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Stanley Crouch 1945–2020

The author, critic, and former JazzTimes columnist was famous—and infamous—for his opinions

Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch, an irascible, polarizing, and uncompromising jazz and opinion journalist, died September 16 at the Calvary Hospital in New York City. He was 74.

His death was announced in a statement by his wife of 25 years, the former Gloria Nixon. A cause of death was not disclosed; however, Crouch had recently undergone a physical and mental decline, including a bout of COVID-19. At the time of his death, he had for some years been living at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, an assisted-living community in the Bronx.

One of the most famous and infamous jazz critics in the United States, Crouch was also perhaps the music’s most outspoken and controversial commentator. (“A freelance curmudgeon,” as the New York Times memorably described him in 1993.) At one time both a Black Nationalist and an avant-garde drummer, Crouch had forsaken both by the early 1980s; however, he maintained the self-possession and militancy of those traditions, simply transferring them into his new outlook.

That outlook was often labeled as conservative and sometimes even retrograde—among other things, Crouch insisted on using the term “Negro” long after it had fallen out of favor—but could more accurately be described as idiosyncratic. He denounced overt racial politics in jazz (and elsewhere), but also insisted that the music’s identity was inherently Black. He regarded bebop as its supreme achievement, seeing such otherwise revered figures as Miles Davis and John Coltrane as something like heretics for their departures from its strictures. Crouch was particularly hostile toward Davis, lacing into the trumpeter in a brutal 1986 essay. And he championed the generation of musicians who returned to those bebop strictures as their starting point—led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was both a protégé of Crouch’s and among his closest friends. Crouch would become, with Marsalis, a co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Crouch frequently made mincemeat of sacred cows, Black as well as white. In publications such as the New York Daily News (where he was a columnist for almost two decades), he threw shade at everyone from Amiri Baraka to Toni Morrison, yet saved some of his zeal for white musicians whom he regarded as inferior, and for the critics he accused of falsely glorifying them. (“Putting the White Man in Charge,” a column Crouch wrote for the April 2003 issue of JazzTimes, became something of a scandal in the jazz community.) His passion and irreverence were not limited to the written word: Crouch lost an earlier writing job, as a staff writer at the Village Voice, when he punched a colleague there, and got into another physical altercation in a much-discussed incident with pianist Matthew Shipp and Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel.

Even as he ruffled feathers, however, Crouch’s power as a writer and ear as a critic were undeniable. His attention to musical detail and vast erudition in jazz, among many other subjects, was acknowledged and admired, if sometimes grudgingly. “A Stanley Crouch may say something you think is preposterous, but he has earned the right to say it, if for no other reason than because he has lived his whole life inside this music,” said writer Gary Giddins in a 2003 interview. “He has spent more time in clubs than almost anybody else I know.”

In particular, Crouch was hailed for his scholarship on Charlie Parker. Kansas City Lightning, a long-promised biography of Parker’s early years (ostensibly the first of multiple volumes, though the others never materialized), was published to rave reviews in 2013. Nor did he go unrecognized in formal capacities: Among other honors, Crouch was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982 and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1993; was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009; and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2019.

Stanley Lawrence Crouch was born December 14, 1945 in Los Angeles. His father, James Crouch, was incarcerated when his son was born and remained distant thenceforth. Crouch was raised by his mother, Emma Bea Ford Crouch, a house cleaner who supplied her son with stacks of books as well as old jazz records. By the time he graduated from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1963, he had honed considerable skills in poetry. It became a serious pursuit, with which Crouch occupied himself when not attending community college and working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His accomplishment as a poet was such that in 1968 he became a poet-in-residence at the Claremont Colleges, then gained a faculty position teaching literature, drama, and jazz history.

By 1975, Crouch had also taught himself to play drums, emulating the free-jazz styles of Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. That year, he moved to New York and moved into a Bowery loft with another free-jazz musician from California, saxophonist David Murray. The two lived above a venue, the Tin Palace, which they soon began booking as well as playing, thereby becoming featured performers on Manhattan’s then-ascendant loft scene. At the same time, Crouch began associations with writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who represented (and drew him into) an older, less radical Black aesthetic. By 1980, he had crossed over to the elders’ camp.

Around the same time, Crouch became acquainted with Wynton Marsalis, a new arrival in New York who was making waves with his virtuosic trumpet playing. The two found kindred spirits in each other, with Crouch becoming both a devoted evangelist for and mentor to the young musician. Within a few years, they would become business partners as well, working together to build the institution that became Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987.

During this time Crouch also worked at the Voice, was a regular contributor to the New Republic, and began what became more than 30 years’ extensive research into his biography of Charlie Parker. In the 1990s, he was hired to write a syndicated column in the New York Daily News (which continued until 2014) and published five anthologies of his own writing. He served on the advisory board for Ken Burns’ landmark 2000 documentary Jazz, and that same year published a novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome. In 2008, Crouch was elected president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, serving in that capacity until his death.

In addition to his wife, Crouch is survived by his daughter from a previous marriage (to Samerna Scott, which ended in divorce), Gaia Crouch-Scott, and a granddaughter.

Go here to read all of Stanley Crouch’s contributions to JazzTimes.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.