The Magazine

Critical Blues

Stanley Crouch's unfinished symphony.

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