Profile: Stanley Crouch (1945-)

Stanley Lawrence Crouch is an American poet, music and cultural critic, syndicated columnist, novelist and biographer, perhaps best known for his jazz criticism and his 2000 novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome?

Biography

Stanley Lawrence Crouch was born in Los Angeles, the son of James and Emma Bea (Ford) Crouch. He was raised by his mother. In Ken Burns’ 2005 television documentary Unforgivable Blackness, Crouch says that his father was a “criminal” and that he once met the boxer Jack Johnson. As a child he was a voracious reader, having read the complete works of Hemingway, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many of the other classics of American literature, by the time he finished high school. His mother told him of the experiences of her youth centered on east Texas and the black culture of the southern midwest, including the burgeoning jazz culture centered in Kansas City. He became an enthusiast for jazz music in both the aesthetic and historical senses. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1963. After high school, he attended junior colleges and became active in the civil rights movement, working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was also involved in artistic and educational projects centered on the African-Americana community of Los Angeles, soon gaining recognition for his poetry. In 1968 he became poet-in-residence at Pitzer College, then taught theatre and literature at Pomona College until 1975. The Watts riots were a pivotal event in his early development as a thinker on racial issues. A quote from the rioting, “Ain’t no ambulances for no nigguhs tonight”, was used as a title for a polemical speech that advocated black nationalist ideas, released as a recording in 1969,  then for a 1972 collection of his poems.

Crouch was an aspiring jazz drummer. Together with David Murray, he formed the group Black Music Infinity. In 1975, he sought to further his endeavors with a move from California to New York City, where he shared a loft with Murray above an East Village club called the Tin Palace. He was a drummer for Murray and with other musicians of the underground New York loft jazz scene. While working as a drummer, Crouch conducted the booking for an avant-garde jazz series at the club, as well as organizing occasional concert events at the Ladies’ Fort. By his own admission, he was not a good drummer, saying “The problem was that I couldn’t really play. Since I was doing this avant-garde stuff, I didn’t have to be all that good, but I was a real knucklehead.”

Crouch befriended Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who influenced his thinking in a direction less centered on race. He stated with regard to Murray’s influence, “I saw how important it is to free yourself from ideology. When you look at things solely in terms of race or class, you miss what is really going on.” He made a final, public break with black nationalist ideology in 1979, in an exchange with Amiri Baraka in the Village Voice. He was also emerging as a public critic of recent cultural and artistic trends that he saw as empty, phony, or corrupt. His targets included the fusion and avant-garde movements in jazz (including his own participation in the latter) and works of letters that he saw as hiding their lack of merit behind racial posturing. As a writer for the Voice from 1980 to 1988, he was known for his blunt criticisms of his targets and tendency to excoriate their participants. It was during this period that he became a friend and intellectual mentor to Wynton Marsalis, and an advocate of the neotraditionalist movement that he saw as reviving the core values of jazz.In 1987 he became an artistic consultant for the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, joined by Marsalis, who later became artistic director, in 1991.

After his stint at the Voice, Crouch published Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989, which gained his ideas prominence among a wide audience and was selected by The Encyclopædia Britannica Yearbook as the best book of essays published in 1990. That was followed by receipt of a Whiting Award in 1991, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993.

Crouch has continued to be an active author producing works of fiction and nonfiction, articles for periodicals, and newspaper columns. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News and a syndicated columnist. He is also featured as a source in documentaries and a guest in televised discussions.

In 2004 Crouch was invited to a panel of judges for the PEN/Newman’s Own Award, a $25,000 award designed to protect speech as it applies to the written word.

In 2005, he was selected as one of the inaugural fellows by the Fletcher Foundation, which awards annual fellowships to people working on issues of race and civil rights. The fellowship program is directed by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University.

He is the current President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and since 2009 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Crouch lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Opinions

As a political thinker, Crouch was initially drawn to, then disillusioned with, the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. His critiques of his former co-thinkers, whom he refers to as a “lost generation”, are collected in Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989 and The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994. He has identified the embrace of racial essentialism among African-American leaders and intellectuals as a diversion from issues more central to the betterment of African-Americans and society as a whole. In the 1990s, he upset many political thinkers when he declared himself a “radical pragmatist”.  He explained, “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 is also a fierce critic of gangsta rap music, asserting that it promotes violence, criminal lifestyles, and degrading attitudes toward women. With this viewpoint, he has defended Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake Speech” and praised a women’s group at Spelman College for speaking out against rap music. With regard to rapper Tupac Shakur wrote, “what dredged-up scum you are willing to pay for is what scum you get, on or off stage.”

Since the late 1970s, Crouch has been critical of forms of jazz that diverge from what he regards as its essential core values, similar to the opinions of Albert Murray on the same topic. In jazz critic Alex Henderson’s assessment, Crouch is a “rigid jazz purist” and “a blistering critic of avant-garde jazz and fusion”. Of fusion, Crouch wrote, “We should laugh at those who make artistic claims for fusion.”

In The New Yorker Robert Boynton wrote, “Enthusiastic, combative, and never averse to attention, Crouch has a virtually insatiable appetite for controversy.”  Boynton also noted “Few cultural critics have a vision as eclectic and intriguing as Stanley Crouch’s. Fewer still actually fight to prove their points.” Crouch was fired from JazzTimesfollowing his controversial article “Putting the White Man in Charge” in which he stated that, since the 1960s, “white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art form which they feel substantially alienated.”

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