The Great Stanley Crouch
An American immigrant jazz buff expresses his gratitude to a supremely gifted critic who loved the music and loathed bullshit
BY TONY BADRAN
If I had to name the one writer who was most pivotal for me and for my full assimilation in America, it would undoubtedly be Stanley Crouch, the famed jazz and cultural critic who died last Wednesday in New York at age 74. At this moment in American life, where anything and everything that identifies us and binds us as Americans is under direct assault, Crouch is perhaps more essential than ever, and his passing all the more devastating.
Perhaps even more than Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, Crouch tied it all together for me. He had a terrific ear for the music I love, and his uncompromising pugnacious style spoke to me directly. For someone who came to America from a sectarian Third World society, his commentary on the Balkanization of America was penetrating and, as we’re seeing today, scarily pertinent.
Crouch had no patience for the self-pitying race politics of grievance and authenticity. He saw it as a hustle and had nothing but contempt for its toxic sales pitch. He arrived at this conviction the hard way, as he explains in the prologue to his fabulous Considering Genius:
The tribal appeal is always great and there is nothing more tempting to the most gullible members of a minority group than suddenly hearing that, merely by being born, one is not innately inferior to the majority but part of an unacknowledged elite. I was not so sophisticated that I could avoid the pull of those ideas and found myself reading all kinds of books about Africa, and African customs and religion. … I would have been pulled all the way into the maw of subthought, from which it might have taken longer to emerge if Jayne Cortez hadn’t introduced me to Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act. … Unlike those younger black people who were busy jettisoning their heritage as Americans and Western people—both of which brought the built-in option of criticism—Ellison took the place of his ethnic group and himself as firm parts of American life and a fresh development in Western culture.
This affirmation of Americanness in the face of all tribal impulses, “ethnic narcissism,” and Balkanization, reflects the influence of Ellison and Murray, and their realization, in Crouch’s words, that “America is a land of synthesis.” In The Omni-Americans, Murray builds on Constance Rourke’s description of the composite nature of the American character—“part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.” Blackness, in other words, is a foundational element of the American national character, meaning that all Americans are culturally part Black, whether they like it or not, and that appeals to racial or cultural purity—by anyone, regardless of skin color or claimed ancestry—are sheer nonsense.
Like America, its vernacular aesthetic expression, jazz, is also a composite, an experiment in hybridity. And like America, the Black element in jazz is foundational—not something that needs special pleading or diversity coaches to promote inclusion. Crouch was uncompromising on this point. He fought vigorously against any attempt to remove from its definition the core elements of jazz, which were the contribution of Black artists—blues and swing.