The Magazine

Critical Blues

Stanley Crouch's unfinished symphony.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By TED GIOIA
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Considering Genius

Writings on Jazz

by Stanley Crouch

Basic Civitas, 359 pp., $27.50

Like a stripper from the 1950s, Stanley Crouch has built a career on promising more than he delivers. As a young man, he played the drums and associated with some of the greatest jazz talents of his generation. But he abandoned the drumsticks for the typewriter before ever making his mark as a musician.

As a writer, Crouch proved even more coy, keeping the jazz world waiting for his much-ballyhooed biography of the self-destructive genius Charlie (Bird) Parker. And it waited and waited, and still waits. I first heard about the project in 1987, and don't expect to see it in the stores anytime soon. Crouch then turned to fiction, and at this late stage in his career--he recently celebrated his 60th birthday--he has a single novel to his credit.

But Crouch filled the time he wasn't devoting to Parker or the Great American Novel with occasional projects: journalism, essays, introductions, appearing behind the podium, on panels or in documentaries. He excels in such settings, and has made his reputation in bite-size chunks of a few hundred, or a few thousand, words. His Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990) was the first of several collections of shorter pieces, and set the tone for the Crouch public persona: pugnacious, sassy, irreverent, unpredictable. Crouch was destined to stand out from the crowd.

Above all, he has demonstrated a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Crouch served as Wynton Marsalis's personal hagiographer, and he boosted his own career in tandem with the great trumpeter. Where Wynton led, Crouch soon followed: in liner notes or personal appearances; as a consultant to Lincoln Center as it sought street credibility in the jazz world; or as a major talking head in Ken Burns's jazz series on PBS. Crouch even managed to surpass his alter ego, snagging a "gen ius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation--one of the few major honors Marsalis has not yet won.

Other jazz writers carped and complained, although usually in private, and invariably with more than a hint of envy in their voices. In this regard, too, Crouch followed in the footsteps of Marsalis. When Wynton was the brilliant young trumpeter, jazz insiders praised him lavishly; but when he achieved a large crossover audience among (horrors!) the general public, they turned on him. Crouch got caught in the crossfire of this internecine war, which continues to this day. But the very persistence with which Crouch's critics read his articles, rebut his TV pronouncements, and grumble over his opinions, simply reinforces his importance and influence.

And like Marsalis, Crouch learned how to work a room. In person or in print, he is a formidable presence. He rarely plays it safe, and will jump in with grand pronouncements and crafty generalizations where others merely offer a cautious suggestion or a tepid hypothesis. Reading his prose, I am reminded of my delight as a youngster in watching interviews with TV wrestlers: the ranting and raillery, the dares and double-dares, the finger-pointing and in-your-face exuberance of it all. Crouch is much the same, grabbing the audience's attention and holding it in an illegal head lock, smiling in triumph amidst the taunts and cheers.

Given Crouch's preeminence as America's most visible jazz critic, it is somewhat surprising that Considering Genius is his first book devoted exclusively to music. In previous collections of miscellaneous writings, Crouch has frequently tackled jazz subjects, directly or indirectly. But now readers have the opportunity to accompany him on an extended prose tour, over the course of more than 300 pages, of the jazz world according to Crouch. And with such an animated cicerone, the sights and sounds are rarely boring.

Jazz writing can be divided into two camps. In the grand tradition of Martin Williams, Gunther Schuller, and Whitney Balliett, the music takes center stage, while the critic retreats into the background. Like Crouch, Balliett was an aspiring drummer and a man-about-town, but one can read a thousand pages of his New Yorker pieces without getting any sense of his biography or his personal maneuverings on the music scene. Schuller is even more austere, preferring the precise terminology of musicology, offering pages thick with transcriptions in lieu of anecdotes and firsthand accounts. And yet, heaven knows, as someone present at the Birth of the Cool (the famous Miles Davis recording session that shook up the postwar jazz scene) and many seminal events since that time, Schuller must have more than his fair share of amusing tales.

For the second school of jazz criticism, pioneered by Leonard Feather, and best exemplified today in the writings of Crouch, Gene Lees, and Nat Hentoff, the critic is a protagonist in the shifting scenes of action. His insider status as roommate, confidant, adviser, producer, drinking buddy--whatever--to the jazz greats adds a piquant flavor to the proceedings. We come to know these authors, feel drawn inside their special sphere, appreciating their writings as much for their narrative flow as for their critical insights.

Much of Considering Genius is given over to these first-person musings. The suspicious reader even wonders about the title. Perhaps Crouch is touting his own coveted "genius award" as much as he is writing about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Bird. In any event, the opening prologue, "Jazz Me Blues," displays Crouch's critic-as-hero approach at its best. Crouch and I share an upbringing in the Los Angeles area--we were raised roughly 12 miles, and 12 years, apart--and despite many differences in the details of our coming-of-age, his account resonates with me. But even readers with no ties to the dream coast will appreciate his story. Not just for Crouch, but for his whole generation, music has been inseparable from questions of self-identity and group-identity, and songs have served as an inevitable gateway to social criticism. Stanley Crouch covers this ground as well as any writer working today.

The best criticism always has a biographical element, even when it is not written explicitly in the first person. Great music affects us with tremendous immediacy, sometimes even viscerally. To filter out our direct personal response is to risk denying the very essence of the musical experience. Crouch never falsifies this bedrock foundation of the critic's task. I sometimes disagree with his views--especially his repeated attacks on jazz styles that don't conform to his sometimes-narrow definitions--but I always appreciate his frankness of tone, his fidelity to his personal muse. His assessments of Miles or Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane or Parker, or of the various other jazz legends dealt with in these pages, invariably come across as deeply felt and ardently argued.

Crouch is not afraid of tackling controversial topics. In the context of a critique of the rock fusion recordings of Miles Davis, Crouch offers some dramatic fireworks. "The cult of ethnic authenticity often mistakes the lowest common denominator for an ideal," he writes. "It begets a self-image that has succumbed to a nostalgia for the mud. What we get is the bugaboo blues of the noble savage, the surly and dangerous Negro who will have nothing to do with bourgeois conventions. . . . In this climate, obnoxious, vulgar, and antisocial behavior has been confused with black authenticity."

In the face of such potent pronouncements, conservatives have sometimes felt inclined to claim Crouch as one of their own. But they are mistaken if they think they can easily pigeonhole this multifaceted writer. I have read Crouch for many years, and have come to enjoy his writings for their very unpredictability, their suspicion of cant, their willingness to take each experience on its own terms. Ralph Ellison once praised Crouch as a provocateur, and he got it just right.

This is, perhaps, why the great Parker biography has never appeared, why we still wait for the next Crouch novel. Crouch is at his most exuberant --and most effective--when blowing up the ideologies of others, rather than establishing a new one of his own. In the blighted landscape of our current culture, this type of demolition work may be the most important task for any critic to undertake.

Ted Gioia is the author of Work Songs and Healing Songs and is at work on a history of the Delta blues.