The following review appears in the September 2006 issue of Jazz Notes, the quarterly publication of the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA), edited by yours truly.
Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz
By Stanley Crouch
Basic Civitas Books, Cambridge, MA, 2006; 360 pp.; $27.50 hardcover
Review by David R. Adler
Easily one of the world’s best-known jazz critics, Stanley Crouch is also a writer on politics and culture, with a novel and several volumes of essays to his credit. His name alone tends to generate strong reactions. To his detractors, he is stubborn and tunnel-visioned, an aggrieved jazz traditionalist and even a racial exclusivist, an incorrigible foe of pop culture, fusion and avant-garde jazz. Considering Genius, his first collection of jazz essays, doesn’t entirely dispel this view, but it does complicate it. Fair-minded readers who think they’ve got Crouch pegged may find occasion to reflect and reconsider. They’ll also encounter some of the most imaginative and insightful jazz writing ever committed to paper.
Considering Genius spans the years 1977 to 2004. In addition to five main sections, there are over 80 pages of new material in the form of an autobiographical prologue and a scattered but often engrossing epilogue. The first section, “The Makers,” consists of 14 musician portraits. “Thoughts,” the second section, includes a eulogy to fellow critic Martin Williams; a review of Alfred Appel’s 2004 book Jazz Modernism; an influential 1995 piece titled “Blues to Be Constitutional,” on jazz as democracy in action; and a wide-ranging 1983 account of a trip to Umbria. The third section, “Battle Royal,” gathers Crouch’s highly controversial columns for Jazz Times magazine from 2002-2003, as well as a 1986 piece called “Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form,” which is in part a convincing takedown of Amiri Baraka. Crouch’s 1986 assault on late-era Miles Davis, a polemical tour de force in spite of its flaws, gets its own section, called “Detours Ahead.” The fifth and final subheading, “The Way It Was, The Way It Is,” touches on Ellington and Mahalia Jackson, Wynton Marsalis at the Vanguard and the New York jazz scene as a whole.
The pages overflow with rich description. Crouch writes of “the boody-butt ease of absolute swing,” of “the stink and the grease and the gutbucket at the center of the art.” Jazz, he contends, is “based in the rocky ground and the swamp mud of elemental experience while rising toward the stars with the intellectual determination of a sequoia.” There are elegant and authoritative comments about Billy Higgins, John Hicks, Clifford Jordan, Woody Shaw, Tommy Flanagan and many others. Kenny Barron is “a shocking blast furnace of swing and creativity.” George Coleman is “a flesh-and-blood thesaurus of harmony.” Benny Carter’s tone is a “suede panther.” Ben Webster “could sound like the entire Ellington tonal arsenal compressed into a gold-plated, curved, and multi-keyed vessel of effortless expression.”
Crouch’s view of the avant-garde is more nuanced than people realize. True, he has little use for post-1965 Coltrane, but he praises Interstellar Space without equivocation. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, he argues, “brought a fresh level of empathy to improvising.” Crouch also lavishes high compliments on the Art Ensemble of Chicago (particularly Don Moye), Henry Threadgill’s Air and Cecil Taylor, among others. He penned an encomium to Sun Ra in 1982, just as Wynton was breaking out. His take on fusion is far more blinkered, though he admits the greatness of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet. As for his indictments of rock and rap, they tend toward generalizations rather than sound and considered arguments. He’s not wrong about the hollowness of MTV culture, but he’s deaf to the alternative streams in hip-hop, rock and electronic music that have so influenced today’s younger jazz musicians.
Of course, Crouch rejects the notion that jazz needs to be updated, cross-pollinated and so forth. “The Jazz Tradition Is Not Innovation,” blared the headline of his January 2002 column for Jazz Times. For Crouch, phrases like “keeping jazz alive” and “moving the music forward” are nothing more than “clichés that pass for thought in the jazz world.” Worse, they function as code for the dissipation of jazz’s “core aesthetic elements”: “4/4 swing, blues, the meditative ballad, and the Spanish tinge.” Crouch attacks the “critical consensus” view that jazz can no longer be defined; he also levels charges of racism at white critics for minimizing jazz’s “Negro aesthetic” and elevating white musicians (e.g., Dave Douglas) above black peers that he considers better (e.g., Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton). In this context he curtly dismisses Don Byron and Mark Turner, implying their music is a departure from the “Negro aesthetic” as well. (It’s worth noting that John Hammond, in 1935, attacked Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo” as “un-Negroid.” For more on this, see John Gennari’s new book, Blowin’ Hot & Cool: Jazz and Its Critics.)
JJA members will likely recall the angry letters that followed every Crouch column, not to mention the bitter controversy over Jazz Times’s decision to fire him. (I was not yet a contributing writer for the magazine when this transpired.) Introducing the columns in Considering Genius, Crouch notes the “exceptional hostility” that his work generated, but this seems disingenuous in light of his own rhetorical overreach. His intemperate attack on fellow critic Francis Davis was a low point. He was quick to portray those he disagreed with as ill-willed conspirators; in a typical and unbecoming phrase he spoke of “the movement to neutralize the Negro aesthetic.” Citing Matt Wilson’s “something is wrong” speech upon being named Drummer of the Year at the 2003 Jazz Awards (over Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and others), Crouch concludes: “Wilson knew how he got the award and why he got it. His mirror told him every day. He just happens to be an honest man.” This is tendentious. Wilson seemed to be talking about seniority and historic achievement, not race.
However, Crouch is right to insist that race remains an issue in contemporary arts criticism. White critics could stand to develop thicker skins and greater awareness on this score. Moreover, Crouch’s “four elements” definition of jazz is not without merit. Critics are supposed to delineate their terms and tastes with the greatest possible clarity. Crouch has every reason to defend “four elements” music, and to call out writers whose predilection for the cutting edge can be just as myopic. If he wants to deny that music beyond the “four elements” qualifies as jazz, let him. Wouldn’t some of our eclectic, genre-crossing musicians readily concede the point?
It is also wrong, even in light of Crouch’s recent rhetoric, to view him as a racist who believes whites can’t play or write about jazz. He correctly notes the praise for Joe Lovano to be found in his most controversial column, “Putting the White Man in Charge.” He also names Brad Mehldau and Bill Charlap as the two pianists who could rival his favorite, Eric Reed. Lamenting the apathy toward jazz in the black community, he states: “[H]ad it not been for white listeners, promoters, and scholars, jazz would have faded from the world….” But the key passage is from 1986, in the context of the “battle royal” with Baraka: “Though there have almost always been debates over the racial components of jazz, it is obviously an Afro-American form, meaning that the irreplaceable force at the center of its identity has been the musical imagination of the Negro. But this fact does not imply that white musicians, listeners, and critics have no place in the making or the evaluation of the idiom.”
More than anything, Considering Genius represents Crouch’s frustrating attempt to square a circle: emphatically drawing the boundaries of jazz while proclaiming the music’s universality. At the end of the book comes this flight of fancy: “[Jazz] places local and long distance calls all over the world and people pick up the aesthetic phone in places known for rice fields or deltas or snowcapped mountains or plains or deserts or rain forests or fjords.” In any game of telephone, however, the message itself is transformed by multiple tellings. Surely part of the critic’s task is to be open to this process of evolutionary change. Wayne Shorter has said, “My definition of jazz means ‘no categories.’ Jazz, to me, is a sound that signifies drama of many sorts — not just one sort.” By and large, white critics, rather than imposing an alien value system on “Negro” music, are simply trying to keep up with musicians like Shorter — black, white, Latino and all else.
Before getting riled by Crouch’s persona, however, we owe it to ourselves to read him closely and carefully. He remains one of the foremost authorities on the “four elements,” the music he truly knows. That, more than any florid controversy, makes Considering Genius an essential item on the shelf.