Sunday, January 8, 2017

Man of Words: Nat Hentoff (1925-2017)

Naiel Ibarrola's illustration for the back cover of the Persian edition of Jazz by Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy, a book that was never published.
It's almost impossible to explain why I should struggle with such a sense of loss. I'm sure those of you who have been following Nat Hentoff's ongoing, never-ceasing, never-compromising writing on jazz and politics share similar emotions as it often happens when one loses cultural figures of such towering stature. Yet, my personal debt to Nat Hentoff the intellectual and the archetypal jazz lover goes beyond his contributions to the culture.

I must say, for me, he was more of a role model, a sort of guiding light, a man with ideas who could show, if not roads, but at least possible routes through a certain cultural and political landscape that I belonged to. Living in Iran meant that loving jazz was inevitably an act with mildly political significance and certain undesirable consequences on the jazz lover's end. What Nat Hentoff did for me was by constantly linking jazz, the music, to jazz, the sociopolitical history, offered a source for self-identification. So segregation, being something so painfully specific and brutally construed, could also be applied to my situation which wasn't in any sense racial but had some resemblances in a cultural sense -- a segregation between the official, Islamic culture of an almost totalitarian nature and my love for jazz. There was places that couldn't go to and things that I couldn't have access to. I was the Other, and this constantly kept me sober.

Nat Hentoff in his New York office

I started calling Nat on the phone when I was still in Iran. When I told him about how much he had helped me to find my way through a mess of things, he was surprised and called his job writing things and then immediately throwing them in the waste basket until half a century later their impact on people, if any, returns and resurrects in the form of phone call from the small town of Torghabeh in Iran. I think the first contact was in 2010 and then it continued until he wrote a piece about me somewhere which brought me 15 minutes of fame with all its glories and pains.

I'm not going to get into that at any length. Instead, if you already don't know that he had a short but uniquely productive career as a jazz record producer in the 1960s for Candid label, and you don't know that one of his recording artists was Booker Little, and you don't know that one of Little's composition is composed and dedicated to Nat, this is the time to know and listen to Man of Words. It would be a nice way to remember the Boston Boy.

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