Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nat Hentoff (Puzzle No. 1,066)

July 6, 1964 puzzle courtesy of The Nation.
Click here for printable version.
As I was browsing through the 1964 reel of The Nation to find this puzzle, I spotted an article by jazz critic Nat Hentoff. I like jazz, and I’ve read one of Hentoff’s books and plenty of his columns—but not this one.  Here’s his June 22, 1964 lede.

Some weeks ago, Eric Dolphy, an explosively original jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, left for Europe as a sideman with a small combo.  He isn’t coming back.  I asked a musician friend of his why Dolphy had decided to become an expatriate.  “Nothing’s happening over here,” was the answer.  “If he has to scuffle over there, at least he’ll have a change of scenery.”

Dolphy and a few others excepted, the younger avant-garde jazz players remain, although their expectations are increasingly bleak.  Jazz was never a popular music; but by contrast with the present, there have been periods during which it made partial breakthroughs to a sizable public, thereby providing reasonably steady work for the uncompromising improvisers as well as for the popularizers.   

Fifty years later, Hentoff is still on the beat (pun intended).  Last week, his column, now in the Wall Street Journal, explains the thinking of his friend Charles Mingus:

Mingus never believed his music was "too difficult" for players of any age once they knew their instruments and were driven by his music to find themselves in it. As Mrs. Mingus wrote in her absorbing book, "Tonight at Noon: A Love Story," that I reread when I need to be lifted by both of them, Mingus used to holler to his musicians "Play yourself!"

Hentoff’s contributions to the growth and understanding of jazz are accomplishment enough, but he also had important things to say about civil rights and responsibilities too.   Many readers know of him as a civil libertarian and not a music critic.

Hentoff exemplifies two qualities that have fallen out of favor in today’s world: a willingness to engage with anyone and a deep sense of integrity.  Look again at where those two columns ran: The Nation and the Wall Street Journal: publications of the political left and right.  While he might oppose the stance of editorialists at the Journal, he is perfectly comfortable having his words share the press with theirs. Compare that to commentators today who shout for boycotts and ostracism at the smallest perceived slight.

His commitment to respecting each individual and what he or she has to say extended to the political realm as well as music.  Hentoff’s loyalty is to principle: not party or person.  He was a supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in its early years, then denounced it when Stokely Carmichael endorsed violent action to try and end the Vietnam War and hasten the demise of institutions he perceived as racist.  In his memoir Hentoff writes about that and other awakenings in his life and how they motivated him to speak out against all kinds of injustice, even when it wasn’t (to use the overworked but perfectly fitting phrase) politically correct.

One way or another, Hentoff probably has said or written something for just about everyone to disagree with.  But the values that give structure to those opinions ought to have equally universal support. 

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