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All That Jazz: Ingrained To Be Against the Grain

Ed Rampell: The L.A. release of The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff on July 4th is serendipitous, in the same way, say, that opening a horror movie on Halloween would be.
nat hentoff

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff

The L.A. release of The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff on July 4th is serendipitous, in the same way, say, that opening a horror movie on Halloween would be. The longtime, former Village Voice columnist, who is pushing 90, has been a renowned First Amendment champion for more than half a century. And, as producer/director David L. Lewis’ well-made documentary also shows, from liner notes to newspaper/magazine articles to radio/TV programs, Hentoff has also been a prolific chronicler and advocate of jazz. According to production notes, Hentoff “was the first non-musician to be named a Jazz Master by The National Endowment of the Arts.”

Even if its subject is unconventional, Step is a conventionally crafted doc, which includes archival footage and photos, as well as original interviews with a colorful cast of characters who have encountered Hentoff during his decades of covering civil liberties, swing, bebop and more. In audio and visual clips (much of which, we are told, has never before been publicly seen) we see some of the cultural and political titans Hentoff crossed paths with, including musicians ranging from Charles Mingus to a very young Bob Dylan, as well as Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, which makes for compelling viewing. The interviews apparently conducted for this doc include the recently deceased poet/ playwright Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), fellow critic Stanley Crouch and constitutional attorney Floyd Abrams, as well as Nat’s wife, Margot Hentoff.

What I especially liked about this nonfiction film is that although it does celebrate its title character it is not without criticism of him. Some of the interviewees are none too enamored of the irascible Hentoff and, in particular, some of his stances on issues. In particular, former Village Voice editor Karen Durbin takes the columnist to task for his anti-abortion views. The doc also indicates that while the Boston-born Hentoff, long a Manhattan fixture, has been a civil rights stalwart the same cannot be said about his stand on gay rights and the AIDs crisis. As Lewis’ nonfiction film demonstrates, it is very dubious when so-called, self proclaimed “libertarians” somehow deny the freedom of expression they espouse for most others to those who have alternative sexual preferences.

nat hentoff

Hentoff with clarinetist Edmond Hall at the Savoy Club, Boston, November 1948.

The doc also includes brief interviews with current Voice boss Tony Ortega, who comes across like a company man/hatchet man who rather shamefully does the bottom line bidding of the new, arguably conservative owner of what was once a lefty press bastion.

It’s refreshing to have naysayers included amongst the interviewees. Too often biodocs are hagiographies mostly praising their subjects. A good case in point is the recent Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. Although there are clips of Vidal sparring on camera with Norman Mailer and rightwing idiot savant William F. Buckley in this doc, I don’t recall any of the doc’s original interviews containing a word of criticism about Vidal. Now, I personally encountered and greatly respected Vidal and his work, but my admiration for the author/public intellectual was far from universally shared and he had more than his fair share of critics. Shouldn’t detractors be included to give a more well-rounded picture of the subject of a biopic?

One suspects that Hentoff relishes the fact that at least some of his opponents get to have their say about him in Step. After all, Hentoff is nothing if not a contrarian -- and at least their criticism is still about one of his favorite subjects (i.e., him). This leads to an observation that Nat’s wife Margot suggests, that the diffident Hentoff has a predisposition to go against the prevailing points of view and conventional wisdom simply to be different -- and, perhaps, to stand out from the crowd. He seems to be constitutionally ingrained to go against the grain -- whether it be on behalf of misunderstood musicians or oppressed minorities, or because in the milieu of New York’s left opposing feminism and gay rights will, as the title of this doc indicates, enable the disputatious Hentoff to enjoy “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”. And, in so doing, garner attention for himself by taking an unpopular position -- even if, perhaps, he’s being different solely for difference’s sake, which is a rather dubious proposition.

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The thing I always enjoyed about Nat is that his response to the above criticism and to his critics in general would be to simply allow them to have their say, and for him to reply in kind. He’d never call for their right to say what they want about him to be curtailed. At his best as a civil libertarian, this tolerance is what guided him (except, perhaps, when it came to abortion, LGBT issues, and one suspects, Disco music).

I knew Nat (telephonically) when I was the features editor for a national magazine where I brought him onboard. First, to write an article, and then as a well-compensated (deservedly so) monthly columnist. Nat was a royal pain in the ass -- very old school, he insisted on typing his pieces on one of those typewriter thingamajiggies and then faxing it across the continent. Of course, his inability or disinclination to use computers and email was a generational holdover. I guess we should have been grateful that this champion of the Constitution didn’t dip a quill in an inkpot and daub a parchment, which he would then dispatch from Greenwich Village to Beverly Hills via carrier pigeon or Pony Express. But having said how hard it was to work with this curmudgeonly “Thoreau-back,” it was well worth bending over backwards (especially as monthly deadlines loomed) for Nat because he wrote so well and about such important topics, and his byline conveyed the prestige of more than half a century of (generally) fighting the good fight.

nat hentoff

Step is at its best and most creative when the doc shows how Hentoff’s advocacy of free speech was expressed in both his writings on First Amendment issues and on jazz, as an improvisational art form that relied on free expression. There are insightful comments in this doc likening this musical mode to our constitutional liberties, and Nat synthesized and articulated both in what is, over all, an exemplary life as a man of letters.

It is truly despicable and odious what the penny pinching Village Voice did to one of its original writers in his old age, a columnist who earned that once alternative newsweekly so much prestige and money over the years. At least we have this documentary about a true American independent opening on Independence Day -- a genuine son of “gliberty” -- to remind us.

Ed Rampell

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff is playing at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Ed Rampell