It would be difficult to determine in which domain Nat Hentoff, premiere jazz critic and highly controversial First Amendment rights champion, contributed more to the public consciousness. Documentarian David L. Lewis makes no attempt to do so in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” cavalierly swinging back and forth between Hentoff’s musical and political activism, much as Hentoff himself did. Stooped at almost 90 but feisty and humor-filled as ever, Hentoff presides over a film rich in the sounds and occasional sights of legendary cultural figures, from Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X to Bob Dylan and Coleman Hawkins.
Controversy-seeking yet affably mild-mannered, Hentoff thoroughly sticks to his beliefs with an iconoclasm that has nothing to do with political correctness. The fact that he started writing out of a passionate commitment to jazz artists gave his writing an immediacy and engagement that, when coupled with his intellectual acuity, gifted jazz with an artistic legitimacy it had only sporadically enjoyed. His liner notes for breakthrough albums like Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” have become classics in their own right, and fellow music critic Stanley Crouch (perhaps the only figure in the film more controversial than Hentoff himself) assigns him a crucial role in jazz culture.
Interviews and archival clips establish Hentoff’s importance as both a critic (in DownBeat, the Village Voice and his numerous books) and as a producer of seminal jazz albums under the “Candid” label — some of them, like “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” combining music and activism. He also served as music consultant on television’s “The Sound of Jazz,” an excerpt from which features a serene Billie Holiday briefly reunited with Lester Young in a rendition of “Fine and Mellow,” two years before both their deaths.
Hentoff’s close ties with musicians, many of them black, also gave him a front-row seat to the endemic racism and exploitation suffered by even the most famous of players, returning from being adulated in Europe to being spat on down South. Along with his own past encounters with anti-Semitism as a boy in Boston, these experiences fueled a lifelong First Amendment advocacy that even encompassed defending the American Nazi Party’s rights to hold a parade in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie. That stand famously alienated him from large sections of the left (as did his later pro-life opinions and refusal to see feminism as a valid forum for civil rights). Yet even his leftist detractors speak of him with exasperated affection.
Lewis relies on interviews with contemporaneous musical and political figures to place Hentoff’s contributions and provocations in context, as well as on extensive newsreel and TV footage of Hentoff at various ages, including a confrontation with William F. Buckley where his unflappable good humor drives the latter to ultra-supercilious self-caricature. Iconic images of violence against the Freedom Riders and informal glimpses of Malcolm X (with whom Hentoff enjoyed a mutual respect) visually establish a broader sociopolitical canvas.
But it is the vivid testimony of the artists he championed and hung out with that galvanizes the film. There’s black-and-white archival footage of Bruce, high on bennies, sprawled on a stage floor, peering up at Hentoff while deploring the social hypocrisy that keeps landing him in jail. Amiri Baraka (aka Leroi Jones) waxes wryly poetic in his appreciation of Hentoff’s authenticity. A passage from Charlie Mingus’ autobiography, expressing the jazz great’s enormous admiration for Hentoff’s musical sensitivity, becomes particularly resonant in narrator Andre Braugher’s reading. And an audio clip of Hentoff’s Playboy interview with a very young Bob Dylan both underlines the anomalies of any given moment in cultural history and affords a glimpse of Hentoff’s curious place in that history.