Defying Gravity & Social Injustice: A Tribute to Nat Hentoff, St. Louis, March 17, Details and Tickets Coming Soon
“When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”
The writer, Nat Hentoff, was my father. He passed away at the age of 91 on January 7, 2017. My father was a mensch. He taught me telling stories was important; saying your truth out loud was imperative; standing up for others had to happen; maintaining integrity was seamless; words that lead to actions matter. His life and work also had a lot to do with how and why Circus Harmony came into being.
This was an article I wrote when The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, the David Lewis documentary about my father was presented by the St. Louis International Film Festival. It is reprinted here for anyone interested in understanding how jazz, civil rights, civil liberties, social justice and social change all connect at Circus Harmony.
On March 17, there will be special show presented at The .ZACK Theater titled Defying Gravity and Social Injustice: A Tribute to Nat Hentoff. I hope you will come.
Reflection: Following the out-of-step footsteps of my father, Nat Hentoff
In 2007, David Lewis first contacted me about doing a documentary on my father, Nat Hentoff, the writer and civil libertarian. It would turn out to be a six-year project. I was thrilled to see the finished piece, The Pleasures of Being out of Step, earlier this year.
The film chronicles my father’s extensive and impressive career from his early work as a jazz critic to his current role as champion of the First Amendment. I had heard many of the stories told in the film before and I was so happy to see these accounts preserved on film.
There were even a few stories I had not heard and some priceless historical footage — some of which I’d seen (like the reunion he arranged with Billie Holiday and Lester Young on the CBS “Sound of Jazz” show) and some I had not (like his interview with Lenny Bruce).
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step website says, “The film is about an idea as well as a man – the idea of free expression as the defining characteristic of the individual.” My father simply says the film shows how he put his beliefs into practice.
In St. Louis, I’m known as the Circus Lady. I am the director of Circus Harmony, the circus school at City Museum. You can see my flying children practicing and performing there year-round. My advanced students, the St. Louis Arches, are seen there and at Circus Flora every June. My only claim to jazz fame is that Quincy Jones wrote the song “Jessica’s Day” for me when I was born. In truth, it was written about me but for my father, Nat Hentoff. Running a youth circus seems rather removed from the social and political activism of my father.
Nat Hentoff started out as a jazz writer (early editor of Downbeat and wrote liner notes to innumerable jazz albums), which led him into writing about civil rights, which included covering issues in education, which segued to his main beat of civil liberties. He continues to write about all of them. At 88 years old, he still writes every day.
Each morning, he fixes himself cottage cheese with pineapple and Thomas’ cinnamon raisin bread and makes his way down the hall to his office where he types his syndicated column, Sweet Land of Liberty, with two fingers on an electric typewriter. The column is then faxed somewhere to be digitized and distributed to more than 250 newspapers. He’s also writing his 33rd book and is generally working on several other articles all at the same time.
My father takes great pride in being out of step and not easily labeled. His stands on abortion, Israel, euthanasia, Nazis and other subjects have brought him a lot of criticism, as can be seen in the documentary. His beliefs are at the core of all he does, and he does a lot. He was the first jazz critic to be named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he currently serves as a senior fellow for the Cato Institute, a public policy and research organization. At 88, his writing continues to ruffle feathers and more. He still takes great pleasure in being obstinately consistent.
People ask me what it’s like to have a famous father. I grew up in New York City where he was pretty well known. He is less known here in the Midwest — depending on what circles you travel in — and pretty much unknown in the world of the circus where I work.
Although there was an exception: I was on a little tent circus in middle-of-nowhere Florida and the cotton candy man heard someone say my last name. “Hentoff?” he asked, “Like Nat Hentoff?” I said, “Yes, he’s my father.” And the man, who was a huge jazz fan, literally kissed my feet. The only other time I ever had that happen was in the circus when a Hungarian circus performer found out I had worked with teeterboard great Charlie Hortabyagi.
My own biological (and other) children take for granted that, because of my circus work, they’ve always known the Flying Wallendas and got into circuses everywhere for free where they would sit in the tiger trainer’s trailer or get to ride elephants. Like me going out with my father and having jazz pianist Marian McPartland sitting with us between sets; it’s just the way it was.
Growing up in New York City with my father, wherever we went, people stopped to talk with him. I had no idea how famous or important some of those people were. Some of them came to the house to visit. To me, they were just friends of my father’s.
One day, a man was over who was built rather like my father, with similar hair and beard. My then 2-year-old brother woke from a nap, toddled into the room and climbed into the man’s lap, snuggled against his chest and looked up into the face of … Charlie Mingus! He jumped up and, visibly shaken, located the “right” father and lap.
My father was “right” in other ways: He always felt compelled to do what he thought was right and to explain to me why he did so. I remember him taking me with him when he was covering some strike for a newspaper and explaining what a picket line was.
I strongly recall my father coming to me in 1965, when I was 10 years old, to tell me that he was going to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He explained how dangerous it might be, why it was so important and that he might not come back. Now, at 58, as I play a role influencing the lives of my own children and other young people, I find myself looking back on what formed my world view and set my moral compass.
At first glance, my running away and joining a circus seems to be much removed from my father’s influential work in music, education, civil rights and civil liberties. For some time, my father was vehemently against my pursuing a career as a circus aerialist. In fact, after I took a fall from an aerial act, we didn’t speak for over a year.
Nevertheless, in an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, he admitted. “I kept to myself my admiration for her doggedness and devotion to her obsession. … For one thing, I have my own obsessions, and therefore ought to be able to understand her single-mindedness.” The Journal article was a review of my performance with Circus Flora when it played in New York State in 1986. It was my father’s first public and very personal acceptance of my career.
As I moved away from performing and more into teaching and then started to develop my social circus work, my father not only accepted what I was doing, he fully supported it and even wrote about it. Social circus means I use circus arts to motivate social change. For example, Circus Harmony’s Peace Through Pyramids Project is a partnership between the St. Louis Arches and a Jewish/Arab Galilee Circus in Israel. Our first journey to Israel in 2007, was similar to my father’s marching in the South. It was to promote the ideals of civil rights, equality and cooperation.
When he wrote an article about the Peace through Pyramids collaboration in the Washington Times, my father referred to Malcolm X’s later years when Malcolm realized it was important for people to work together. He said, “I think Malcolm would have enjoyed the Galilee Arches Circus.”
In addition to the being proud of the Israel project, my father greatly and publicly appreciates the multicultural music used by Circus Harmony, including my Quincy Jones piece. My musical tastes were certainly influenced by what I heard since I was in utero. The jazz footage and backstories in The Pleasures of Being out of Step are incredible.
In the aforementioned scenes from Sounds of Jazz, my father recounts with such great pleasure being the bridge that brought Billie Holiday and Lester Young back together musically. His life bridged so many interests that intertwined so naturally. Bridge is the operative word. He was a bridge between people, between ideas and between ideals. To him it all connected: “the Constitution…is the orchestration of our liberties, jazz is ‘The Sound of Surprise’ that is the anthem of our freedom.”
Jazz and circus are more closely related than you might think. In a September 2006 Jazz Times article about Oscar Peterson, my father wrote that improvised jazz “is a dare-devil enterprise, one that draws on everything about you, not just your musical talent. It requires you to collect all your senses, your emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them totally into the performance.” Or as Kurt Elling puts it, “What you’re doing is being fully in the moment.” Replace “musical” talent with “physical,” and these sentences aptly describe what my circus students do every time they enter the ring. Interestingly, I’ve just learned that Kurt Elling’s daughter is now taking trapeze classes!
Seeing The Pleasures of Being out of Step brought home for me how much of my work and style is so closely related to the values I was raised on through my father’s life — the musical taste, the stubbornness/tenacity (depending on your point of view!), the bridge-building and even the extremism and the activism. More profoundly, the circus work I do pursues the very ideals that are at the heart of my father’s work — free expression and social justice.
If you’ve seen the St. Louis Arches or any of the flying children of Circus Harmony, you’ve seen what I do. If you see The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, you’ll see a lot of why I do what I do. As for what it was like to have a “famous” father, like any child, I don’t think I truly appreciated who my father was, or — more importantly, all he instilled in me — until I was older. I hope my own children read this and eventually reach such a realization. After all, jazz, circus and family are all about passing it on.
Jessica Hentoff special to The Beacon