IN & OUT OF STEP: The Nat Hentoff Documentary

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Flawed but fascinating, the recently released The Pleasures Of Being Out Of Step: Notes On The Life Of Nat Hentoff profiles the legendary jazz critic, dipping into both his music and his politics.

BY MICHAEL BERICK

The name Nat Hentoff resonates with music aficionados. The 89-year-old Hentoff, who looks a bit like the late film director John Huston, sits among the pantheon of influential music critics, particularly for his writing on jazz. The new documentary The Pleasure of Being Out Of Step looks Hentoff’s long career writing about music as well as political issues. Filmmaker David L. Lewis follows a rather standard documentary style – mixing archival footage with interviews of Hentoff, his colleagues, his friends and his former friends – although he structures the film more around ideas than chronologically, which seems appropriate for a man of ideas like Hentoff. The actor Andre Braugher serves as narrator and does a marvelous job reciting Hentoff’s eloquent prose (often from liner notes) about jazz giants like Miles Davis and Max Roach.

The documentary certainly makes a strong case about Hentoff’s importance in the jazz world. Early on, historian John Gennari proclaims that Hentoff ranks “among the handful of non-musicians you need to reckon with if you are [interested in] the history of jazz,” while musician Phil Woods more plainly states that Hentoff “was part of the family… a friend of music.” Musicians, it is said, especially liked him because he wasn’t a “moldy fig” – someone who thought jazz stopped with Louie Armstrong.

Out of Step chronicles Hentoff’s work as he goes from writing for Down Beat in the ‘50s before he started Jazz Review (a more scholarly but shorter lived journal) and later moving on the Village Voice, where he served as a columnist for 50 years. The film points out how Hentoff arrived at an opportune time for writing liner notes. Just as he was becoming a well-known jazz critic in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the music business was switching from the 78 to the 33 1/3, which allowed for more liner note space.

Many non-jazz fans associate Hentoff with his early coverage of Bob Dylan, whom he profiled in the New Yorker and Playboy. In the film, Hentoff admits that he didn’t really like Dylan’s guitar playing but admired his lyrics. He recalls how, for the Playboy article, he played the straight man while Dylan hilariously regaled with his fictional life story. Hentoff also wrote about, and become close with, Lenny Bruce, and the film includes several funny, but eventually sad, clips of Bruce.

Out of Step also spotlights several of Hentoff’s non-journalism career moves. He served as a main consultant for the landmark 1957 TV show The Sound of Jazz, which brought together a diverse and talented lineup of jazz stars, from Count Basie to Thelonious Monk. Hentoff fought successfully to keep the Billie Holliday on the program although sponsors didn’t want the scandal-shrouded singer to perform.

One of the film’s interesting revelations is that Hentoff actually ran a label for a short time. As head of Candid Records in 1960-61, he put out records by a number of cutting edge jazz players – Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Cecil Taylor to name a few – but Hentoff is most proud of his civil right-themed We Insist that Max Roach created in 1960.

In the documentary, Hentoff asserts that he follows the idea that “if music is to be free, it has to be done by people who feel free.” This statement, along with his interest in people like Lenny Bruce and projects like We Insist, weaves into Hentoff’s profound belief in the First Amendment, civil liberties and personal freedom. During his Voice years, he had a column where he could write about a range of topics, especially politically ones. While his support of African American jazz musicians put him on the liberal side of the civil rights movement, his stances on issues like abortion, women’s rights and AIDS (which, to simplify an explanation, he didn’t support) put him in conflict with liberals and others who sided him on music and other matters.

Among the political controversies that the film focuses on is his assertion, in 1977, that the Nazi Party should be allowed to march in the predominately Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. He explained, in vintage news clips, that they should have the freedom of expression. His beliefs caused him to lose several longtime friendships and created animosity amongst his Voice colleagues.

While Out of Step is on solid ground when examining the music side of Hentoff’s life, it is less steady when dealing with his political beliefs and personal life. The film’s director Lewis doesn’t really come back to Hentoff to see how he feels, for example, about how one-time ACLU president Aryeh Neier severed his friendship after Hentoff came out against a woman leading the ACLU’s New York branch. Somewhat like Hentoff did with Dylan, Lewis lets Hentoff tell his story with really asking him the tough questions. The closest the viewer gets to an explanation of Hentoff’s often extreme Libertarian points of view comes from his current wife Margot, who says that Hentoff likes to back the underdog and likes to debate people on issues.

The documentary also contains some obvious holes regarding Hentoff’s life. The film does a decent job talking about his growing up in Boston, which he describes as a horribly anti-Semitic city, and how he discovered the joy of jazz by hearing Artie Shaw being played in a music store. Although his wife and his sister talk about family tragedies, Hentoff isn’t asked about them. Furthermore, there are passing references to his children, but they have no presence in the film (his pro-life stance doesn’t seem to extend to being pro-child).

Out of Step winds up offering an intriguing but incomplete examination of Nat Hentoff’s work and life. It is a little too anecdotal and not analytical enough to provide a full portrait of this complex man. Music fans, particularly jazz lovers, will really dig the wonderful music-related sections of the film; however, the more muddied look at Hentoff’s politics touches on interesting points without delivering enough information or answers.

Read an interview with director Lewis HERE at Encore Magazine.

 

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