On Screen

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff
David L. Lewis (First Run Features)

By Ken Waxman

Ask most serious jazz writers who they would like to be when they grow up and the answer would likely be Nat Hentoff. For almost 70 years, Hentoff, now 89, has been involved with every aspect of jazz. At the same time he has been a staunch First Amendment advocate, defending absolute freedom of expression.

Produced and directed by David Lewis, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step is an intelligent 90-minute profile, weaving together frank interviews with Hentoff, his advocates and detractors, archival footage and audio, and it does an excellent job of placing the writer within political, journalistic and sociological currents. When he wasn’t writing about jazz, Hentoff was involved with the Civil Right and Anti-War movement was a friend of Malcolm X and Bob Dylan (he did the first serious interview with Dylan), a defender of Lenny Bruce (a clip of Hentoff cajoling a stoned Bruce into coherence is included) and debated everyone from conservatives like William F. Buckley to representatives of the Woman’s Movement. “Nat loves conflict,” his wife Margot says. Although Hentoff never missies an opportunity to return to the First Amendment, even citing Max Roach’s linkage of jazz’s group improvising with the American constitution, his importance to jazz is illuminated throughout.

Commentators such as Amiri Baraka, Dan Morgenstern and Stanley Crouch effectively outline his achievements, as does a 1959 clip with Hentoff insisting on the discipline of playing jazz to an interviewer harping on jazz’s mad genius. Observers confirm that Hentoff’s liner notes were serious analytic essays that drew many people to the music; and that the Jazz Review (1958-61) he co-edited is cited as the first American publication to treat jazz with seriousness. Hentoff was also one of the two writers of 1957’s The Sound of Jazz, universally proclaimed as a highpoint of television, presenting artists like Thelonious Monk without artifice. Hentoff, who was a long-time confident of Charles Mingus – the bassist often telephoned to play him music he composed – produced historic Candid records in 1960-61. Crouch points out that while every jazz writer assumes he can make great records “Nat proved he could.” Both Hentoff and Baraka agree that Roach’s We Insist was the label’s most important disc and Baraka confirms its continued importance.

Episodic, rather than chronological, the film jumps back and forth among Hentoff’s myriad activities, and only latterly adds biographical background. A jazz performance may be followed by a talking head discussing civil liberties, for instance, but it certainly reflects Hentoff’s busy life. The subject says at one point that “the constitution and jazz are my reason for being” and this always fascinating document confirms this statement.

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2014