When writer and jazz critic Stanley Crouch was fired in the spring of 2003 from his gig as a monthly columnist for this magazine, the ultimate compliment to Crouch, as a relevant jazz critic, came from revolutionary poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. Baraka, a superb jazz critic over the years, defended Crouch’s right to express his unpopular views regarding the music and remarked, “Music is the one thing” Crouch “knows something about...” (The Village Voice, May 14-20 2003). Of course, the irony of Baraka speaking up for Crouch is that Crouch has made it a point to trash Amiri Baraka numerous times over the years.
I am sure Baraka would enjoy much of Crouch’s latest book, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, despite his staunch disagreement with Crouch’s politics and the fact that Crouch often seems to fall over himself to praise the music just as long as it conforms to his own well-known aesthetic guidelines: the blues, swinging, improvisation, cooperation and then some more blues.
The titles of the essays are majestic. “Blues for the Space Age” is a devotion to free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman; “Duke Ellington: Transcontinental Swing” is for, obviously, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the greatest of all American composers (Crouch calls Duke “the most American of Americans”); and “Blues to Be Constitutional,” an address Crouch gave at Michigan State University on April 7, 1995, is another one of those beautiful attempts to juxtapose the mission of jazz with the uncertainty of American democracy in relation to Black Americans.
Crouch includes autobiographical segments where he traces his own relationship to the music as a listener, musician and finally a proponent for the music, its “Negro” roots and its need to embrace its past rather than these meandering modern days of experimental transgressions. Nevertheless, the previously published essays are most noteworthy.
“At the Five Spot,” Crouch’s ode to Thelonious Monk’s 1957 stand at the legendary Five Spot in New York, is literary jazz. Crouch states the theme, settles in, improvises, raises the bar and, finally, states the theme again. Monk, as Crouch writes near the beginning, “is the first Picasso of jazz.”
Crouch’s tribute to Wallace Roney, “Don’t Ask the Critics,” is great too. Roney, a trumpeter often compared with Miles Davis, is rendered authentic by Crouch. Roney is effectively removed from that shadow of Miles and becomes a modern master of jazz’s most significant instrument in his own right.
But then there are the mudslinging and the pompous moments, both of which seem unnecessary.
Pop star Prince is dismissed as unimpressive in an ad hominem essay on Miles Davis and is labeled a “borderline drag queen” and a “vulgarian.” Davis is callously called a “drug addict.” Baraka is referred to as a “two legged upright chameleon” and “a clever maker of shrill placards.” None of this advances Crouch’s positions.
His description of his short stint as a columnist for this magazine is also disappointing: “I had been systematically dismantling the clichés that pass for thought in the jazz world.”
Critics, of course, cannot tell readers what they have accomplished—that is for the reader to decide. Readers will be able to use Considering Genius to finally judge Stanley Crouch based upon a large body of work and not small reactionary moments.