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Gary Giddins Remembers Stanley Crouch

The award-winning critic pays tribute to his colleague and friend of 45 years (12/14/45 – 9/16/20)

Stanley Crouch
Stanley Crouch (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Let us celebrate Stanley Crouch’s benevolent impact on jazz criticism. True, he incited viral gossip with his gusty eviscerations and performative tantrums, but all that pales beside the soaring cadences of his ardor. A daring listener, he thought and spoke of jazz ceaselessly, sometimes uproariously, and he wrote of it with reverence, metaphorical ebullience, and a bottomless well of knowledge. Here is a characteristic sentence (you’ll recognize the writer as you would a phrase by Sonny Rollins): “Armstrong, who is to jazz improvisation what the Wright Brothers were to aerodynamics, and Ellington, who is to jazz orchestration what D. W. Griffith was to the grammar of cinema, represent freedom, eloquence, discipline, lyricism, sexuality, joy, tragedy, ambivalence, and transcendent elegance as aesthetically expressed through jazz.” There is little here you don’t know or can’t intuit, yet the operatic authority—augmented by unusual comparisons and word choices (ambivalence!)—is itself liberating. Stanley invigorated jazz crit with a largeness, a breadth, that did not exist before he stomped onto the scene, a self-invented savant with a lot on his mind.

Stanley and I became friends the moment we met, at the close of a jazz critics’ colloquium created by Martin Williams in 1975. Burly, dark-skinned, owlishly broadfaced, he strode over to me with an expansive smile and outstretched arm, as though we were landsmen and this but a deferred formality. “Stanley Crouch,” he said, cheerfully pulverizing my right hand. “Duke Ellington was the greatest pimp that ever lived and I’m the greatest pimp since Ellington.” Knowing or at least intuiting what he meant, I laughed. We bonded over Ellington, who had died the previous year, and who had the capacity to cloud men’s minds, like the Shadow; he lived his entire life in the public glare and yet maintained an impenetrable wall of privacy and independence. Stanley, like the Maestro, could also charm the birds from the trees, though it took him a while to master his temper. 

The passage quoted above, for example, is from a paper Stanley delivered in response to one by Amiri Baraka at a 1986 conference called “New Perspectives in Jazz,” held at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin. It began by deprecating Baraka’s “sloppiness” and “lack of aesthetic seriousness.” That night, faced with a withering onslaught in the ensuing discussion, Stanley displayed, not for the last time, a vulnerability that he didn’t like to show publicly. But I never saw the furious, out-of-control Crouch of growing legend. I heard about it (after one set-to he spent a couple of nights in my living room talking it out). Yet in twoscore and five years, which comprised months of daily phone calls and months where we hardly spoke, we never fought, never even argued, never raised our voices. I don’t say that each of us didn’t privately gasp and sputter at things the other wrote. On one occasion, he went so far as to convince a third party to put in an essay a few grievances he was too polite to voice under his own byline. Still, whenever we met there was always a bearhug and immediate rapprochement. We sent inscribed copies of books (his inscriptions were ever graceful, and I treasure them). He also sent me manuscripts of a novel, essays, and various works in progress, purely as a way of keeping up; most remain unpublished. You don’t get many friends in life with whom you can always resume wherever you left off.

During the period of our hourlong phone calls, I remarked to someone that Stanley would always call when I was working and kill the rest of my writing day. He said, “You don’t have to take them.” But I did! He invariably called when he was brimming with ideas and I did not want to miss anything. Writing of his friend Coleridge, William Hazlitt noted “the endless volume of his waking dreams. Cloud rolls over cloud; one train of thought suggests and is driven away by another; theory after theory is spun out of the bowels of his brain.” That was Stanley. A bass line in George Russell, an allusion in Monk, a newfound Ellington concert, or a John Ford screening might start him off and soon enough we were riding the whirlwind. He was ecstatic when Rollins released Silver City, close to tears when Tony Williams passed. I saw myself in a passive role as auditor, but he would mercifully surprise me by saying he had been thinking about something I said. Meanwhile, he became a celebrity on television, on the lecture circuit, and in academe; no one enjoyed “the fame thing,” as he called it, more than Stanley. Recalling his first apartment in New York, a cold-water walkup off Bowery, home to his family (including his infant daughter); his traps, which looked like relics from an archaeological dig; and the occasional concert (David Murray’s debut), I marveled at his triumph.

A lot has been written about Stanley’s change in aesthetics, when he turned against the avant-garde, including protégés, friends, and students whom he championed and helped bring to prominence, among them Murray, James Newton, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, Arthur Blythe, Butch Morris, Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett. One musician remarked to me several years ago, “We were all geniuses and now none of us can play”; Hemphill called him an Uncle Tom in print. He brushed it off. We mourned the loss of Julius together on the phone. Moreover, it is a fallacy to think that the writing one does at 50 and 60 eradicates the writing one did at 30 and 40. The truth is on the page; trust the tale. No one wrote more astutely of the Loft Era than Stanley, including at least two commanding homages to Cecil Taylor. His writing from those years (including his widely discussed “Laughin’ Louis” and a panegyric for Buddy Rich) needs to be collected, and his superb books reevaluated, among them his one published novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, which describes, as only Crouch can, the style of its saxophonist hero, Maxwell: his “wide blue sound [touched] each note like the breath of a whisperer against an ear. More than that whispering [was getting] that sigh, which was what Ben Webster, Harry Edison, and Miles Davis did better than anybody else, the sound that expressed the most transparently delicate side of the spirit, the happiest or the saddest, the one lighter than a moan because it was actually just breathing with emotion.”

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats

Gary Giddins

Gary Giddins is the author of 12 books, including Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation (1985), Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), Weather Bird (2004), and the three-volume biography Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, of which two volumes have been published to date. Between 1974 and 2003, he wrote a regular jazz column for The Village Voice, winning six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in music criticism. From 2002 to 2008, he wrote JazzTimes‘ Cadenza column.