(JTA) — Nat Hentoff, who wrote about civil liberties and jazz for The Village Voice for 50 years and also wrote for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, DownBeat magazine and other publications, has died.
Hentoff died Saturday at 91. His son Nick, announcing the passing in a tweet, wrote: “He died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday.”
Hentoff, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, was the author of more than 30 books, including novels and young adult and nonfiction books, many dealing with the U.S. Constitution and free speech.
He was a jazz critic in New York in the 1950s and went on to write books about musicians and the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. He also became an activist, marching against the Vietnam War and for civil rights.
Hentoff once told an interviewer how jazz intersected with his career as a defender of the Bill of Rights.
“I’ll leave you with this — every once in a while writing about my day job I get so down I have to stop,” he said. “I literally stop and put on a recording, and then that sound, that feeling, that passion for life gets me up and shouting again and I can go back to grim stuff of what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
In 2013, a biographical film about Hentoff titled “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” spotlighted his career as a jazz critic and as a First Amendment advocate.
Hentoff, who considered himself an atheist, was liberal when it came to civil liberties but conservative when it came to issues such as abortion, which he opposed.
He grew up in what he once called the “pervasively anti-Semitic city” of Boston. The New York Times reported that he tried to rebel at the age of 12 by publicly eating a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur as people walked by him on the way to synagogue, which angered his father and his neighbors. He said later that he did it to know how it felt to be an outcast, calling the experience “enjoyable.”
Hentoff graduated with honors from the city’s Northeastern University in 1946. In 1950, he was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris.
He was married three times.