his office at The Village Voice in this undated photo. He wrote for the paper for 50 years.
Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images
Nat Hentoff, the author of dozens of books and decades of columns, has died at 91.
His son Nick Hentoff confirmed his father’s death on Twitter Saturday night.
Hentoff was a writer for the Village Voice for 50 years. He also wrote for many publications over his lengthy career, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, United Media syndicate and Down Beat magazine.
He frequently wrote about issues surrounding civil liberties — the Voice describes him as a “civil libertarian.” His 1982 novel The Day They Came to Arrest the Book tells the story of a high school that seeks to remove the book Huckleberry Finn from the school curriculum and library over racism and other issues. A student from the school newspaper fights the effort — an allegory on censorship.
He also was a lover and frequent writer on jazz music. From age 11, he was hooked on the genre after hearing the song “Nightmare” by Artie Shaw coming through an open door at a record store.
“It just reached inside me,” Hentoff told NPR’s Guy Raz in 2010. “I rushed into the store, ‘What was that?’ ”
Over the six decades he spent covering jazz, he attended plenty of performances and met many musicians.
He “got to be very good friends” with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. At one point, he sat in on a recording session featuring Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins and Max Roach. “The music just became part of you as you heard it,” Hentoff said of the experience.
His most memorable show he attended was Duke Ellington “with his full orchestra” at Symphony Hall in Boston, playing the jazz work “Black, Brown and Beige.”
“It was the history of black people in the United States from slavery to the present,” Hentoff told NPR in 2010. “And it was so extraordinary. At the end … people were so moved they could barely applaud until they gave a standing ovation.”
Hentoff started writing for the Village Voice in 1958 until he was “excessed” in 2008 by new managers. A few days after his firing, he told NPR that condolences he received from readers afterward were “like reading one’s obituary while you’re still alive.” But he vowed to keep writing.
In his final column for the Voice in 2009, he recalled advice he received from one of his mentors in journalism, the muckraker I.F. Stone:
“If you’re in this business because you want to change the world, get another day job. If you are able to make a difference, it will come incrementally, and you might not even know about it. You have to get the story and keep on it because it has to be told.”
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.