Nat Hentoff was eleven years old when, walking down the road one day in Boston, he heard music so exciting that he shouted with pleasure and ran into the shop to learn that the music was of clarinetist Artie Shaw
. In that moment was born a love affair with jazz which has lasted seventy-four years thus far. At nineteen, Hentoff was hosting his own jazz radio program, and by the age of twenty-eight he was an editor of Downbeat Magazine
, which was to fire him in 1957 for hiring a staff person of color. Over the years he has written for a number of the most prestigious publications in America, and has authored a large number of books, many pertaining to his passion for jazz.
His impassioned writing for over half a century on issues such as civil liberties, criminal justice, health and education have earned him a reputation as one of the foremost chroniclers of American politics. One thing is for sure, in his writing Hentoff never sits on the fence. He has received a large number of awards over the years for his literary contributions in the fields of law, journalism and jazz and in 2004 he became the first non-musician to be designated a NEA Jazz Master. With modesty, and probably in all seriousness, Hentoff says that the greatest award he has ever received was a kiss of gratitude from Billie Holiday
His latest book on jazz, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University California Press, 2010) brings together his writings from various publications over the last decade, most notably JazzTimes and The Wall Street Journal. These sixty-four essays and articles read like a colorful potted history of jazz in America, and are peppered with rich anecdotes and first-hand stories from the mouths of the great jazz artists that Hentoff knew personally. Hentoff said, in a recent JazzTimes column, that it may be his last book on jazz, but like the musicians he writes about he too has the calling, and, driven by a passion that was sparked by the clarinet of Artie Shaw all those years ago, it is just as likely that it won't be. As Hentoff says about the music which has fulfilled him and inspired him all his life: "You just can't hold it back."