If media icon Stanley Crouch is less than a dream to work with, he is a nightmare to fire. When JazzTimes magazine abruptly cancelled his incendiary column last month, Crouch generated a media uproar befitting his blustery reputation. In a Newsweek Online editorial, he accuses his former employers of membership in a "union of white people" committed to "the elevation of white jazz musicians over their black betters."
Crouch had used one of his last JazzTimes columns to blast white critics for trying to destroy "the Negro aesthetic" and launch attacks on both critic Francis Davis and trumpet player Dave Douglas. His consequent ejection from the pages of the country's most widely read jazz magazine strengthened the allegations of racism. In a phone interview, Crouch was eager to make the jump from critical consensus to racist conspiracy:
"The white establishment in jazz pretends there is no establishment," he said, "but there is no disagreement on anything in the jazz press at this time. If you have a group of people who always agrees on everything, what do you then have?"
As the media caught wind of Crouch's dismissal, editorial wrath ensued. The Nation's Adam Shatz praised Crouch's abilities as a critic, sneering, "the real conspiracy in jazz isn't race—it's bad writing." A feature article in the Village Voice slammed JazzTimes' editors for confirming the existence of an establishment and "silencing" Crouch.
Silencing? Crouch has a regular column at the New York Daily News and makes frequent television appearances. He is an artistic consultant at Lincoln Center and a published author six times over. Considering the myriad ways in which Crouch makes his views known, market saturation seems a greater risk than organized repression. JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner claims the real problem was that Crouch "was making the same points over and over. The column was tedious, and our readers were very negative about it."
In response to the media frenzy, JazzTimes' editors have offered a host of reasons for their decision—Crouch "missed every deadline by a country mile" and had ceased even to feign objectivity—and dismiss his cries of racism as both predictable and specious.
That Crouch had become impossible to work with squares with his reputation, but his accusations of racism are anything but predictable. Crouch has called Louis Farrakhan "insane" and Al Sharpton a "buffoon." He has denounced black nationalism, Afro-centrism, and "the balkanization of America." He writes columns with titles like "It's Not Profiling, It's Good Policing." These are not the positions of a reverse racist, and this is not a man who plays the race card lightly.
So why now?
Crouch's position has less to do with color than it does with sound. He defines jazz within famously narrow limits—a music that doesn't stray far from the blues or the techniques that have traditionally produced it, musicians who never, ever forget where and how the sound was born. One doesn't have to be black to find a groove (though some critics have taken him to mean this), but one must be willing to bow to the "Negro aesthetic." He is convinced that the white establishment resents a musical history from which it can't help but feel alienated, and so champions jazz that sounds "white" instead of jazz that looks backward. In this view, the desire to innovate past swing is tantamount to fearing its origins and the people who created it. The lines between the advancement of a music and the rejection of its history become entangled in the vast mire of racial politics.
It's a hard position to hold on a music defined by improvisation and innovation, but Crouch insists on equating the evolution of jazz with crass commercialism. The fusion of jazz and hip hop has had some success among younger audiences, and Crouch is not pleased.
"The only reason people are talking about fusing jazz with hip hop or rock is that they're trying to deal with the common man," he said. "They have great difficulty facing the fact that what they are playing is not popular music. I don't believe that submitting to a commercial style is a form of progress."
Crouch attributes the dearth of young interest in jazz to a lack of musical education in public schools; students aren't given the tools to appreciate the genius of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, or even Crouch's good friend Wynton Marsalis. But, depending on your perspective, the problem might be critics like Crouch himself.
Rick Parker is young, white, and the force behind The Rick Parker Collective, an avant-garde band with a cutting edge sound that would send Crouch into convulsions.
"When people hear Wynton Marsalis and are only exposed to his style of jazz, younger people look at it and say 'I don't really relate to that; it doesn't relate to what my life is like now,'" Parker said in a phone interview. "If that is their first experience with the music, they're not going to look further into what less publicized musicians have to offer."
What some see as the degeneration of the music is, to others, its inherent forward motion. To try to stem the flow of creativity, to establish a canon and declare all else "not jazz," is to alienate the very population Crouch seeks to engage. But Crouch insists that definitions shape reality. "If you can't define jazz," he declares, "it doesn't exist."
For now, the jazz community remains largely divorced from Crouch's ideals. The European scene, far removed from Birdland and The Village Vanguard, is in many ways more vibrant than that of the United States. This week's JVC jazz festival in New York City featured acts as diverse as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Wayne Shorter, and Dave Brubeck.
Is Stanley Crouch good for jazz? Yes, if only because his love for the traditional can't prevent the onslaught of the modern. Jazz and the musicians who shape it will continue along their many paths of innovation, some of which will lead to dead ends—as did much of the stunningly bad jazz-rock fusion of the 70s. The hard bop revival that followed was a much-needed reminder of a time when the music projected authentic feeling and technical virtuosity rather than tired sentimentality and self-importance. It also illustrated a primary value of Crouch's critique: Back-to-basics movements are frequently more innovative than free-form experimentation. Should jazz lose itself again, critics like Crouch will be around to preach the basics of the blues, to agitate for jazz education, to remind musicians of an aesthetic black in its origins but colorless in its appeal.
Jazz's most exacting critic knows too much about the music's history to worry about its future. "Jazz is always in crisis," he said. " If people want to go out there and play electric music, it doesn't make any difference. Twenty years from now people aren't even going to know that they ever played anything."
It is a lonely place that Crouch inhabits at the moment, outside of an "establishment" that largely embraces the music of free jazz, ethno fusion, and, to a lesser extent, crossover. As long as it stays that way, the critic's caustic rants and purist diatribes are just another welcome sound.