The question of what constitutes art and where lies the cutting-edge of artistic expression has occupied critics for generations. Here, the noted art critic Clement Greenberg, famous for his unflagging promotion of abstract expressionism, studies a Kenneth Noland painting.
The fact that writer Stanley Crouch is willing to speak his mind has been known to readers of cultural criticism for three decades. Depending on one’s outlook, his views on jazz, politics, and race often spark outrage, applause, or provoke debate.
In April, 2003, Jazz Times magazine, host to Crouch’s monthly column “Jazz Alone,” published “Putting the White Man in Charge,” a provocative essay covering topics familiar to Crouch readers, most notably his aggressive defense of the jazz idiom and its African American heritage. In the essay he wrote that critics like respected Atlantic Monthly writer Francis Davis see “jazz that is based on swing and blues as the enemy and, therefore, lifts up someone like, say, Dave Douglas as an antidote to too much authority from the dark side of the tracks.”
As a result of “White Man” and the subsequent May essay on pianist Eric Reed, “Piano Prodigy,” Jazz Times dismissed Crouch via email, telling him that the column had “run its course.” This was viewed as a curious move to Crouch and others, since only a month earlier this column which had “run its course” had been billed by the magazine as his most “incendiary” yet. Soon after his dismissal, Crouch contacted journalists, including Jerry Jazz Musician, seeking a wider discussion of the event. In Crouch’s view, more is at stake than his sacking, writing, “At the center of the issue is whether or not there is room for a voice that disagrees with the jazz critical establishment.”
It seems like a legitimate question. Is there?
We decided that a conversation among Crouch and two other prominent critics within the jazz community would be the most viable approach. We settled on the highly respected cultural critic Martha Bayles, author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, and musician Loren Schoenberg, who, among other duties serves on the faculty at Julliard, is executive director of the Jazz Museum of Harlem, and author of The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz. All three of the participants had previously been interviewed in the pages of Jerry Jazz Musician.
While Crouch’s dismissal was the initial focus, the conversation then turned to the subject of jazz criticism and the divide, in Crouch’s view, between critics who favor the expansion of jazz beyond its African American heritage — including the introduction of European classical elements — and those like Crouch, who define the idiom more narrowly, preferring the music of Wynton Marsalis and the musicians associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The edited transcript of the lengthy conversation reveals a discourse rarely printed in jazz journals, and once again demonstrates how publishing on the Internet may provide readers of a particular genre with the most extensive and rewarding experience.
At one point during the conversation, when describing the mindset of critics who consider themselves to be the leading edge of artistic change, Bayles brought up the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Kenneth Noland and who, according to Bayles, “believed in cutting-edge arts that would push the world toward a socialist future,” and in artists who were “the leading cutting-edge not only of artistic change, but by implication of social and political change.” His support of and belief in these expressionists eventually became popular opinion.
It was at Crouch’s suggestion, then, that this May 4, 2003 discussion be titled “Blues for Clement Greenberg.”
Roundtable hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
Cultural historian and critic, Honors Program professor at Boston College, author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music
Cultural critic, New York Daily News columnist, former Jazz Times columnist, author of Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folks, The All American Skin Game, Notes of a Hanging Judge, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome
Conductor, saxophonist, recording artist, faculty at Juilliard, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Band Director’s Academy, Academic Director Jazz Aspen Snowmass Academy, Executive Director of The Jazz Museum In Harlem, author of The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz
JJM The impetus for this panel came as a result of Stanley writing me an email, informing me that his Jazz Times gig as columnist was terminated. He wrote, “At the center of the issue is whether or not there is room for a voice that disagrees with the jazz critical establishment.” Let’s start there. Is there room for such a voice?
MB I have a question. Where do I locate the jazz critical establishment? I don’t really have a sense of what amounts to the “establishment” these days.
LS One of the problems is that there is no forum for any serious debate about issues in the jazz community, and that may be one of the reasons you (Martha) have trouble finding it. All that ever really appears are a couple of regular editorials in a handful of publications, and the occasional article in a major newspaper or magazine. But, it is like a one-sided tennis game. Nobody ever “bats the ball back” because there is a kind of unanimity among whomever the major writers are considered to be. Perhaps the greatest import of the action Jazz Times took in firing Stanley is that they basically told their readers that the jazz community can’t take someone with a strong opinion opposed to those of the major writers, and that they don’t have the respect for the jazz public and for their readers.
MB I feel somewhat at a disadvantage because I don’t read Jazz Times, so I don’t have a sense of what they tend to communicate. Maybe you could enlighten me, Stanley. Give me some examples of what the drift is.
SC You saw my piece, “Putting the White Man in Charge”?
SC It is laid out in the piece. In other words, the argument that the writer Tom Piazza makes about that particular vision that these critics have, in which he writes “Many jazz reviewers – especially among the generation that grew up in the 1960s and ’70s – suffer from intense inferiority feelings in front of the musicians they write about. This results in a vacillation between an exaggerated hero-worship of musicians and an exaggerated sense of betrayal when the musicians don’t meet their needs.” This is his observation as a man who moved among critics and it is his interpretation of how they think and what they are like. Then there is the argument in the piece where I write that a musician like Dave Douglas has been elevated beyond his abilities in order to substantiate a certain kind of ideology that seems to be the dominant way of looking at things among those critics.
MB Well, I am getting two things off of this. One is that, in all the arts, there is a general bias in the critical community toward what is considered cutting-edge, innovative, and “out there.” So, there is a tendency to be biased, if you will, toward looking at the “new thing,” to use an old phrase. Consequently, there is a tendency among musicians to go for whatever is passing as avant-garde this week. But, I don’t quite see how that correlates with race, because there are avant-garde black musicians and avant-garde white musicians. There are people of all colors who like and don’t like avant-garde music. Because of this, I am having trouble putting the race frame on top of the styles of music frame. That is really my difficulty with this whole topic.
SC But, you see, if you look at these things like the polls that are put together by the jazz journalists, and look at the people they select, as I say in the piece part of it is racial, but the ultimate thing is an attempt to remove the significance of Afro-American elements of jazz from the discussion. There are all these pieces written by people like Stuart Nicholson and others who write that nothing new is coming out of America, that whatever is new in jazz is coming out of Europe. Throughout the history of jazz there has been this tendency to perceive jazz advancing itself, if you will, by embracing whatever is considered advanced in European music. Dave Douglas, to me, is symbolic of what these guys are after.
JJM Does the disconnect from the African-American tradition make it any less jazz?
SC Yes, it does. In a number of pieces I wrote for Jazz Times, I would say that there are all kinds of music in which people improvise, and from all over the world. What has happened in the arena of jazz writing is that there is no definition of jazz at this point. Jazz is just something that is “improvised,” so the key elements that connect, for example, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, are no longer obtained as far as what you get in these jazz magazines. And their whole idea is of how jazz should be “inclusive,” that it shouldn’t “exclude” anything. If that is the case, who is to say what jazz is?
LS I would throw in, in terms of what is driving this discussion, is Stanley’s being let go from writing this column for Jazz Times magazine, and what was really behind it and what the issue really is. I think that a lot of it had to do with the fact that, while Stanley was willing to give Dave Douglas benefit for whatever talents, in his estimation, he has, a lot of the critical community that is behind pushing someone like Dave Douglas has a very dismissive attitude towards Wynton Marsalis and a lot of the folks at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There are so many conflicts and perceived conflicts of interest here that muddy the water. With all the columns and record reviews of varying literary and critical quality that appear in Jazz Times and other jazz publications, it seems to me for Jazz Times to take this action and take away a column from one strong, opinionated voice in the wilderness, in my opinion, is related to his connection to Marsalis. Many other critics have had strong connections to artists that they champion. I feel it is related still to the fact there are perceptions that when Wynton took over at Jazz at Lincoln Center, it was the first time that a major cultural institution had jazz bookings and jazz programs, and it was led by an administration that was less willing to pay obeisance to the white community that dominated and decided who played where and who did what. I can tell you that this reverberated deeply, and I think that some of those reverberations actually are what are bouncing back and led to Stanley being taken out of that magazine. I really do believe that.
MB When you talk about the white community, you mean the kind of gate keeper, decision makers?
LS Yes, the people who ran the record companies, the people who ran the bookings, the festivals, the musicians and all the great “critical heads of jazz.” It would be disingenuous to say that that was not related to this. I see them as related.
MB Can I play the devil’s advocate for the moment, though?
LS Please do.
MB It strikes me that if Stanley’s column was strictly about musical values, it wouldn’t have irritated people quite so much. But when you get into telling white guys that they are uncomfortable being around black guys, that seems like it was sort of calculated to stimulate a reaction
LS Stanley? A provocateur?
MB I hope you will forgive me, Stanley, but I am coming into the tail end of this and I don’t know the degree to which you have been provoked, although I have some sense of that. I haven’t been on the moon all this time. But, what you wrote seems guaranteed to get a huge rise out of people that has nothing to do with music.
LS But, part of my problem, Martha, and I have read your book and I know how much you know, so I have a sense for how you feel about this. It is very much like the elephant in the movie Jumbo with Jimmy Durante, and with the elephant right before him he says, “What elephant?” The fact is that you won’t see any serious reflection on any of these issues that Stanley is raising in his columns. Now, whether or not you or I would express our opinions in the way he did is not the point I am making. The point I am making is at least he is raising the issues. This played out almost as if Jazz Times wanted to have Stanley stir up the community and get a rise of them, and when, in their view, Stanley went too far, they could tell him, “That’s enough.” I am not saying that was an implicit understanding, because it wasn’t as far as I know. But, once Stanley’s work veered towards the critical community, and the magazine felt as if he were savaging “one of their own,” they had enough of the controversy and yanked him.
MB So, Stanley, the substance of your gripe with the establishment and with jazz critics let me see if I can articulate it and you tell me where I am off, OK?
SC It is in the essay. The essay takes a very simple position that there has always been a race problem in jazz and there have always been times when white guys have been given visions of value that exceed what they actually do. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of jazz with Paul Whiteman marketed as the “King of Jazz,” which, as I say in the column, I believe was one of the reasons that led to Duke Ellington’s attempt to get the people of his period to call their music “Negro Music,” and not “jazz.” I think he was aware of the fact that, by that time, in the mid to late twenties, even the white man wasn’t ready to have a white king of “Negro music.” I think that that was very clear to him. White musicians being given more attention in the jazz magazines has been an ongoing issue for a long time. Once upon a time during the thirties or forties there was a big controversy about putting a black musician on the cover of Down Beat. Then there was another thing, when during the sixties a number of black musicians who could not really play but who asserted their own importance based upon some kind of genealogical connection to Africa and Africans, and that the white man had to put up with that in jazz the same way white people had to put up with black power, black studies, and hostility from black kids on campus during the sixties.
So we are now at a point in which this group of guys who define themselves, as I said in the essay, in those terms that Rimbaud described as having a love of sacrilege — that is to say that their position in life is based on their rebellion against something. Now they are at the point where they can rebel against the Negro and the Negro elements in jazz, and are trying to foist people like Dave Douglas on to the scene as though he is the greatest trumpet player out there. There is no real argument about whether he is or is not. The basic thing to me is this. What you see in these magazines is that they decide who the person at the top is. In Down Beat forty years ago, everybody didn’t just go for Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or whomever it was. Now, the situation is that if Dave Douglas is supposed to be numero uno, everybody submits to that. If Wynton Marsalis is supposed to be neo-bop or something, everybody says that. There is not a situation where you have any real debate over the relative merits of different musicians, or what their aesthetic is or is not. That kind of exchange is not going on, and when I got this email pink slip from Chris Porter at Jazz Times, the whole thing took place in an exceedingly unprofessional manner. That is to say, I write about 100 columns a year for the Daily News for six or so years. I have written 600 or 700 columns for them now. My experience is that when you write a column your editor may find to be repetitious or whatever, you and the editor talk that out.
MB I read the message they sent you and it seemed extremely cursory, shall we say…
SC What I am saying is this issue was not handled in a professional manner. He didn’t like a column I sent him. If they were having problems with the column, I am supposed to be the first one to know, and we are supposed to talk it through, which is what people in the professional world do. Due to the fact that nothing like that took place
MB They raised none of these questions when editing the piece?
SC No. I sent one in, and if they didn’t like the next one that came in, they could have sent an email suggesting that we talk more about it. Whatever it is, just normal professional activity.
MB If I were in your shoes I would conclude that they heard from somebody after the fact who had a lot of clout, and that was that. Somebody weighed in from some corner or other and that was that.
SC That may well be. I don’t know. All I know is that, in the 27 years that I have lived in New York, and in the writing time that I have had, and in the many publications I have been in, I have never had a situation in which something took place on that unprofessional of a level.
MB That would piss me off too.
SC But it is not a matter of being “pissed off,” what this is about is a problem within this community, which is that if they were at odds with something, an editor is supposed to tell me to try something else, because I wrote about a number of different things other than that for them, and the editor could have said to try another subject. That is not what happened.
JJM Addressing the issue of what is important to the reader, is it possible fans of jazz and readers of Jazz Times like Douglas’ integration of Balkan material into his sound because they find it intellectually stimulating, and are frankly not as concerned about the definition of “jazz” as they are about listening to or participating in the performance of music that is, to them, entertaining or intellectually rewarding?
MB By that question, it seems you shifted the ground back into a disinterested, critical discourse about the merits of certain kinds of music within certain kinds of musical traditions and the borders of those traditions, and whether something is inside or outside the borders or the limits of a certain tradition where you can still use the word “jazz” to apply to it. And that is a very interesting, intellectual debate. What strikes me is that at the outset of this conversation Stanley and Loren were both asserting that this debate is not happening. It sounds like the question you are asking is not getting asked, and that is part of the problem. Perhaps it is a matter of people jockeying for the “bennies” that are out there in the industry, and criticism has become a kind of shilling for whatever it is that is selling out there now. Is that the drift to where Stanley and Loren are going with this? I am accepting that there is no debate, and that is extremely unfortunate, and it sounds like this move on Stanley only makes the problem worse. What is to be done, to ask the question of Lenin? Why isn’t there a debate?
JJM I get that some musicians are frustrated that Stanley’s “camp” is restricting what can be determined as jazz. I suppose it is important to Douglas that his music be called “jazz,” and wishes to be known as a “jazz musician” whether he employs a traditional quartet or if he were to use Balkan folk material. My question to Stanley is how do musicians reach the heights of those attained by Louis Armstrong if their primary purpose is to emulate musicians from a previous era?
SC So now you think you are going to achieve the heights of Louis Armstrong by playing Balkan music? Is that it?
JJM I am not suggesting that, but Douglas’s employment of Balkan folk material is pretty radical, and if you turn the clock back 75 years, you can easily make the case that what Armstrong was doing was also pretty radical.
SC But, see, here is the problem I have. That is all of what’s going on now. In the column I wrote about Ornette Coleman’s contribution — and Coleman has never come “in,” he stayed “out there” where he was when he came to New York — I felt that there is such a strong blues quality in his sound and in his ability to swing. He is not somebody that you have to have a panel discussion about whether or not he is a jazz musician. I don’t care if somebody improvises or doesn’t improvise, whether they use Balkan music or not. That is not really the issue to me. The issue is that what these people want to do, and what the jazz critical establishment has concluded over the last twenty years or so, is that essentially there is no definition for “jazz.” I don’t believe that. I am not arguing that you can’t do whatever it is you want to do. The fundamentals of jazz are no more restrictive than the fundamentals of sex. There are certain things that have to go on in sex. Somebody may think that certain things may be too limiting, or that two people should be in two different rooms so they could actually do something different from what people usually do, whatever those things are. Now we are talking about telepathy or something different. All that, to me, is fraudulent. That whole idea of “cutting-edge” and all, that is just a bunch of bull shit to me, in the sense that the real achievements of the so-called “avant-garde” have never been built upon, quite frankly. The kind of melodic lines that Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry could play are not what most people attempt. The kinds of rhythmic complexities of Elvin Jones, a young Tony Williams or Ed Blackwell, or what Don Pullen figured out in playing that kind of clustered material and swing it with a rhythm section as he did with George Adams and Dannie Richmond, are not what people are trying. They don’t care to try. And it is not always because they can’t do it, or don’t choose to do it, but it is because the critical establishment is in this all-embracing posture. I don’t buy that.