When Stanley Crouch, author, jazz critic, columnist and novelist, died in a Bronx hospital on September 16, his death at age 74 ended five decades of engrossing, often iconoclastic declarations on race, jazz, politics, film criticism and American culture.
A recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, an inductee into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an NEA Jazz Master, Crouch also earned a sometimes less-than-stellar reputation as a pugnacious critic of Afrocentric or Black Nationalist thought and as a ferocious pundit who would quite literally fight for his views. “Unfortunately, I’m not a person that’s always capable of living up to the Boy Scout philosophy,” he said.
A former jazz critic and staff writer for The Village Voice and a columnist for The New York Daily News, Crouch’s byline also appeared in The New Republic, The Oxford American and Time. His writings were collected in several books of essays, published from 1990 to 2006. In his first book, Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), the success and failures of The Civil Rights movement provide the backdrop for the author’s illuminating profiles of such figures as Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson and white urban vigilante Bernard Goetz. In the book he also offered typically controversial responses to the work of novelist Toni Morrison (Beloved, he wrote, was “a blackface holocaust novel”) and Spike Lee (a racial “propagandist”), along with illuminating travel pieces on Africa and Italy.
In his 1995 collection The All-American Skin Game, Crouch delivers a moving elegy on novelist/essayist Ralph Ellison, who, “floated above the petty darkness of race and opportunism”, and an analysis of the O.J.Simpson case, that, to the surprise of some, supports the jury’s not guilty verdict. In Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, Crouch, no fan of Hip Hop, offers an unflattering take on Tupac Shakur, as well as sobering reflections on the legacy of Hiroshima, and linked the 1995 right-wing terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City to the notorious bombing of a Black Church in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963. The American obsession with cultural authenticity is the focus of The Artificial White Man (2004), a collection in which Crouch profiles a number of pop culture celebrities including Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton and Duke Ellington. Crouch’s 2006 essay collection Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, is an excellent compendium that vividly details his loathing of Miles Davis’ jazz-rock fusion period, and offers high praise of such Jazz masters as Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane.
The rest of Crouch’s books include his only novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome?. Published in 2000, the novel is a love story between a white female jazz singer, and a Black saxophonist set in New York City that explores love and race in the context of the Jazz world. Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk, is a 2003 book-length centennial examination of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, co-written with Crouch’s friend, freelance journalist Playthell Benjamin. Crouch’s last great published work was the long-awaited, first volume of his Charlie Parker biography, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, published in 2013, which chronicles the life and music of the legendary Kansas City-born bebop saxophonist.
Born to Emma Bea Crouch, a domestic, and James, a heroin addict who was often in trouble with the law, as he wrote in The All-American Skin Game, his mother “taught me the alphabet and taught me to spell before my first day in school. I was told by her the basic truths of books, which is that you can travel all over the world from inside a library, page upon page.” Crouch writes that it was her stories about meeting Duke Ellington, and her jazz record collection that sparked his lifelong love affair with the art form.
Crouch attended two community colleges in the 1960s without earning a degree. During various points in his creative life he was an actor, a playwright and poet, and an avant-garde jazz drummer, in addition to being heavily influenced—at least initially—by the burgeoning Black Arts movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by poet/Black activist LeRoi Jones, who later rechristened himself Amiri Baraka.
A voracious reader and devotee of the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Twain, Crouch was nevertheless drawn to the 1960s Black Arts Movement during the Watts Riots of 1965, but as he wrote in Notes, “I soon began to fall out with the movement and was often accused of having been too influenced by Europeans or ‘Western standards,’ code for being a traitor to the revolution.” Indeed over the span of his career, Crouch’s social, critical and political positions were often in conflict with conventional Black radical and white liberal politics.
Crouch fell under the influence of novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison, and Ellison’s fellow Tuskegee Institute alumnus, author and social essayist Albert Murray, author of The Omni-Americans and Stomping the Blues and other celebrated works of fiction and non-fiction. Both Ellison and Murray celebrated the mainstream jazz heritage of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Ellison and Murray's belief that the African-American experience is foundational to the socio-cultural framework of the United States had a permanent impact on Crouch’s writings and worldview.
Crouch moved from Los Angeles to New York City in 1975 and worked as a bouncer at the Tin Palace, a Jazz club on the Bowery. His byline began to appear in a number of New York publications and in 1979, he was hired as a jazz critic for The Village Voice and became its first Black staff writer one year later. “It was at The Voice that my conception of the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary social movements expanded,” Crouch wrote in Notes.
Crouch may have found his voice at The Voice, but many found that voice abrasive and provocative. He was fired from The Village Voice in 1988 for fighting with a fellow staff writer about rap music; and in 2003 his column in JazzTimes was terminated after he wrote an essay charging that white jazz critics essentially promoted lesser white jazz musicians.
Where most Black people referred to themselves as African-Americans, Crouch used the old school term “Negro,” which caused some to see him as either a reflexive contrarian and/or a neo-conservative. Rejecting both of those monikers, Crouch saw himself as a “radical pragmatist.” He wrote, “I affirm whatever I think has the best chance of working … of being both inspirational and unsentimental, of reasoning across the categories of false division and beyond the decoy of race.”
Crouch’s writings on jazz were influential in establishing the so-called Young Lions era in the 1980s and 1990s as young jazz musicians returned to the study and playing of classic, acoustic jazz. His forty year friendship and mentorship with acclaimed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who spearheaded that movement, led to the 1987 creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was co-founded by Marsalis, Albert Murray and Crouch.
The highest goal of any jazz musician is to establish their own unique musical style or voice. Using words instead of musical notes, Stanley Crouch did just that. “I have known many different kinds of people, from semi-literate poor people all the way over to supremely sophisticated men like Ralph Ellison, Charles Johnson, and Saul Bellow,” Crouch said in a 2007 interview with pianist Ethan Iverson.
“I have been around the block, I have been down in the basement, I have looked out on the world from the parapets of penthouses, and every place that I have been and have come to know is far more often dominated by the moods and wishes of people than by stereotypes.”