Stanley Crouch, author of Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz

September 10th, 2006

 

 

 

Stanley Crouch — MacArthur “genius” award recipient, co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, National Book Award nominee, and perennial bull in the china shop of black intelligentsia — has been writing about jazz and jazz artists for over thirty years. His reputation for controversy is exceeded only by a universal respect for his intellect and passion.  As Gary Giddins notes: “Stanley may be the only jazz writer out there with the kind of rhinoceros hide necessary to provoke and outrage and then withstand the fulminations that come back.”

   Now, in a long-awaited collection, Crouch collects fifteen of his most influential, and most controversial pieces (published in Jazz Times, The New Yorker, the Village Voice, and elsewhere), and includes two new essays as well. The pieces range from the introspective “Jazz Criticism and its Effect on the Art Form” to a rollicking debate with Amiri Baraka, to vivid, intimate portraits of the legendary performers Crouch has known.

The first, autobiographical essay reflects on his life in jazz as a drummer, a promoter, a critic, and most of all a lover of this quintessentially American art form. And the closing essay, about a young Italian saxophonist, expresses undaunted optimism for the worldwide vibrancy of jazz. Throughout, Crouch’s work reminds us not only of why he is one of the world’s most important living jazz critics, but also of why jazz itself remains, against all odds, an elemental component of our cultural identity.#

Crouch — who has appreared several times as a guest on Jerry Jazz Musician — discusses his book and other topics in a September, 2006 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

 

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“Jazz Legends,” by Artoni Fletcher

“Throughout everything that I have done in Manhattan since 1975, much of which falls outside of music, I have maintained my love for the unsurpassed variety of that inimitable sound, and have continued to evolve an ever-deeper feeling for what distinguishes it and how jazz became the uniquely great art form that it continues to be.”

– Stanley Crouch

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Better Git It In Your Soul, by Charles Mingus

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JJM Considering Genius is a collection of your jazz writings from 1977 to the present. How did you determine which essays to include?

SC  I actually had a number more, but the publisher wanted me to cut it down by about fifty thousand words, so I picked the essays I thought would work well. I initially intended to put the Sonny Rollins piece in, but it would have made the book too long.

JJM  The essay that was in the New Yorker?

SC  That’s right. But I hope to include that in the next collection.

JJM  Are you still writing about jazz on a fairly regular basis?

SC  Not in any particular publication, but I do things sometimes for Slate magazine.

JJM  You wrote of Billy Higgins, “Higgins was so sympathetic to whomever he was playing with that he didn’t impose his beat upon anyone else; he remained characteristically himself but played their interpretation of the beat. This is major, not minor.” Why do you consider Billy Higgins to be the symbolic hero of your book?

SC  Because he was so empathetic to other players that he could fit in with many people.  He knew how to listen.  Billy Higgins played with such buoyant feeling that it was a great pleasure for other musicians to have a guy on the bandstand whose fundamental goal was to play with you rather than impose his personality on you.  He provided the kind of response to what you were playing that would make you better, while also satisfying him.  Billy Higgins could do all of the things a musician hopes to achieve when playing, and he could do them in such a way that was so extraordinarily sympathetic that they worked with just about everybody he played with.

JJM  So, he was a versatile musician…

SC Yes.

JJM  Is versatility something you try to accomplish with your writing?

SC  Yes, if I can, but as a writer I don’t know if I am close to being able to do what Higgins can as a musician. But, let me say this — I hope to be someday.

 

JJM What best describes you; a writer, a critic or a philosopher?

SC  A writer will do.

JJM  Your writing stirs up a lot of emotion.  Whenever I read your work, I tell myself that it is good he has the courage to say these things out loud because these are things that need to be said, and other times I find myself snickering at your opinions. You certainly wear your heart on your sleeve, which has to be a large part of your success…

SC  You never know.

JJM  Your style and opinions have made you enemies, but I don’t imagine you got into this because you had fear that somebody might not like what you write.

SC  I got over that quickly.

JJM  Are there columns you’ve written in the past that, in retrospect, you would like to go back and change or set fire to?

SC  I think every writer has written material that, in retrospect, he wishes had not been published, or maybe could have been articulated differently, but when you’re in this game as I long as I have been, and when you have been published in as many different places as I have, you just have to take it as it falls.  Sometimes you get through what you want to get through, and sometimes the outcome is regrettable.  But, you hope for a good batting average.  That’s what I shoot for.  I don’t assume that every piece will be perfect.

JJM  How has your experience with jazz influenced your columns in the New York Daily News?

SC  One of the things is that it has taught me how to pay attention and listen to people.  What I try to do in my Daily News column is get the real feel of the city or an event or what in my interpretation seems to drive the people involved in the action, and I think that close listening to music of any kind probably helps to do that.

JJM  Is communicating values in your writing important to you?

SC  Yes. A writer is always communicating some set of values, even if he writes that he doesn’t have any values.  A writer can’t make a statement that doesn’t in some way communicate what he believes — even if he is just reporting his vision of the world.  His values will eventually come out.

JJM  In the introduction to The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand wrote, “Renunciation is not one of my premises. If I see that the good is possible to men, yet it vanishes, I do not take ‘Such is the trend of the world’ as a sufficient explanation. I ask questions such as: Why? — What caused it? — What or who determines the trends of the world?”  Do you share this philosophy?

SC  I grew up during the civil rights era, and the fundamental proposition at the time was that something wrong is going on, and it has been going on for a very long time. It was a time when there was no mercy at all — little kids were being blown up in church, and people were being shot in the streets. All of this was going on, but the will of the civil rights movement was that, regardless of the costs, we are going to do what needs to be done. So, I’ve always tried to follow my own sense of what was right, even if it caused me to come out in opposition to something that is generally accepted.

JJM  You are not afraid to write about things as you see them…

SC  I just say what I think. It could be moral or it could be aesthetic, it could be political, it could be social — whatever it is, I just say it. I’m one of those people whom they describe as “calling them like they see them.”  So, that’s it.  If I think it’s good, I’ll say its good.  If it’s bad, I don’t care.

JJM  Are we in another era of what Rand called, at that time, “moral agnosticism?”

SC  To some extent.  I think a lot of people today are afraid of being called “old timers,” because when they were young, the “old timers” were the people who defended segregation, sexism, racism, McCarthyism, and a lot of negative elements that, in retrospect, were conventional forty or so years ago.  Now that these people are in positions of power, many of them are absolutely terrified of being considered out-of-date or being seen as an “old-fogey” for supporting something that may be “old hat.”  An example of the kind of result you get from this is that a song like “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” — which essentially sympathizes with a pimp — wins the Academy Award for best song.  I find it impossible to see how being a pimp is a virtue, but in this distorted time, a pimp is seen as a rugged individual, as somebody who makes it on his own by not playing by the rules and who fits conveniently into this obsession we presently have with rule-breakers.

JJM So he is revered for being an outlaw…

SC  Yes, and I don’t buy that.

JJM  In overcoming this kind of reverence for the outlaw, given the ease of access to information today, it would seem that people are in a better position to learn about the heroic figures of our past who can help us achieve a higher potential than a generation ago…

SC  I try to clarify who I think the heroic characters of the art are in Considering Genius, and in the introduction I discuss a certain kind of heroic embrace of the democratic imperative that you see in the works of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

Part of what I do when writing a book like this is to seek a way to point out to readers what is in the material that makes these people heroic. Sometimes, particularly in the world of jazz, there are things about people like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, for example, that are not particularly pleasant, but those things do not really intrude upon what made them both great musicians at the time that they were great. In other words, you can’t necessarily ignore people who do remarkable things just because there are elements in their personality that are not attractive.

JJM  You have issues with Miles Davis, and how he led his life…

SC  Yes, he’s a perfect example, as is Charles Mingus, who I write about in the introduction. During a rehearsal I went to, he simply flipped out and fired the band, and while he acted like a lunatic for a moment, that didn’t intrude on his greatness as a musician.

JJM  What is the role of the jazz critic?

SC  The role of the jazz critic is the same as any other art form. A critic attempts to identify what the form is and then discusses what makes it a good or not so good performance. In my book I find myself writing about those kinds of qualities, but I also raise arguments in the collection of essays called “Battle Royal” with this kind of “how anything goes” aesthetic today. I don’t believe that. There are people today who become absolutely hysterical about the idea that jazz has any definition at all. They hate that idea.  I don’t know of any other art form in which people spend the amount of time and energy they do in denying that jazz has a definition.

JJM  This argument has been going on for a long time. In the forties, jazz critic Sydney Finkelstein wrote, “Experiment and change are in the essence of jazz.”

SC  That’s all good, but that is not the problem. Some of my more simple-minded critics interpret me saying that there should be no experimentation, innovation or imagination, and that musicians today should just recycle old material.  The thing that fascinates me about the “avant-garde” of today is that it seems to be more novelty than any kind of substantial interpretation of the fundamentals of the art.  My contention is that once you recognize what the fundamentals of an art are, you can re-imagine it and understand where the deepest innovation comes from. I hear some people doing that, but I don’t hear a lot of people doing it. I think that a lot of people who write about the music today are really rock n’ roll people, and they just like the idea of what Robert Hughes calls “the shock of the new.”  But sometimes the shock isn’t the news, the shock is something else.

JJM  Let’s go back for a minute about the role of the jazz critic. It seems to me that the role and importance of a jazz critic is different than that of a rock n’ roll critic, for example, because jazz is so underexposed, while our culture is inundated with information about rock music. If I want information about rock n’ roll, I can get it by watching a show like Entertainment Tonight just about any night of the week, whereas if I want information about jazz, there are so few resources that I have to rely on a trusted critic, which elevates their importance.

SC  As far as reaching the mass is concerned, the important critics are the ones who write for the widest distributed media. Gary Giddins or myself can write many things, but a one page article with a half page of photographs of someone in the New York Times can do far more than a long detailed essay by Giddins, by Francis Davis or by myself writing what we think about that same guy.  The problem is that there is so much material out there that the public doesn’t necessarily know what to ask for, and they don’t know what to look for.  People have access to so much entertainment that they are looking for someone to help them make choices.

JJM  You write about a “car dealer” mentality that exists in jazz magazines. What do you mean by that?

SC  In Considering Genius, I point out that a lot of these guys talk like car dealers do, who say things like, “This is our new model.”  But in the world of the arts, “old” and “new” doesn’t really mean anything. Oftentimes, critics — or people who call themselves critics — are obsessed with newness and are looking for something like a new trend .  It seems to me they are not really interested in the substantial weight of the idiom that the artists are working with, and this has a bad effect because it causes listeners to dismiss things that the critic has not mastered. For example, if a writer dismisses a musician by saying he has not mastered harmony, it very well could be that he is dismissing something that he’s not sophisticated enough to critique. Musicians like Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk were sophisticated players, and what they were doing was not some random aspect stuff — although I feel that Coltrane lost his way…

JJM  Sure, but turn the clock back to 1946, and Monk’s music certainly turned some heads…

SC  Yes, but what I am saying now is that’s the criteria. If you shock people, then that means you’re doing something good. Monk shocked people, but he was doing something good. People today can shock people by being inept at playing something, and they can be celebrated without having any kind of sophisticated authority. For instance, a guy like Anthony Braxton is a very sophisticated man, and you cannot compare him to a guy like Frank Wright as a musician. I think that’s a problem we have today, and I go into that in the book. I look at people like Al Foster, who added some innovative things to the playing of drums, and a pianist like Eric Reed — these are musicians who can play extremely well, but because they don’t go on the bandstand with a banner saying “I am now going to innovate,” they don’t necessarily get known.

JJM Like musicians, critics are trying to be on the cutting edge — their livelihood and reputation is often staked to being the first to recognize and recommend a new talent…In your essay, “Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form,” you wrote, “Like most American criticism, jazz writing is either too academic to communicate with any people other than professionals, or it is so inept in its enthusiasm or so cowardly in its willingness to submit to fashion that it has failed to gain jazz the respect among intelligent people necessary for its support as more than a popular art.” Are jazz critics too academic?

SC  There is almost no academic discussion now at all. I feel like it is all about what critics like. Ok…that’s fine. What I was talking about in that essay was that the public doesn’t know what a major third or what a minor third is, nor do they necessarily know what meter a song is in, and while the astonishingly academic level on which Gunther Schuller wrote is not something that would resonate with the public at large, at least he was trying to establish certain things in terms of music. When you step away from someone like Schuller, then you get the kind of criticism that is almost like rock criticism — basic descriptions of what the band played and what they said on stage — and I don’t think that is a sufficient assessment of the music, nor is it what the musicians want from the discussion.

JJM  Regarding jazz musicians and critics, Dan Morgenstern wrote, “The jazz critic is at best tolerated and at worst despised by the great majority of jazz musicians.” Has that been your experience?

SC  I don’t know if I’m despised by musicians. I never assume that anybody I don’t know is necessarily candid, especially if they think I can affect their career. So a lot of what a musician says may be based on whether or not they think what they say will help them, and if it will help the writer like him.

JJM  In 1992, Sheldon Meyer — the leading jazz book editor of his time — called Martin Williams’ The Jazz Tradition, “the most influential book written about jazz in the last twenty years.”  Would you agree with that?

SC  Yes, I think I would. I wrote an essay called “Martin’s Tempo,” which is in the book, for his memorial.  So many writers who attended his memorial thought of Martin as their intellectual mentor. He was very influential.

JJM  How has new technology changed jazz and impacted its ability to be successful?

SC  I don’t know. What I hear a lot is that the innovations of great engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, who understood how to deal with the nuances of sound, has not been followed up — really since the popularity of rock n’ roll.  Many people I know don’t like the sound.

 

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