Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome: A roundtable discussion with Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early and Kitty Margolis

November 23rd, 2004

Roundtable

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“Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome

A November 23, 2004 Jerry Jazz Musician hosted conversation,

with

Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early and Kitty Margolis

Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome

by

Stanley Crouch

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(Originally published in hardback edition in 2000 by Pantheon.  Now, four years later, the paperback edition, which includes a new Afterword and corrections to the original text, has been published by Vintage).

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Although it has had its share of detractors, critical acclaim for Stanley Crouch’s first novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, is quite impressive — particularly among scholars and fellow writers. For example, Susan di Sesa, former Executive Editor of The Modern Library called it “one of the most profound novels in the English language,” while Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson wrote, “In attempting to employ ‘riffs’ to explore the emotional and psychological dimensions of his characters, Stanley Crouch has evolved a new narrative technique.”

Crouch — known primarily as an outspoken New York cultural critic — clearly understands that a serious writer’s role is to provoke his audience with potentially new avenues of thought, and challenge them through an exploration with form and language. In Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, Crouch intelligently examines contemporary cultural situations through the lives of complex characters, and sets fire to the myth often glorified in jazz fiction that its performers are little more than under-educated, generally hopeless drug addicts.

James McBride, author of The Color of Water, wrote of Lonesome, “It is about the people who inhabit the new territory of race, politics and music, a place where up is down, down is up, black is white, and the only sound that matters is the song that emanates from the human soul.” This sort of sophistication — evident throughout the book — and Crouch’s artistic passion ignites the potential for an intriguing conversation on a variety of thought-provoking topics.

Our November 23, 2004 Roundtable features Crouch, cultural critic Gerald Early, and jazz singer Kitty Margolis in a discussion about the essence of Lonesome, the issues of race on the bandstand, the image jazz musicians have within society, the improvisational similarities writers and jazz musicians share, the future of jazz, and its remarkable past.

Roundtable hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

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Editor’s note:  Due to an earlier commitment, Early left before the conclusion of the conversation.

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Kitty Margolis

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Singer, songwriter, arranger and educator. Attended Harvard & San Francisco State. Her Mad-Kat recordings have garnered international acclaim and recognition in the Downbeat Critic’s Poll six times (including 2004.) Has performed & recorded with many greats including Lionel Hampton, Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones, Roy Hargrove, Hank Jones, & Charles Brown, appearing at top venues on four continents. Her new CD “Heart & Soul: Live in San Francisco” was named Top 10 CD of 2004 by Newsday.

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Stanley Crouch

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   Cultural critic, New York Daily News columnist, former Jazz Times columnist, has written articles for The New Yorker, The New Republic and Esquire.  Author of Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folks, The All American Skin Game, Notes of a Hanging Judge, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome.  Recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award. Acted as a consultant for Ken Burns on his documentaries on jazz and Jack Johnson.

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Gerald Early

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Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis, and one of America’s most respected essayists. His work on American culture is collected in Tuxedo Junction, The Culture of Bruising (National Book Award), and One Nation Under a Groove, a book on Motown.  Early has edited collections on African American rhetoric, black consciousness, sports, and Muhammad Ali, and acted as a consultant for Ken Burns on his documentaries on jazz, baseball and Jack Johnson.

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“Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”

– Salvador Dali

 

 

“The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”

– John Updike

 

 

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

– Aristotle

 

Louisiana Serenade (From the Jazz Series)

by Romare Bearden

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     Some he and some she wanted to hear a story from the streets that dipped down into the basins of society.  They wanted to be taken with words to where some of the people who were light and some of those who weren’t could meet.  Tease us with a tale, they said, of walking outside the skin you were given and the skin you were told meant something particular.

     They waited.  They waited.  Oh well.

     A story showed up, looking like a Midwestern lady.  A woman and her world right now.  Oh, she had some adventures.  Her soul was informed by epiphanies.  She learned how to listen.  She learned how to think.  She learned to raise up out of herself and become an adult.  She learned that memory is an instrument of return and that the human heart is always going back to the times when it was most deeply touched, when it was pierced, when it grew wings and took to flying.

So you, like that some he and some she, will get to know the motion of a soul, and the Chinese-box rhythm of that motion is what we will call her story.
– Prelude to Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome,

by Stanley Crouch

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– Listen to the Duke Ellington Orchestra play Black and Tan Fantasy

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JJM   I see Stanley’s book, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, as a pursuit of personal identity amid the complexities of turn of the 21st Century America, and neither Carla nor Maxwell — the book’s romantically involved, racially mixed couple — find themselves until they let go of the need to live their relationship through the eyes and expectations of others. In essence, they have to reject the idea of having to live a life of “twoness” that society imposes on racially diverse relationships before discovering their true identity. How the relationship plays out within their careers as successful jazz performers is a reminder of the importance music plays throughout our culture. I found this to be quite enlightening. Gerald and Kitty, what did you find most enlightening about Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome?

KM   In general, I am not a big fan of jazz fiction, so it was refreshing that I enjoyed it so much. I liked the book’s richly descriptive view of the world through a jazz musician’s perspective, especially the passages that reveal the state of mind we get into on the bandstand, and, in general, of the life that we lead. I also like how creativity played such an important part in the book, and that drugs played a relatively minor role in the lives of the characters in this book. So much fiction involving jazz musicians is really focused a lot on the drugs they allegedly use, and not on their creativity. Stanley’s book gives readers a chance to really get into the every day mindset of a jazz artist, and the subculture in which they perform. The relationships in the book were really rich and complex and real, plus, I loved the feeling it gave for living and performing in New York.

GE  I would certainly echo that. A lot of jazz fiction has been written by people who don’t play jazz music, or who don’t even know very much about playing it. Writers are attracted to it because of the kind of lifestyle jazz represents, and they tend to write about how that makes listeners feel, but not a lot about how the art affects the lives of the performers themselves. So, as Kitty said, I believe the book was path-breaking in terms of how it presented jazz music.

The thing that you were talking about in your opening statement concerning the relationship between people is an important part of the book, but it is not new since many novels do that. Many books are written about people having to overcome some kind of social proscription in order to realize themselves, or to have successful relationships. I thought Stanley presented this in a very different and experimental style that results in the characters realizing themselves in a way you might not normally find in novels.

What I found very interesting about the novel was how much of it is built around “talk,” and built around people making speech acts. There are a lot of certain set speech patterns in the book. I also like how the book is absorbed with a whole lot of complexities about aesthetics. I thought that those were the two most fascinating things about the book.

JJM   Stanley, do you want to add something?

SC  My intention was to get above the things written in books that have been purported to be about jazz. There are a number of them that deal with the issue of a famous musician who fell by the wayside and who is now trying to make some kind of comeback. I have seen this in lightweight novels like Blue Bossa [by Bart Schneider] and Ross Russell’s The Sound. There are generally tragic figures at the center of these novels and those characters are rendered superficially. Even if the sense of the main character is accurate, the book’s focus tends to be very narrow.

I have known so many musicians who have traveled all over the world and who play in a lot of different situations. They are usually summations of these experiences and of the many people they have learned from, either on the bandstand or in jam sessions or in conversations. This whole process of how a jazz musician learns to become himself or herself through other people, and how their interest in the arts — what they read, listen to and discuss — has never been told. I wanted to bring all of this together in my main character Carla, who is not actually from the “jazz world,” but from a small town in South Dakota. The thing about jazz is that you don’t necessarily need to have a jazz pedigree, you could even be from way out West in the Dakotas. There is a Russian jazz musician everybody talks about named Igor Butman, and they say he plays with so much fire and conviction, and has such a great feeling for jazz that he is proof that jazz is a universal art. If you have a feeling for it, or if you develop a feeling for it, wherever you are from, you can play.

So, what Carla has to learn in the book is that anywhere you are from is okay. That is one of the things that at some point every jazz musician has to learn — that you don’t have to be born in New Orleans or Chicago or New York, or you don’t have to be from the South, or from a certain ethnic group. Those things can add something if you have sufficient talent and if you know what to make of them, but they are not really what is important. What is important is if you have a deep feeling for the music, have the discipline to learn it, and if you get with the right people and have enough high level experience to become an artist. That is a lot of what I was trying to communicate in the book. Also, I was trying to portray the musicians as being more intelligent than I tend to see them being in other novels about jazz. The intelligence of the people in jazz novels usually comes from the outside, exclusively from the writer. I wanted to do something new and make the intelligence of the characters in my book to come from within. I wanted them to have big minds and imaginations and broad sensibilities, just like many of the people you meet in the New York jazz world.

KM   People sometimes project a lot of “loser” stuff on to jazz musicians. A lot of these negative qualities you are talking about concerning how other books characterize musicians — that they’re not cultured, that they have mental or emotional problems, that they have drug problems — feeds this “loser” image. What Stanley did in his novel is show that the reality is quite different. Most of the time, jazz musicians are very high quality people, and, like Duke Ellington before them, they can be among the most well read, thoughtful, and intelligent people anywhere. It takes a lot of savvy to travel as much as we do, to meet the challenges of life on the road, to work with musicians who are sometimes complete strangers and might not even speak the same language as we do, and to improvise at a high level with them on the bandstand.

JJM  Kitty, in a blurb for the book you wrote, “The major and minor characters are rendered with startling intimacy as we are taken on a riveting and realistic journey into the jazz life and all of its complications,” which basically echoes what you are saying here. What sorts of complications does Carla experience that may be similar to those you have encountered?

KM   I grew up in a really white, conservative suburb south of San Francisco, and Carla grew up in South Dakota, so neither of us grew up in a racially diverse community. Even though my hometown was an idyllic place to grow up in many ways, I sometimes felt like some kind of alien dropped there. Because I had a hard time relating to the people’s close-mindedness, I never felt I completely belonged there.

As far as our similarities encountering racism, my first awareness of it came when I heard a story that Willie Mays wasn’t allowed to buy a house in our town. While I am not certain this was true, even if it wasn’t, the fact that the story was out there was quite a wake-up call for an innocent little fourth grade chick that something like this could happen. Mays was my hero, and it made me totally sick.

Soon, I was an eleven-year-old precocious thing attending the Fillmore Auditorium, where I started seeing acts like Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King, getting my first good taste of musical flavor and diversity there. At the same time, I got “tuned-in” and became excruciatingly aware as a young girl of the Black Panthers and that whole situation that was happening in the East bay. I don’t understand how anyone could have been unaware of what was happening, even as a child, if they lived here at that time, but I recall being a lot more affected by civil rights issues than most of the people around me. For some reason, even though I was in this sort of white enclave, I had my antennae out and developed a strong sensitivity toward black and white issues at quite a young age.

But I didn’t start playing jazz at this time. I was a guitarist way before I was a singer. I was playing folk music and Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. That was what was hip, and they were only role models young female musicians had in those days — guitar playing girls, at least. I didn’t get into playing jazz until after I dropped out of Harvard after attending for two years, when I was twenty, to attend San Francisco State and follow this desire I had to become a musician. My first jazz gigs were with racially mixed bands, and I got dropped into this pretty heavy scene right away. I began to play steadily at a club in the center of the “hood” in Richmond, California. One time while we were playing there a person got shot in the back room, so, looking back on it, it may not have been a safe place for me to be at all. But as far as I was concerned, we were just making the scene. I was pretty oblivious perhaps, but I was learning a lot. Back in those days, no matter where the clubs were, an older crowd of black and white people hung out in them and made these places happen. It was really magical to discover that world, and I became totally entranced with it. It was like a huge door opening for me.

JJM  There is a scene in Stanley’s book that has Carla in church with Maxwell (who is black) and his parents, and she felt a little anxious about singing with the black congregation. Did you ever experience performance anxiety in front of a black audience?

KM   My experience of singing in front of all black audiences came very early in my professional life, where I sang jazz in that scene I just described. To tell you the truth, I never really did have any performance anxiety, probably because this whole culture was opening up to me just as the world of jazz was. I was more excited about it than nervous. I never got anything but encouragement from black audiences, or from the black musicians — many of whom were heroes to me. I played with people like John Handy, Eddie Henderson, Pee Wee Ellis, Eddie Moore, Joe Henderson, Eddie Jefferson, Etta Jones, and these cats always loved me. I never really felt the tension. I think it was different out here on the West Coast than it was in New York. Things seemed a little less racially intense to me here. I spent a lot of time in New York in those days too, and I noticed just a little bit more division and distrust between the black and white musicians there. I noticed more sexism, actually, than racism, and this was whether the people were musicians or whether they were just hanging out. But I never felt particularly anxious. Everything was new to me, so I was just excited.

GE Stanley was talking earlier about the intelligence he was giving his characters. As I mentioned, there is a lot of talking in the book, which is a different dimension entirely, because traditionally in jazz fiction, jazz musicians are presented as primitive. They represent a primitive impulse, and as a result of being primitive they are easier to romanticize. In addition, because they are primitive, they are usually inarticulate and only capable of expressing themselves while playing their music. When they are not playing they can’t express themselves.

That has become one of the big cliches of jazz writing, as well as what Stanley was saying before about tragedy. Jazz has always been dramatized as something tragic. While there certainly is tragedy in Stanley’s novel, it is essentially not a tragic novel. So, while it is doing different kinds of things, it is not just riffing on the jazz novel. It is riffing on Invisible Man in a lot of ways, it is riffing on Faulkner, and it is riffing on many other things. It is a very ambitious novel. It is terrifically ambitious for somebody’s first novel, to be that daring and to do as many things as Stanley tries to do in this novel. It took a lot of guts to write this! If he told me he was going to write this I would have asked him if he really wanted to take all that on. {Laughs}. It is pretty gutsy for someone to want to be this daring, especially since it is his first novel.

SC I have been thinking about that section you were talking about concerning Carla’s insecurity in the church. In that part of the book, she is sitting in church, feeling this insecurity, but it is something she is putting on herself. She is a professional singer, trained at a conservatory in Chicago, she has been on many bandstands, she leads her own bands in New York, writes arrangements — in other words, Carla is a real musician who should nothave these insecurities. She and Maxwell had a good relationship for four years, during which time they were oblivious to race. However, when he reached a higher level of success, one of the consequences was that people suddenly became interested in who his girlfriend was, and ethnic pressures entered their relationship. A kind of ethnic entitlement was then imposed on him by the black women who didn’t necessarily show interest in him prior to his success, but who decide that he should be theirs, and he shouldn’t be Carla’s.

This pressure affected Maxwell, and he began to withdraw from Carla. Her personal confidence then began to fall, sometimes in very absurd ways, like when she was sitting in that church, pretending that she didn’t know how to sing. She was imposing limitations on herself that didn’t exist rather than live her life. So, I was trying to illustrate that when someone tells you in some way that you are the outsider, you can begin to work on imposing that on yourself. A lot of the book is about the resources that Carla has to call upon in order to resist external definitions of her that don’t have anything to do with who she is. And even though this is cast in the music world and has to do with an interracial romance, it is something that most people have to do in their lives anyway.

One of the things I was hoping to do is what a Balzac or Flaubert did, where they would take a certain aspect of society and reveal a universal problem. I wanted to be able to look at the kinds of things that happen to people in the United States, and see if I could get to those human essences. It’s tricky because on the one hand you are told not to introduce too much racial stuff because it will take away the artistry of a book, and on the other hand you are told you can’t ignore this otherwise you are selling out. But my contention is that you can bring out the human element that makes any kind of situation universal, and that is what I was trying to do.

KM You did good job of using those things as springboards for people’s growth, instead of limitations. These issues can become either limitations or pathways to growth, depending on how a person reacts to them.

SC   I was quite interested in one of the things you were saying earlier, Kitty — and I believe this happens in the world of jazz — that you can have different kinds of intelligence based on different kinds of education and background, and part of what you as an individual have to do is learn how to actually listen beyond the surface. In other words, during your experience in Richmond, you must have encountered a bunch of people who were very intelligent, but who were not highly educated. At first you may only hear and understand half of what these people are saying, but after a certain point, you come to learn how to listen to what someone is saying, and from that be able to recognize their intelligence — or lack of intelligence. That was something I wanted to do consciously, to have Carla go through these different worlds, and for her to take the reader with her. The result is that they come to recognize the intelligence that resides in everyone, whether she is talking to someone educated like Maxwell, who reads lots of books…

KM  And her friend Leeann too…

SC Yes, whoever it is, the point is that different forms of intelligence arise. In a sense, one aspect of the book is that it is a thesis on intelligence and the many forms in which it appears. This allowed me to search for what one literary critic called “democratic narrative.” Gerald touched on this earlier when he talked about the book riffing on Invisible Man. I think this was one of the things Ellison had in mind. He wanted to show the existence of different forms of intelligence, whether it be from a guy like the poor black Southerner Jim Trueblood, up to the college president, to the people in the political organizations, and all the others his narrator encounters. I feel that to get the kind of epic quality of American life, understanding the arrival of intelligence in almost everyone is something you have to shoot for.

JJM   The nuances of other cultures and the attempts at understanding them by those outside that particular culture was also a very interesting part of the book. Gerald, you said that talking is an important part of the book, and one of the fascinating conversations in it took place between Carla and her friend Leeann — who is black — concerning the use of the term “nigger.” Carla was quite uncomfortable with Leeann’s repeated use of it in conversaton. On this issue, Stanley writes, “Carla had made herself become accustomed to Leeann using the word nigger, which she could not abide any more easily from her than from anyone else, but accepted because, as she continued to find out over and over, no black person would stop using it just because she didn’t like to hear it. Part of the power they assumed was to determine when the word was destructive and when it was painful, even when it was neutral or joking or an appellation of honor.” Crouch went on to write of Carla, “Those two syllables, as any kind of term — even when she had to laugh and laugh herself — finally gave Carla an unpleasant feeling, and she thought black people rather naïve about the word because, not once in her experience, had a white person used nigger with anything less than a demeaning intention.”

GE  Yes, this just emphasized for me the certain level of complexities that exist in the book, and is a good example of the concerns about nuances, how people speak in the book, and how dialogue is used in it. There are just rivers of stuff going on in the novel, from the minister’s very long sermon to the discussion about young black people at the end of the book and about black studies — which I thought was just hilarious, being in black studies myself. I don’t know how many of my colleagues would think it was funny, but I thought it was pretty funny. Throughout the book, there are all sorts of little nuggets that come up, like a discussion about the Rocky movie mentioned early in the book.

The book has a real intellectual questing quality to it. It is a voracious book in that way, because it is reaching out for different subjects, and it is absorbing a lot of stuff. In that way, it is sort of like a lot of great American epic novels, like an Invisible Man or a Huckleberry Finn. It is really trying to give the reader this great epic sort of view, and sometimes it comes from the narrator, and other times it is from characters who are talking to you about a whole bunch of complex stuff — and trying to orchestrate all of this is a real task for any novelist. The range of the characters in this book is a very rich range of people. The characterization of Maxwell’s homosexual brother Aaron, for example, was a very good and provocative characterization. And at times, with the church being evoked in the book, with a character like Aaron and the whole sensibility with the sister, it made me think a little bit of good Baldwin fiction, like portions of Just Above My Head, or something like that.

SC Yes, that book contains some astounding passages.

GE  So, your comment concerning the use of the word “nigger” in that conversation between Leeann and Carla — really, what you are pointing out is what I felt the writer is about, because the book is trying so much to pull in so many things. As I said, it’s astonishing that he is able to make it work. It is very tricky to pull all this stuff in, because the first thing a lot of people would say about a writer attempting this is that he will lose himself in this, or that it is terrifically self-indulgent, and that this really isn’t going to work. So that is the interesting thing, the sense that it really comes together very well.

When you read the book and as things come to mind to you, you are not left thinking this particular thought or passage was inspired by a certain writer, rather what comes to mind is that it is evocative of a certain writer but it is different from what that writer would do. It is sort of like distilling a certain kind of essence of this writer, putting it in, and make it work. Stanley does this and is able to make it fit all as his own voice. An amazing thing about the book is how strong his own voice is in the book.

KM  Yes, I agree.

JJM  Stanley, when you were writing this book, did you ever have another writer in your mind, for instance, someone who would be proud of a particular passage if you wrote it in a certain way?

SC  I talk a lot about techniques and form in the afterward of the paperback. My formal model was actually Moby Dick. The reason it was Moby Dick is because Melville uses a digressive form. By that I mean that the novel is about a bunch of guys chasing a particular whale, so this points the narrative in a certain kind of way. But he continues to digress over something about the law, about science, about leadership, and a number of things. The form mutates as it goes along. Sometimes it is a straight narrative, at other times it starts with the first person, at others it goes into the third person. Then there are these conversations that the first person narrator could not have heard, and other characters that the first person narrator would not be aware of. Then it returns to the first person, and on and on. So, in certain a way, you can say that Melville gave us the green light to figure out a way to write a book that did not have to be an imitation of a European novel. At that time, there were great novels being written in Europe, without a doubt. You have Balzac, Flaubert, and many great writers working in Europe…

GE  Yes, and Dickens is coming.

SC Yes, Dickens is coming, that’s right. So all kinds of things are happening, but in terms of the freedom of the form, none of them approach what Melville gives us in Moby Dick.

I was talking with the literary critic Denis Donohue, who said something very fascinating to me. He said that if you look at James Joyce, he really fits into his time period, because at this same time, Picasso and the painters and the sculptors were achieving another level of improvisation with images inspired by art from the third world — primarily Africa. At the same time, Stravinsky is revamping Western music on the basis of the Russian folk music he heard while growing up, and of course there was the music of Debussy and Ravel and what those two men did to European harmony. So Joyce is surrounded by this creativity and is working in the midst of a revolutionary period, and while he may have been above a lot of writers, he was part of his period. Donohue’s position was that fundamentally, Melville was a greater genius than Joyce because there was no movement during the time he wrote, all of that just came out of him. He was the movement. He wasn’t surrounded by all of these people who were doing all of these revolutionary activities in their own art forms. On his own, he made his art new. So, the way he used language and the freedom with which Moby Dick was written was a big inspiration to me. I wanted the language of the book — the spoken language and the narrative language — to have the kind of freedom that you hear coming from a jazz musician, as if you use the individual languages of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, all within the novel. Within this, at times I tried to change the tone of the narrative to fit the character that the narrative was talking about, so that sometimes the speaking sound of the individual character affects the sound of the narrative. I tried to do this because I really feel that our lives as Americans are so diverse, and that people have to absorb so much information — and can absorb it — in order to achieve an understanding of the variety of humanity. That is what I was trying to do with the form — to reveal the characters in their situations — because quite often, what superficially separates people has nothing to do with the way they are connected as human beings.

Wynton Marsalis was talking to me once about the film Lonesome Dove, and he was saying what really made it great for him was that he was never sure how the characters played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones would react to the situations with which they were presented. This always made the narrative very interesting. I thought about that a lot, because I think that is something that we always discover in life over and over again. Just when you think you know somebody, this man or this woman will do something that is surprising to you. So I felt that surprise was important, that I had to be ready for characters, and that I as a writer had to be willing to get out of the way. If a character chose to surprise everyone, I shouldn’t try to rein the character in if he did something I didn’t think he would do.

KM So, you are improvising this character as you are writing?

SC  Yes, as writers will tell you, the character improvises himself or herself too.

KM  How do they do that if you are the writer?

SC  Well, you don’t know. Say for example I put a character in a situation that I think will cause him to react in a certain way, but maybe another character will say something to him that will cause him to react differently that you think he would. At a time like this, writers will say that they really feel like they are writing when the characters take over.

KM  That is something like being on stage, improvising music?

SC  Exactly.

KM  But you are not actually responsible for the notes, you are just becoming this clear channel for the music to come through you when you are really in the zone.

SC Yes, because when you are improvising in music your perception is so high, and since you are making so many decisions at such a high velocity, if you had to think them through, you wouldn’t be able to move with so much fluidity.

KM  So there is no time to think.

SC  That’s right, because you are working in nanoseconds. It’s as if you are at the piano, bass and the drums, all at the same time — plus you are inventing the parts that go with them. So you don’t really have time to admire the rhythm the drum played, or what the piano played, or the bass note. Sure, you are saying that in your mind, but your mind is moving at such a velocity, to tell your body what to do, that you don’t have time repeat what you know. It just comes through so fast that, “whoosh,” it’s out there. When you listen back to it on a tape you might be amazed at how many things you were hearing at the time you were singing.

KM  Yes, and it is almost as if, on an ego level or a personality level, you have stepped aside as part of the process. You are almost like a vessel at that point.

SC  Right. I think that is a lot like writing.

KM  Interesting. Well, it sounds like it was that way for you, writing this way. That is an interesting thing for me to know.

JJM  Gerald, do you write like that also?

GE  Well, when writing is flowing, it is really taking you and you are not imposing your will on it. For many writers, when their work is going well, that is the way the process would go.

Stanley is certainly right about Melville’s Moby Dick being a book that kind of came out of nowhere, that no one was really prepared for. While he dedicated the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had written The Scarlett Letter and all those great short stories — there was nothing in his work that could have prepared you for Moby Dick. For that matter, there was nothing in Melville’s earlier novels like Typee that would prepare you for Moby Dick. In a way, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome is the same kind of book, because there is nothing else you could have read that could prepare you for this book. It sort of comes out of nowhere, in a sense. If you are a literary person, you can see its sources, but it also kind of transcends its sources. It is the sort of book that is unique to itself.

JJM   Stanley, in a blurb for the book, Daphne Merkin wrote, “Stanley Crouch has made friends and enemies by resolutely thinking for himself. In Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, he proves once again that he is a true original.” As Gerald said, your book does sort of come out of nowhere, but he is clearly saying that in a positive way. Critics in general have been all over the place concerning your book, many lauding it, many with the opposite view, saying things like it was too difficult and daunting to read. My question is; have you alienated certain critics to the point that they can’t see any value in this book?

SC  Well, that is an interesting question, because some of the reviews actually didn’t have much to do with the book. Instead, they were things that people thought that they think that I think.

I believe this was a difficult book for critics. For instance, Gerald was talking earlier about the homosexual character Aaron, Maxwell’s younger brother. There was a review of the book written by a critic who is a pronounced, self-declared homosexual, who said there was no room for the kind of character Aaron is in the book. However, if you read the book and then the review you wouldn’t think that the Baby Aaron character being described by the critic is in the book. The book worked against certain agendas. It was neither politically correct nor politically incorrect.

There is a section in the book that takes place in church, where Maxwell sees a singer in the church choir as looking almost exactly like his brother Aaron did when he was singing in church. At the same time, Carla, sitting next to Maxwell, has a flashback in her mind about an experience she had with Aaron where they go to see a man who was disfigured as a result of an encounter he had with what homosexuals call “rough trade.” Then, Carla recalls a confrontation between Maxwell and Baby Aaron, and how they resolved their differences after Maxwell realizes that the way he was treating Aaron was part of the problem.

I chose to have this play out in church so that Carla recalls all this sexually explicit kind of stuff right in the middle of the church service, so you get the sacred and the profane at the same time. Because, you know, when you go to church, one of the things you may want to keep out of your mind are your sexual experiences or your sexual desires. You want to get close to God in church, right? But, your brain will still take you through some things that create a kind of counterpoint to what is going on in the church. So, this is the kind of thing I was trying to do at times, and I think it may have been confusing to some people who may not be used to reading novels in which you actually get a lot of different points of view. In this book, many of the characters contradict themselves — they are up on one day, down on another, or they are not racist about most things but are about other things. So this can provide problems for people who want black and white characters they can attribute “good” and “bad” characteristics to, and from that, they can conclude that “the novelist thinks this or doesn’t think that.” The book could be very confusing to a critic who wants on every page to check off whether or not I take the politically correct view, or the conservatively correct view, or the liberally correct view or the moderately correct view. All of those views are in the book.

JJM   Right, throughout the book you take on issues like jazz criticism, rap music, racism, interracial relationships. I don’t think your views on these necessarily drift far from what people may already know about you, but in this one novel you are taking on topics that may make you an open target for people who wish to pursue you in that way.

SC  Tommy Flanagan’s wife, Nana, told me that even after all the conversations we have had over the years, she had no idea what I was like or what I knew until after she read the book. She said it was as if the book was written by another person. So, I think that may have been the way it was taken by other people too.

JJM   Yes, I can see how that could be the case.

Gerald, I know you have to go in a few minutes, so I am going to abruptly change the subject and ask this question and open up another topic of conversation among us. You are well known for writing, “I think there are only three things America will be known for two thousand years from now when they study this civilization; the Constitution, jazz music and baseball.” I guess it can be argued that in the last twenty-five years, baseball has lost many of its best black athletes to other sports like basketball and football. Has jazz lost its best black musicians to other musical genres, and given the lure of income more available in other genres, how do we convince them jazz can offer a fulfilling career?

GE   I just can’t seem to escape from that quote, can I? {Laughs}. Yes, because most forms of jazz music now are not as commercially viable as this music was fifty or sixty years ago, I am sure many young people who have the talent to play it are performing music that has more commercial rewards or possibilities.

Now, how do you get people back to it? That is a difficult question that I am not sure I have an answer for. I would have to say, however, that people have to have ways to hear this music more. That is one of the biggest problems. If young adults and children were able to hear the music more and learn about it a younger age, not only would more of them want to play it, but there would be a larger audience for it. Not having access to the music is the biggest problem. If you spin the dial on a radio or if you watch MTV — both of which most young people do — it will be pretty unusual for you to hear jazz music.

Jazz is not a dying art, but it has become a sort of stratifying art, kind of like classical music. In that respect it has lost its mass audience, but I still think it is a music that can have a certain level of mass appeal. Of course, a good portion of jazz is instrumental music, and that can be a struggle for many listeners because it is demanding something of them popular music doesn’t, and that is that you pay attention to it. While there is certainly instrumental music in the culture, like that played on an elevator or smooth jazz, people tend to like that because it doesn’t demand anything of them as a listener to listen to it. You can tap your toe to it and it is pleasant.

It is very important that we educate people more, which will make them want to demand more of themselves and to deal with more difficult art. This brings us back to Stanley’s book, which, as you said, is not an easy book for someone to read. It is a book people have to work at to read, but that is the whole point — a book like this should have a broader audience than it probably got. Part of the problem is that people want art that doesn’t make any demands of them, which I think is a bad sign in our society. Art that demands something of you will help make you grow, and the more art that you deal with that makes no demands of you will not help you grow. Ultimately, it doesn’t even serve the function of art for you, because it is not helping you grow in any way.

KM   Concerning the question about how to get musicians interested in playing jazz and finding a fulfilling career playing it, I totally agree with what Gerald is saying, and I would like to pose a question; “Can jazz offer a fulfilling career to anybody right now?” I think we have to differentiate between career and art. If you want a career, you should probably join a corporation or go into the Army or play pop or rap. If you want to be an artist, you might want to look at playing jazz. I never got into this because I thought it would be a lucrative career, I just had to do it. That question that you guys are talking about raises that larger issue of what we value as a society.

SC   A lot of the problems that jazz has in terms of people who play it and who sing it come as the result of the enormous decline in the teaching of music in public schools over the last twenty-five or thirty years.

KM  Right, so nobody even learned what to listen for in jazz.

SC  So, you can’t separate the fact that most of these kids who are rappers never learned C-scales, they never sang parts in choirs, and they never played in marching bands. If you look into the history of jazz, so many of the musicians had good teaching in public schools, played in marching bands, sang in choirs, and had the kind of preparation we tended to assume would be there forever because it was part of the school’s curriculum. As Max Roach has pointed out, the scratchers and all the things that came from rap and all that other stuff are all reactions to the decline of the presence of the great music teachers like Captain Walter Dyett in Chicago. These kids go through school and don’t get any music education; either they sing or they don’t sing, or they rap — not that they couldhave sung, but they don’t know what singing is experientially since they never stood in a choir. So, many of those things affect it.

Also, what Kitty was saying is extremely important. King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and many of the early jazz musicians were not professional musicians, they had day jobs and played music on the weekends because there weren’t any jobs that would sustain their lives on a day to day basis. So, jazz actually began as an art form that people made because they wanted to play. Later on, circuits developed, and dance halls opened…

KM   Yes, a business developed around the art.

SC  Yes, but they were still out there playing because they wanted to play. It is very important to get back to that place where the individual perceives a direction for himself or for herself based on an aesthetic impulse and a reaction to a kind of aesthetic phenomenon. Today, all people want to talk about are their contracts and their tours, and they are assessing everything they do by rock and roll standards, which are all commercial standards. All of these things do affect jazz, but as anybody will tell you, there are constantly young musicians who come out here (to New York) because they want to play, and that is always what will make the art form vital.

GE  That is very true. Despite it all, there are still young people who want to play.

(At this point, Early exited the conversation).

KM It is very important that people understand that music and art in general are much more complex than our society makes it appear, and that there is a very real difference between Kenny G and Joe Henderson. Just by making an effort, people can learn about that difference and open up a whole world for themselves that goes beyond the surface level, which is just “muzak” or wallpaper music. “Muzak” is supposed to lull people or to relax them, whereas music as art can also be unsettling, disturbing, beautiful and painful. In any case, in order to appreciate it, listeners have to make an effort, but we are just not making much of an effort to educate ourselves as a society about the deeper side of music, or of art in general. Everything is just so “dumbed-down.” People’s ears have not become used to the complexities that exist in jazz, and in order to do this, you have to make an effort to be a participatory listener rather than a passive receiver.

JJM Using my own experience with the Jerry Jazz Musician web site as an example, I know it is very tough to market nuance and depth in this culture, because so many of us are programmed by the culture Hollywood feeds us, and by the supposed ease of living in a push-button society.  When you bring music into your home now, for example, you can sit down on the couch with remote control in hand, and if you don’t like the first ten seconds of a song, you merely push the forward arrow and you are on to the next track. You don’t even have to get out of your chair anymore to change the music — and haven’t had to, really, since the late eighties. When I was a kid, I put the needle on track one of an LP, sat down, and listened to the entire record and judged a performance not on the initial ten seconds but on the quality of an entire side, usually twenty or thirty minutes. Now, the artist — no matter what the musical or creative genre — really has no opportunity to become intimate with the consumer of entertainment because they generally require instant gratification.

KM  Yes, listeners tend to have short attention spans these days.

SC  There is always a problem with the commercial context. One of the things I find fascinating is that people are constantly exposed to news stories that deal with events like serial killings, snipers, horrific accidents with school busses, and kids falling down wells, and these stories create a sort of ebb and flow to tragedy that is basic to the substance of living. But you find that the response in the aesthetic world is not to address those things as they are. Instead, they are turned into some sort of cartoon fantasy, like in the Matrix. There is no real confrontation with the issues of life, and I think that one of the things that is so basic to jazz is that it addresses the essences of life — the joys, the sorrows, the tragedies, the dreams, the expectations, the disillusionment. That is what gets to the fullness of the art, and a serious art has to do that. It has to be about birth, it has to be about death, it has to be about love, it has to be about hate, it has to be about peace, it has to be about war, it has to be about all the major subjects that human beings experience. At its very best, jazz does all those things. This was one of the great inspirations for me when I was writing this book, the fact that jazz addresses all those things.

I was talking with Marsalis once about the funeral march theme that Louis Armstrong and all those guys used to play in New Orleans, “Flee as a Bird.” To experience something that deep so early in life and at the start of their careers prepares you for facing what life is.

KM  In one set of music, from my personal aesthetic, for my own self, I want to take people on that journey to every one of those feelings that you talked about, Stanley. I feel like that is my responsibility. Not that it is a burden, because I enjoy that journey, and I enjoy taking people on it with me. Anything less than that and I wouldn’t feel as if I were fulfilling my role as an artist in society, or sharing my gift of bringing people together around all of these feelings. It is a magical thing.

SC  Yes, because that feeling of community that exists between the musician and the band and between the band and the audience is the kind of community that is so basic and so important to human experience.

KM   Yes, it as old as the hills, that feeling of where divisions between people drop because of the art that is happening, where it becomes transpersonal to a certain extent. I am sure that happened in tribal societies with music, where everyone became one around this thing, and merged because of this thing happening. That is the biggest power of the music.

JJM  I want to run one last question by you two, and it comes out of a comment a character made in Stanley’s book. At one point in the book, Jimmy Joe, who was Carla’s first black boyfriend, was speaking of New York musicians, and he said, “If they weren’t running chords up and down like a fireman going up and down like a metal ladder, they were running scales up and down, up and down, same thing…Pentatonic to death. Coltrane, great musician, messed them up something terrible. Didn’t intend to, probably, probably not, but they still lost the taste for melody and it didn’t seem like music to me.”  I realize this transition to the question is a bit of a stretch, but I am going to ask it anyway because it could make for an interesting discussion; how significant was this change in Coltrane’s career that Jimmy Joe refers to, to the ambitions of modern jazz musicians?

SC Well, that is just a character in the book who said he “messed them up.” When you listen to earlier Coltrane, a masterpiece like “Invitation,” for example, you actually hear the form that he was going to use later. The bass line that Paul Chambers is playing is the sort of vamp heard in Coltrane’s music a couple of years later. My feeling is that he had a great style, and he was a great player. He was playing what he wanted to play. The fact that others tried to play in that style certainly wasn’t Coltrane’s fault.

I do believe that during this time, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman to an extent, and a number of other people, lost something that was so basic to jazz from the start. The blues songs, up through Louis Armstrong’s conquering of Tin Pan Alley, to Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul,” all created a romantic mood women appreciated, but these moods were completely rejected by these artists during the sixties. Consequently, the music made during that time was not appreciated by women. It was almost like weightlifting, and it became more of a technical display in a lot of people that didn’t connect to audiences, and I am not talking about selling-out or anything like that. Betty Carter used to say that the guys got to the point where they played as though women didn’t exist, and as though relationships between men and women didn’t exist. She felt that is when a lot of women stopped listening to jazz, and that jazz has not recovered from that.

KM Interesting.

SC  I think she was probably right, but this is not a problem only in jazz, it is a problem in modern music, and it is true in concert music. I was talking to a famous jazz musician recently who said that if you listen to most twentieth century avant-garde concert music, there is no romantic element in the music. It is as if the composer doesn’t have a sexual drive at all — that he doesn’t know what a penis is or what a vagina is. Romantic elements don’t have anything to do with what they are composing, it is just notes and intervals and some keys and different meters.

There is a certain kind of dehumanization that attacks a certain aspect of jazz, just like it did other twentieth century music because too many jazz musicians, for my tastes, were letting concert music dictate to them what their development should be. That is one of the things that is so amazing about Duke Ellington to me. Those romantic elements I am talking about that left other composer’s music, never left his music. He responded to all of the challenges he thought were interesting, but his music never left out the beauty of what he called the world’s greatest duet — a man and a woman going steady. This is one of the things I was trying to communicate in the novel, that after all is said, it starts with a couple, and it ends with a couple. The couple is made up of two different types of people whose union symbolizes the civilization itself, because they have the ability to reproduce the civilization, and the relationship itself demands that each person accept differences that they wouldn’t necessarily accept if they were only with people of their same sex — and there are a number of things essential to the world’s greatest duet that tell us anything that we need to know.

This is what I was trying to do in Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome, to develop the male and female characters in the relationship, what they learn from each other and how they develop and strengthen each other. Those aren’t necessarily subjects that are central to a lot of novels, so I was trying to get to that thing that seems to me is so essential to blues and so essential to jazz music and make that be the stuff that closed the book. It is, finally, a love story with intellectual ambitions, a boy meets girl tale in an epic frame.

JJM Kitty, you have anything you want to add to that?

KM   Regarding the Coltrane question you posed; to my ears, ‘Trane could be one of the most lyrical, melodic and actually romantic players ever, as evidenced on his ballads and during his years with Miles. This turn that he took was his turn, and people started imitating him. I don’t think ‘Trane can be blamed for the poor imitators he spawned. People did definitely memorize the patterns that he played and used them unmusically, which I don’t believe is the way ‘Trane was using them at all. In my opinion, ‘Trane added a new, very important vocabulary to the sax lexicon that many players have incorporated into their own art, and he often did so without throwing away melody, and without throwing away romance, which I feel is still very important.

In some ways it is easy to copy people like Bird and ‘Trane because they are so technically proficient, and you can learn their licks and their scales and their harmonic concepts if you are technically proficient yourself. But what is missing from those imitators is the emotional and spiritual element that ‘Trane had so much of. You take that away and it becomes just a bunch of scales learned by some guy, which, as Stanley said, is like weightlifting, trying to boost his ego by showing us all how many chops he has. That is not what ‘Trane was about at all. There are plenty of bad Charlie Parker imitators too, who play fast bebop that is pretty meaningless. On the other hand, you have somebody like Miles, who is harder to imitate, because it is much less about the chops and much more about the feeling, his musical vision in regards to the beauty and the romance. I think it is much harder to go there and copy that. So, I don’t think ‘Trane messed up music at all. I think people have to find their own voice in this music, and anytime you try to copy anybody’s anything — one section of what they are about — you are missing the point, completely.

I know what you are talking about, though, about how the music that ‘Trane started playing for his own spiritual reasons was copied and, in the end, the romance may have been lost. For me, the most powerful music still tells a story like Stanley’s book tells, about people going through the fire and finding themselves through their art and through their culture, and the beauty and incredible creativity that occurs when people of different cultures come together.

______________________________________________________________________

Casa da Malota, by Stephen Henriques

 

Carla was satisfied with thinking.  She felt inhabited by a delicious yawn.  The workings of the world had been deduced.  Sure they had, she laughed at herself.  All was as easy and in place as the feeling you had driving through the Great Plains, when pure expanse was a companion that asked no questions and gave no answers, when there was nothing but sky in front of you and nothing but sky behind.  As Mom used to bray when Dad got all wound up in one of his theories about math, language, athletics, and cuisine, “Jabberwocky.  Jabberwocky.  Talky, talky, talky.”  This day’s binge of intellectual inquiry was over.  The woman was ready to get on up the way.  Her spirit was now a sparkling medly of emotion.  While putting on that big guy’s gift of the ritzy star sapphire earrings with the silver bells, she heard herself humming, “No Regrets” until it filled her body.  Then she felt her Viking Hottentot, that alabaster black ass, jauntily bouncing to “The Best Thing For You (Would Be Me).”  Dancing full heart into one of her favorite songs, “My Ship,” she began appreciatively wailing and wailing their home full of music, just her and those notes and the soul of those words.  The emotion that those tunes allowed her to free nearly lifted Carla up off the floor and sent the girl from South Dakota safely sailing out of the window, like the very first dinosaur who ever learned how to use her wings.  Now was the time to go out and have a glass of wine near the end of the bar, any bar where she could look into the street and think of just how good she would feel when Maxwell got back off the road and they were, once again, alone together.

– A book excerpt

*

Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome

by

Stanley Crouch

_______________________________

Roundtable conversation took place on November 23, 2004

_______________________________

Stanley Crouch products at Amazon.com

Kitty Margolis products at Amazon.com

Gerald Early products at Amazon.com

*

Book Excerpt, Passages from Chapter One, “Gee Baby”

Customer Reviews at Amazon.com

Praise for the book

An alternate view: NPR’s Zoë Anglesey reviews Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome

Kitty Margolis Web Site

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion, you may want to read Blues For Clement Greenberg, our Roundtable on jazz criticism with Stanley Crouch, Martha Bayles and Loren Schoenberg.

Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

 

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