The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff opens on June 25 at the IFC Center in New York City. And Hentoff, age 89, who was born in Boston and educated at Northeastern University, should be so proud to have this documentary available for all to see.
Directed by David L. Lewis, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff reveals Hentoff as 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. This unique documentary wraps the themes of liberty, identity and free expression around a historical narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act.
At the core of the film are three extraordinary, intimate conversations with Hentoff. Commentary and perspective are offered through additional interviews with such luminaries as Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Floyd Abrams, Aryeh Neier and Dan Morgenstern. Interwoven through it all is the sublime music of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Bob Dylan, along with never-before-seen photographs and archival footage of these artists and other cultural figures at the height of their powers.
Hentoff himself is quoted: “I write to write and hope that some of it has some effect. I am most myself when I am writing.” For more than 50 years, Hentoff wrote extraordinary, extensive pieces for the Village Voice, only to be fired of laid off from that job in 2008, a move that the then-editor of the Village Voice says was not personal but of a business nature. After reading how others characterized his separation from the Village Voice, Hentoff said, “It was like reading one’s obituary while you are still alive.”
During his tenure at the Village Voice, Hentoff had written about, of course, Jazz musicians and others like Charles Mingus and Max Roach, but he had also written about the Black Power movement in the 1960’s, Eldridge Cleaver and his friendship with Malcolm X. In 1964, Hentoff wrote about Bob Dylan for The New Yorker, and while admitting that the magazine had an ambitious fact-checking process, Hentoff says he was caught off guard after Dylan had read the first draft of Hentoff’s article and didn’t like it. He said that Dylan called him and disagreed with what had been written and wanted to be interviewed right on the spot. So Hentoff says he just started writing, and although he thought that some of what Dylan was saying was “fantasy imagination and wild stories,” the interview was published as fact.” However embellished, history would prove that this turned out to be “one of Dylan’s most famous interviews.”
Hentoff came under the fire for his pieces about homosexuals, HIV/AIDS and women. Crouch, columnist and Jazz critic, said that “Nat thought that where free speech is possible, there is a cost that one has to be willing to endure to be free.” It is widely known that Hentoff believed in the constitution and framed some of these writings around free speech among Americans. He tells of writing for the Boston City Reporter in the 1940’s and the editor Frances Sweeney having a great influence on him. He said that Sweeney taught him “The pleasures of being out of step,” meaning that “You don’t have to worry about being in step and, as a reporter, you recognize what political correctness can do to make people so diminished inside about their own self and their own principles, if they have any.” He added: “It was the most important job that I have ever had. I learned a great deal from Fran Sweeney.”
The documentary explores Hentoff’s Jazz record label, Candid, and the breakthrough for Abbey Lincoln when she appeared on the 1960 “We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” album with Max Roach and Coleman Hawkins. In part, the album dealt with the sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement in the South. “It was an important recording,” said the late poet and activist Baraka, “Hentoff puts music in contemporary perspective.” Hentoff stood firm during a taping of his Jazz television program called the “Sound of Jazz,” when sponsors criticized Billie Holiday’s appearance on the program, because she had been in prison. Hentoff also went all out and spoke on behalf of comedian Lenny Bruce, when he was jailed on obscenities charges.
And even though Hentoff and Malcolm X became friends, Hentoff admits that it had escaped him to even speak with Malcolm X about music, once he had learned that Malcolm X had been associated with Jazz musicians in Harlem. Hentoff said of Malcolm, “He puts on this persona. He was the hardest man for people who didn’t know him to know what he was alike beneath all the fireworks.”
Leaving the Village Voice wasn’t Hentoff’s only employment issue, according to the documentary, Hentoff was fired in 1957 from Down Beat magazine, after he hired a Black to work in the New York offices. Also during his career, he had been lambasted for writing a controversial article about the Nazi’s desire to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1966. He thought that the constitution’s First Amendment granted the Nazis the right to do so.
I hadn’t known much about Hentoff—who has written many novels and worked as a columnist for a variety of magazines and newspapers—before reviewing this documentary, and I admit that I should have been more “in step,” no pun intended. I think he brings a “poetic flow in his writings about injustices within the Jazz movement, as well as around the nation, that can’t be denied.
The Village Voice writes, “Brisk and engaging… an amused, amusing, endlessly fascinating man.” Get a ticket now to see The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff. For more information, visit http://www.ifccenter.com/films/the-pleasures-of-being-out-of-step/.