Stanley Crouch challenged everything, and did it brilliantly. His acts of creation and destruction were purposeful and, more often than not, principled, from building up Jazz at Lincoln Center’s canon to knocking giants off pedestals in arts and culture. He hit and he missed. When he connected, he illuminated. Crouch was the epicenter of jazz criticism and combat at a time at the Village Voice, in the 1980s, when the village could have a distinct set of voices. But he also embodied something beyond his era—an independence of ideas, a fearless style of critique, and a pattern-matching memory that, long after an argument was done, kept you questioning. He lit into the “counterfeits” and the “charlatans” of the day, revering Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray while assailing Miles Davis as “the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz” for having “turned his butt to the beautiful in order to genuflect before the commercial,” and “blurt[ing] a sound so decadent that it can no longer disguise the shriveling of its maker’s soul.”
Crouch was—until his death in September of an illness exacerbated by COVID-19—iconic. Your outrage never surprised him after each article. Beneath it, he wanted your engagement. His urge for combat, he told me, came from a need not to be read, but to be free—from the scriptures, orthodoxies, and assumptions of a society that would insist, always, that he live in lockstep with any group solely on the basis of race, class, or culture. Ellison praised him for it, while critics like Ishmael Reed weren’t having it, calling Crouch “a henchman for the establishment” long before Crouch co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center and enshrined swing at its core, fencing it off in a battle between classicists and renegades.
I owe my first newspaper job to Crouch. He and Nat Hentoff helped me get hired at the Voice, a paper as insightful for their essays as for those of writers they feuded with, often on the same spread of pages. Crouch was fired after two assaults on coworkers. He split the lip of one in a fight over music and race. Some fights were public, others private, and it would be a dishonest sidestep to minimize, romanticize, or fall back on apologia for his assaults, as some writers still do. And some battles went national, including his fight with JazzTimes magazine editors over his accusations of racism in journalism.
JazzTimes infamously fired Crouch in 2003 after his blistering essay “Putting the White Man in Charge.” I first reported his firing in the Voice at Crouch’s request, siding with him, as I do now, against our mutual JazzTimes editors in a story that I think sheds light on one way to remember him.
In his essay, Crouch accused white critics of promoting white musicians “far beyond their abilities” to “make themselves feel more comfortable about evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” He claimed that white critics have historically celebrated white musicians who can’t swing at the expense of Black musicians who can. Shortly after it, JazzTimes fired him:
Hi, Stanley—We’ve decided to end your column. You’ve made your point many times about what jazz is and who can play it, and we feel the column has now run its course. It’s time for us to move on. Thank you for your contributions to JazzTimes over the past year.
“He was also routinely late with copy,” JazzTimes editors told me. “His columns were becoming tedious, generally alternating between vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies.”
“Sure, I was late, but then I ceased to be late,” Crouch said. “How does my article constitute a ‘vitriolic rant’? Because I challenge ideas without holding your hand?”
The magazine’s president also emailed him: “Industry folks…felt you were ‘over the top’ in your editorials.”
Crouch was manifestly right: Editors have fired critics for too plainly and knowledgeably naming industry interests and disparities in journalism. “Saying that my friendship with [Wynton] Marsalis prevents me from writing a column critically is really a smokescreen for something else, which is that I stepped out of the proverbial box and JazzTimes didn’t like that.”
“‘Celebrating his buddies’? What does that mean?” Hentoff told me in agreement with Crouch. “Either you think Stanley has a singular voice and raises questions or you don’t. I think it is absolutely stupid to have done that. If JazzTimes is a magazine devoted to freedom of expression like the very music it represents, what are they thinking?”
Amiri Baraka agreed, siding with Crouch in rare solidarity against the “one enemy” greater than each other: left-of-center editors. “If editors can’t stand the stuff I’m saying because of my Marxist overtones, I didn’t think they were going to stand for Stanley’s straight-up ‘white people this’ and ‘white people that,’” Baraka told me. “As much as I disagree with Stanley, about everything, music is the one thing he knows something about, so I hope he does make a stink. The funny fucked-up thing is that Stanley’s a right-wing son of a bitch, but he’s got the right to say some of the backward shit other people are saying.”
“Stanley’s ridiculous. He’s totally unfounded,” DownBeat’s editor told me at the time. “It’s absurd to think there’s a white critical establishment.” (All editors at JazzTimes, DownBeat, and JazzIz that year were white.)
“Stanley’s thing about the white critical establishment? You’ve got to be kidding—of course there is one,” countered Mark Ruffin, a DownBeat contributor in Chicago. “There has never been a single full-time Black music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times or the Tribune, and I’ve been paying very close attention,” he said in 2003.
“It strikes me as curious that Stanley was let go following this article,” said Willard Jenkins, a JazzTimes contributor, “when he had written many things before that have deeply angered many in the African American community and was never taken to task. But now that he offends many in the white jazz establishment, he’s out.”
“There’s definitely a deeper story here,” agreed John Murph, another JazzTimes contributor, who told me, “Sometimes white editors do oppressive things they don’t know they’re doing…I share in [Stanley’s] frustrations.”
The archives agree: Dan Morgenstern, DownBeat’s editor-in-chief in the late ’60s, told me that DownBeat’s then-publisher, John Maher, “used to say he didn’t want too many Black people on the cover. I remember when we put Thad Jones on the cover, and [Maher] said, ‘Do we have to put him on there? He’s so dark.’”
In my search of archives at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, I found that Paul Eduard Miller, a DownBeat editor in the 1920s through ’40s and Esquire’s jazz editor in the ’40s, compiled statistics on jazz coverage, available for study in his unpublished book. He found that Benny Goodman received 500 more article inches than Duke Ellington in the ’30s and that Gene Krupa took more than Louis Armstrong. Paul Whiteman received more than Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, and Count Basie, and in the following decade, Goodman got more than Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach combined.
“That’s totally ludicrous,” DownBeat’s then-editor told me in response to Crouch’s thesis. “Stanley is bringing us backwards. It’s an old-school way of thinking.”
This disagreement was nothing new in 2003. It had been roiling since the beginning of jazz. But it was hard to know if everyone saw the same elephant in the room or just heard talk of one. So JazzTimes even went to the trouble of trying to test for an elephant by commissioning Baraka to reexamine his 1961 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” the music’s most acclaimed article on race relations.
But with telling irony, JazzTimes sat on his new essay, refusing to publish it, as I learned when JazzTimes’ then-publisher handed me a printout in his office, said he wouldn’t run it, and called Baraka’s prose “impenetrable.”
Baraka’s thesis is summed up—penetrably—in the lead of his new essay, a copy of which Baraka later gave me to publish excerpts of at the Voice while JazzTimes held it:
The fact that an oppressor nation could judge the creations of the people they oppress is not strange but is natural in the context of the relationship between ruler and ruled.
“I wrote ‘Jazz and the White Critic Revisited,’” Baraka told me, “and I asked [JazzTimes] what’s happening. They told me, ‘It doesn’t cover the things we want it to cover, it doesn’t say the things we want it to say.’”
“In Baraka’s case,” the magazine answered, “it was a combination of him turning in late copy and handing in pieces or reviews that didn’t fulfill the assignment.”
“But the point is this,” Baraka said. “If you can’t stand to hear different ideas, what business are you in?”
Baraka and Crouch were demonstrably right. JazzTimes silenced, at least in its pages, the most prominent (and only) critics willing to ask, precisely because they did ask, calling them “tedious” and “impenetrable” and in large measure validating their claims. By contrast, Crouch’s New York Daily News editor, Robert Laird, who’d edited him for a decade, told me Crouch was “always” open to edits: “I might debate subjects and points of view, but I’m concerned about the writing itself, if an idea is being clearly expressed, if he’s being consistent with what he’s written before. We’re not in the business of getting in the way of strong opinions.”
One point to parse is Laird’s last: Editors are in the business of getting in the way of strong opinions sometimes. But the best editors, like Laird and Robert Christgau—Crouch’s veterans—sharpen, not blunt, the strong opinions of critical columnists they disagree with. Firing Crouch from JazzTimes was asinine, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging. But there’s a greater lesson Crouch leaves us: Nothing about rejecting false neutrality in journalism requires publishing so narrowly, assigning so comfortably, or making echo chambers so soundproof that publications protect readers from the very ideas they exist to learn from. At least in jazz.
I spent a good part of my 20s arguing with #StanleyCrouch in my head. I disagreed with him about a LOT. But I also respected him and our eventual in-person arguments challenged me and made me a better writer. I’m profoundly saddened by his passing and will miss him greatly.
— jelani cobb (@jelani9) September 16, 2020
"Stanley Crouch was a writer and a poet of uncommon depth and feeling. Don’t listen to what is said about what he was saying. Read him if you want to know him." https://t.co/xia1ybQNki
— Wynton Marsalis (@wyntonmarsalis) September 18, 2020
The passing of Stanley Crouch makes me sad. From him, I enjoyed both my greatest compliments and endured the most scathing, painful criticisms. If you allowed yourself the opportunity, you came away from each conversation with him more curious and therefore, a bit smarter. RIP🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/ZVfKn1klF0
— Christian McBride (@mcbridesworld) September 16, 2020
No one ever influenced me more than Stanley Crouch. As a young woman I was blessed to be taught by him & mentored by him. He gave me my true North, with his genius & incomparable ability to see right into you & show you what is true. May he rest in peace. https://t.co/Gi75VxKy9g
— Marianne Williamson (@marwilliamson) September 16, 2020
Profound though he was, Crouch was also capable of meaningful and mundane cruelty. He outed the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor in a 1982 article, suggesting Taylor was incapable of swing because of his sexuality. Taylor later told me, with a look of slight amusement and seriousness, that “the name Stanley Crouch” was not to be spoken in his presence. Taylor didn’t respect him enough to begrudge, absolve, or need to forgive. “Do you think a three-letter word can cover the immensity of my personality?” Taylor told me. (Crouch wrote an essay 28 years later denouncing anti-gay bigotry of the kind he’d aimed at Taylor in the ’80s, though Crouch didn’t mention a connection. Whether his 2010 article was an effort to genuinely wrestle with his conscience, or settle a score with himself, for his ’80s writing is unclear. Crouch never told me. I never asked.)
When Crouch wasn’t swatting and obscuring, he was clarifying. “One thing Stanley does,” Ornette Coleman told me in 2005, “is he has an image of what existence is in relationship to creativity and intelligence that has to do with expression. He has devoted himself to finding out what stimulates those things that give him the right to exist. I respect everybody who analyzes something that has meaning.”
“Stanley Crouch, when he was at the Voice, was, I thought, the most challenging writer we have ever had,” Hentoff said.
“No critic, I believe, writing today, teaches us more about the subtleties and nuances of race in American culture than does Stanley Crouch,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. said.
At a memorial service for his colleague Martin Williams, in 1992, Crouch gave a eulogy for a writer who, like Crouch, was a towering jazz critic. To read it now is to hear words vivid enough, expansive enough, and enduring enough to evoke both writers at their best. Of his friend, Crouch said, “He was one who stood his ground against the Goliaths of contempt, of racism, of sloppiness, of disregard. He was dedicated and he was prickly, so knowing him could be inspirational one moment and similar to wrestling with a cactus at another.”
“Your intellectual progeny may be small,” Crouch said, “but then, so was the stone that felled Goliath. You understood the velocity of that stone and knew it was one of creation.”
Felling Goliath was a core method of Crouch’s career, but it wasn’t his organizing principle for life. Swing was, as music, metaphor, and a language for hearing the world, as well as his armor against its assumptions. When he wasn’t becoming Goliath himself—belittling and bullying—he was epic, historically informed, and profound. He wrote big, allegorical essays. They’re all worth reading.
That eulogy has another line that I think evokes Crouch as much as Williams, as well as Baraka, Hentoff, Taylor, and Coleman, each now gone: “For a music so given to individuality, it is perfect that he was here.”
Crouch’s papers are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.