The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff

Jun 8, 2014

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step


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Out of Step

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Nat Hentoff is one of the enduring voices of the last 65 years, a writer who championed jazz as an art form and who also led the rise of ‘alternative’ journalism in America. If you were a reader of The Village Voice, from the 60′s through the 90′s you probably came across his columns.

This unique documentary wraps the themes of liberty, identity and free expression around a narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act.

Encore sits down with the Director, David L. Lewis, to give a little insight on his new documentary film.

Encore: What makes Hentoff, the person, an interesting subject for a film?

DLL: His personal history, as a first-generation immigrant whose parents came to this county to escape discrimination. That’s the connection between the two parts of his career, and for me, that discovery was when I decided there was a story to tell and a film to make. As we describe in the film and the book, he was discriminated against as a Jew growing up in pre-war Boston, and then he fell in love with this black music, and discovered the individuals in the music they made. They weren’t just black musicians, they were individual artists, with their own identities, expressed in the music they made. And that became the abiding value in his life and work.

When I was making the film, I often ran into jazz people who didn’t know anything about his political writing, and political people who didn’t know anything about his jazz writing. People would ask, “Is that the same Nat Hentoff who…?” It’s the connection between those two things that made the story worth telling.

What makes Hentoff’s work an interesting subject for a film?

He was a pioneer in jazz criticism because he was among the first to write about jazz as an art form as opposed to “popular music,” to respect it as an indigenous American music. And in politics, he was among the first to recognize that there was an alternative to what we now know as the “mainstream media’’ — hence, the creation of “alternative journalism” and alternative journals. The Village Voice was the first, and still the most important, example.

How did he pioneer a new form of journalism?

Nat realized that even in the presentation of facts, there are choices to be made and perspectives that can’t be escaped. In that sense, his work in creating an alternative, independent media presaged today’s blogs and tumblrs and niche journalism of all persuasions. The Voice led to the creation of a whole genre of journalism from Rolling Stone to Slate that wouldn’t have been possible without its pathfinding spirit. Nat refused to compromise, refused to go along with conventional wisdom, and he still does today.

Can you describe his approach to his subject and how it differs from other journalists?

Nat’s work in both jazz and civil liberties always focuses on the individual, and the stories he tells always are told through that prism. He’s interested in how individual experience explains music theory or political theory, and not the other way around. He’s interested in how the experience of the musician or political actor informs their expression of their beliefs.

Most artists are very guarded of their work and creative approach. It seems Hentoff was able to enter their inner circle better than others. Is there any truth to this or can you elaborate?

Yes, he is and was welcomed in a way that others weren’t. That’s because he always valued the views of the musicians over his own. He thought their views were important and didn’t get enough attention, so he gave them their own voice in his articles. You have to remember he was writing in the 40s and 50s, when black musicians were mostly treated as “black musicians,” not as individuals. Nat’s work showed how the musician’s individual experience informed their music, and the musicians always appreciated that. He didn’t impose his own views on them. He valued their knowledge and experience. He allowed them to speak for themselves, and treated their experience and understanding with the respect it deserved. He railed against intellectuals who celebrated such jazz artists as Charlie Parker or Dizzie Gillespie as “primitive” talents, because he recognized not only their intrinsic talents but also the hard work and intellectual power that went into their music. Artists respected him for that honesty, and that respect extended beyond jazz, to artists like Bob Dylan in his early years.

Who was Hentoff’s favorite musician/artist?

I’m pretty sure he would say Duke Ellington, who was the superstar of Nat’s formative years and, for Nat, the standard for all that came later. Nat was very close to Charles Mingus and valued other modern artists, but Ellington to him was the first who combined the artistic accomplishments and political penetration that became so important later in the century.

I know Nat says his favorite song is Ellington’s What Am I Here For?, which is why we use that song as the theme music for the film, at the beginning and the end of the narrative. The film ends with a contemplation of the letters he exchanges with Charles Mingus contemplating the meaning of the title, that existential question. Nat says their correspondence sounds pretentious now, but I don’t think he really means it. It’s what he thinks.

What did artists respect about Hentoff’s writing?

Nat is not known as a great stylist, but he is known for his clarity and honesty, whether you agree or disagree with him, and for the range of his work. His prose can seem flat or simple to today’s readers, but it has its own poetry.

That’s why we wanted to work with the great actor Andre Braugher, who narrates the film. Braugher’s narration consists entirely of Hentoff’s own words (and a few passages from people Nat worked with.) There is no “omniscient narrator” in the film. Braugher is one of the very few contemporary voices who could handle the breadth of the material, the art and the politics.We think the results are spectacular.

Opens at the Laemmle Theater July 4th.