Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: A Portrait of a True Iconoclast
kids will probably never appreciate the art of liner notes. Obviously, there is
no place to put them on an illegal download. There is also the clear implication
that the music contained within is worth taking the time to discuss at length.
Nat Hentoff always, always believed jazz was an art form worthy of serious
attention. Not surprisingly, many of Hentoff’s admirers first knew him for his
LP notes and jazz journalism. However, David L. Lewis devotes roughly equal
time to Hentoff’s tireless defense of free expression. It is a continuing
commitment that cuts across ideological lines. As a result, he offers an
unusually complex and intellectually engaging profile of the NEA Jazz Master in
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes
on the Life of Nat Hentoff (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.
never worried about winning popularity contests. To put things in perspective,
Hentoff was fired from Downbeat magazine
decades ago, because he hired an African American. In a bit of a scoop, Hentoff
provides an ironic coda to this notorious story during a public appearance
Lewis captures. Nevertheless, it still illustrates Hentoff’s personal and
political commitment to racial equality. The fact that was on good terms with
musicians like Max Roach and Charles Mingus (not exactly shrinking violets) and
developed a considerable level of trust with Malcolm X, speaks volumes.
his long association with the Village
Voice, Hentoff also emerged as arguably the strongest and most consistent
defender of civil liberties. While Lewis never addresses Hentoff’s dissenting
reports on Terri Schiavo (which frankly shames us all as a nation), he tackles the
columnist’s unapologetically pro-life evolution (for much the same reasons he
opposes capital punishment).
Lewis’s instincts are pretty much spot-on throughout Pleasures. While fully establishing Hentoff’s nonpartisan dedication
to principle, he largely lets the man speak for himself. Of course, it is easy
to see why. Six decades of courting controversy have not dulled his wit, eloquence,
or flair for the provocative. Most importantly, Lewis licensed many classic, thematically
appropriate jazz recordings for the soundtrack (Mingus, Roach with Abbey
Lincoln, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, etc.). It probably sounds like a
no-brainer to use jazz music in a film about jazz, but you would be surprised
how many filmmakers lose faith in their subjects and opt for mushy mood music
So good for Lewis for recognizing jazz and
contrariness make an entertaining combination. Probably nobody agrees with
Hentoff up and down the line (his wife certainly does not, but she is also a
smart, dynamic interview subject). Yet, it is always interesting hear the Cato
Institute fellow make his case. Fittingly, Hentoff is also on the board of the
Jazz Foundation of America, so he would most likely approve of closing this
review with an invitation to support their efforts on behalf of real deal
musicians in need at their website here. Highly recommended for supporters of
jazz and the Constitution, The Pleasures
of Being Out of Step opens this Wednesday (6/25) in New York at the IFC Center.
Labels: Documentary, Nat Hentoff