Writing may be fighting, as Ishmael Reed famously opined, but most writers know the difference. There are, of course, some who blur the line. Take, for instance, Stanley Crouch, one of the great pugilists of American cultural criticism. More than a decade ago, Crouch lost his job at The Village Voice after knocking out a young writer half his size who had the nerve to suggest that rap was better than Coltrane. During another writerly brawl, he punched a jazz critic whom even pacifists considered a deserving target.
At 57, Crouch prefers to settle his differences peaceably, but his work shows no signs of mellowing. Writing in the April issue of JazzTimes under the headline “Putting the White Man in Charge,” he accused white jazz critics of promoting white musicians over superior black ones, in order to “make themselves feel more comfortable about evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” A provocative cocktail of gruff insight and rhetorical overkill, the column was 100-proof Crouch. His white editors apparently agreed, advertising the column as his “most incendiary yet.”
As it turned out, it was too incendiary even for them: A few weeks later, the magazine sent Crouch a brief e-mail terminating his contract. Not that the decision had anything to do with The Column. As the magazine’s editor, Christopher Porter, explained to the Voice, Crouch’s contributions had grown “tedious, generally alternating betweeen vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies.” It’s nice to hear that standards are being upheld at JazzTimes, but don’t expect them to be applied across the board–if they were, the magazine would have to suspend publication immediately.
Whether or not white jazz critics have a race problem, the ones at JazzTimes evidently do. The fact that Crouch is at the center of this farce–a tragedy it is not–contains delicious ironies. A black nationalist in his youth, he traded in his dashikis for a suit in the late 1970s, and made his career lambasting the excesses of Afrocentrism. He called Spike Lee a “fascist” (the two recently made up, thanks to Crouch’s puff piece on Bamboozled) and excoriated Toni Morrison for writing “maudlin ideological commercials.” If there was any black writer he defined himself against, it was Amiri Baraka, whom he still refers to sneeringly as LeRoi Jones, the name on his birth certificate. Indeed, Crouch’s celebration of jazz as the anthemic expression of American democracy is in large measure an attack on Baraka’s view of jazz as a coded form of racial protest. Yet Crouch’s recent diatribe carried surprising echoes of Baraka’s forty-year-old Downbeat essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” down to the rhetorical use of the singular “White Man.” I guess old habits die hard. Then again, intellectual consistency has always run a distant second to getting a reaction for Crouch, a provocateur and trickster at heart.
So is there any merit to his argument? Indeed there is. The search for the great white hope is as much a tradition in jazz as it is in boxing. (The romance of black authenticity, in which writers white and black are both complicit, is another.) And Crouch’s depiction of white jazz critics tracks with my own experience. The typical jazz critic is a white man in his 50s who feels underappreciated by the publishing world, a state of affairs he mistakenly blames on jazz’s marginality–or on more prominent critics like Crouch–rather than on the quality of his prose. Whether white critics are campaigning on behalf of white musicians at the expense of black ones is another matter. Francis Davis, a gifted critic whom Crouch pillories for championing white trumpeter Dave Douglas, has sung the praises of countless black musicians–just not the ones in Crouch’s Rolodex. As for Davis’s enthusiasm for Douglas, it has more to do with taste than race–which doesn’t make it any less debatable.
There is racial friction within jazz today–how could there not be?–but it’s mostly a turf war among critics. (Among players, the racial lines are murkier than ever.) The music they’re battling to define is at once more respectable and more peripheral in the wider culture. There are plenty of fine young jazz players, but little in the way of genuine innovation. Overpraise provides a measure of compensation for critics deprived of the experience of living in more vital times. Crouch is no less guilty of this, even if his darlings–Wynton Marsalis and other musicians affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Crouch advises–are black. Marsalis may be a fine trumpeter, but he is no Miles Davis, just as Douglas is no Chet Baker.
The real scandal in jazz criticism isn’t race–it’s bad writing. Jazz, which arose at the same time as that other revolutionary twentieth-century art, film, has failed to generate a comparable body of criticism. Most jazz magazines are only slightly more readable than airline glossies, and serve roughly the same purpose. Whatever one thinks of Crouch’s views, he is one of the few jazz critics worthy of the name. And this, sadly, is another reason why he no longer belongs in the pages of JazzTimes.