I – Commentary
A. The reaction to Stanley Crouch being a 2019 Jazz Master
When the National Endowment for the Arts announced the recipients of their 2019 Jazz Master Fellowships in June one name leaped off the page and immediately overshadowed all the others. It wasn’t the late Bob Dorough, whose masterful skills as a lyricist, vocalist and pianist had already gotten some degree of mainstream success through his contributions to ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock.” Nor that of superb South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, or outstanding composer/pianist/bandleader Maria Schneider.
No, most of the attention and controversy was generated by news of the fourth recipient. That was a longtime author, critic, columnist and self-described contrarian Stanley Crouch. He will receive the 2019 A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy, which according to the NEA, is “bestowed upon an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the art form of jazz.”
On the surface, that seems quite valid. Crouch was once jazz critic for Players Magazine, later a jazz columnist at both Jazz Times and the Village Voice, as well as a general columnist for the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News. He’s both a co-founder and longtime artistic consultant for Jazz At Lincoln Center, has penned eight books, including the first of a two-part comprehensive biography on Charlie Parker, and also been a past winner of a MacArthur genius grant. Crouch also once booked acts at the Tin Palace, was a creative consultant for Ken Burns’ “Jazz” films, and appeared in subsequent Burns’ films on the Civil War and Jack Johnson.
But from the general reaction in many places, it was as if someone who didn’t know the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet had gotten the award. There was so much online negativity distinguished critic and broadcaster Willard Jenkins felt obligated to explain on his Facebook page how and why Crouch fit the criteria for the award. He received a flood of responses, most of them giving the decision a big thumbs down. Reaction ranged from “he doesn’t know jack about jazz” to “there are so many others out there who should have gotten this award before him,” and even “he can’t write anyway.”
Upon reading a lot of this, it brought back some memories. For one, I remember during my time on the East Coast from 1978-88 just how influential Crouch was during his heyday at the Voice, and how much impact he had in shaping the opinions of Wynton Marsalis, from the time they first met when Marsalis was 17, to when he got his position with Jazz At Lincoln Center. That led to a companion position for Crouch, something that didn’t sit well with several prominent jazz writers, and triggered a wave of critical articles (many of them negative) on the Lincoln Center’s programs and orchestra makeup. It was also a reminder I hadn’t read much Crouch in several years, the last thing being the first volume of his Charlie Parker biography that was published in 2013.
Before penning my views on this award, I decided to revisit some Crouch works, That turned into a two-week project where I re-read the following: “Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz,” “Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives 1995-1997,” ” The Artificial White Man – Essays on Authenticity,” and “The All-American Skin Game or The Decoy of Race.” If the library had had in stock “Notes of a Hanging Judge” that would also have been on the list. I avoided his novels and previously published poetry, and the Parker book was read recently enough to still be fresh in my mind.
After that immersion, it’s very easy to understand Crouch’s appeal in some circles, and why he’s so detested in others. From a political standpoint, his contempt for Black studies programs, disdain for affirmative action, rejection of Afrocentric/Black Nationalist/Pan-African or Black Power rhetoric, and willingness to attack such beloved figures as Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Alex Haley (to name only a few) has made him a hero in the conservative camp, even though labeling him that way isn’t totally accurate.
Likewise, anyone who proclaims his inability to write is kidding themselves. No one wins Whiting, Jean Stein and Windham-Campbell Literary Prizes and Awards solely for taking an alternative view to prevailing trends in any camp. Whether one agrees with Crouch’s views (and many of them I don’t), he is an impressive and eclectic writer. Ironically, despite his professed animus of Amiri Baraka, it’s impossible not to see in much of his music criticism Baraka’s influence from a stylistic perspective. Both are fond of dramatic and highly personal approaches to music and personalities. Both have a fondness for deliberately exaggerated overstatement, and both are extremely knowledgeable in multiple areas of the music.
Another irony is both have encountered lots of criticism for their attacks on the shortcomings of white jazz critics. Crouch’s famous (or infamous) piece “Putting The White Man In Charge” in Jazz Times isn’t that different from a pair of stinging Baraka pieces about white critics penned almost 50 years apart. So despite his insistence on calling him Leroi Jones rather than Amiri Baraka, and his consistent attacks on his work throughout the latter stages of Baraka’s career, Crouch’s writing retains elements that are extremely similar to someone he claims to despise.
When writing or talking about the giants of jazz from its beginnings up to the ’60s, Crouch has often done exemplary work. It’s only when he moves into more modern times that his assessments and criticisms become suspect. His complete disdain of jazz-rock and fusion is rooted in his insistence jazz must be (at least predominantly) in 4/4 time and rooted in the blues. He views most avant-garde jazz as the inferior work of musicians either too lazy or unwilling to master the genre’s fundamentals, and feels their champions in the jazz press are equally unworthy.
He has even less use for non-jazz idioms, completely dismissing rock and roll, rap, and other contemporary forms as amateurish, vulgar, cartoon caricatures, whatever derisive term you choose. His hostility towards late-period Miles Davis is well known, but he has even more animus for those who would label Prince and Michael Jackson as geniuses, though I’ve yet to see him attack Quincy Jones as vigorously. So much of Crouch’s hostility towards contemporary jazz dovetails with his disapproval of 21st-century Black culture icons. From Public Enemy and Spike Lee to Rev. Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter, they are all con artists, frauds, even racists to Stanley Crouch.
Ultimately, he views the bulk of post Civil Rights Black ideology as little more than a bad variation on German nationalism. Oddly, it would be easy to label much of his work as an amalgam of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray musicology filtered through the lens of a Nathan Glazer or Arthur Schlesinger view of America. For Stanley Crouch, jazz and the Civil Rights era represent the best of Black America, and anything that doesn’t mirror those values as he interprets them is at best alien, and at worse bogus. This includes the use of the term African-American and in his view the overemphasis of current Black politicians and activists on the impact of systemic racism.
While I join those who would have picked others for the A.B. Spellman Award (especially given how vastly different Spellman sees the world and jazz than Crouch) I can’t say he hasn’t been a champion of the music for decades. He just doesn’t have the inclusive view of jazz or the approach to music in general, many would like to see.
II – Jazz Conversations
A. Karl Denson
Saxophonist and bandleader Karl Denson is quite a busy man. He’s played with a host of superb musicians, dating back to his days with Lenny Kravitz, and including collaborations not only with ace jazz musicians such as Jack DeJohnette, Stanton Moore, and Dave Holland, but also with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Blackalicious, Slightly Stoopid and Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman. He’s headed both a trio and a larger ensemble (Tiny Universe) for several years now, and has also toured with the Rolling Stones since 2014. His most recent release is “New Ammo” (Stoopid). He recently appeared in Nashville at the Exit/Inn and took a few minutes to talk to Giant Steps.
Denson’s responses are in quotes.
You enjoy playing in a variety of idioms, both with your groups and as a sideman. Do you have a favorite style?
“I consider jazz to be my base and that is my favorite music. But I also approach it from the standpoint of wanting to make people dance, of relating to it in the period when it was more dance than concert or art music. Not that I don’t like concert music, because I do and that’s valuable as well. But as a bandleader and a composer, the pieces that I feel best about are the ones that inspire people to dance, and I always consider my concerts more as an environment where people are partying and enjoying themselves.”
“Do you feel that perhaps there’s been a tendency in some jazz circles towards being so serious and focusing so much on the jazz aesthetic that the music is seen as overly academic?
Well, there’s certainly a place for serious composition within jazz circles. But I think that you also always have to have fun while you’re playing and fun on the bandstand. That’s not taking anything away from the rigors of playing. Jazz is the greatest music around in terms of what it demands, but that doesn’t mean that the people playing it can’t have fun, or that the audience can’t react to it in a joyful manner. Sometimes purists become so serious that they take away the joy from others.”
Would it then be accurate to say that as a composer, the rhythmic aspect takes precedence over everything else?
Not exactly, but rhythmic edge is certainly something that I always want to have in my writing. You can’t ignore the other elements of a composition, especially if lyrics are included. Melody and harmony are certainly important, and if you’re adding lyrics, the story and how it unfolds. But I clearly always want the rhythmic aspect to be working well in any tune. One of the things that I really admire when it comes to the Rolling Stones is how well Mick and Keith work together as songwriters, and how they know what they want to say and know how to express it within the song. I think about that when I’m writing as well.”
You’ve played with the Rolling Stones for quite a while now. Do you ever offer ideas or have any input in terms of songs?
“Hardly. That’s Mick and Keith’s band. I’m a sideman. I play sax on the tours. Obviously, it’s been the experience of a lifetime, but those guys have been together nearly 60 years. I wouldn’t dare presume to tell them anything about what they’re doing.”
Your musical experiences and collaborations are very diverse. Are there people or areas that you haven’t yet covered that you’d like to in the near or distant future?
“My main goal is the same as it’s always been. Each year I want to play really well on the saxophone and write tunes that can attract a good-sized audience. I want to write popular songs: not necessarily pop songs, but popular ones. I want to have people enjoy what I do. I listen to a lot of music, and two people whom I listen to a lot and really admire as songwriters are Neil Young and Neil Diamond.”
What is it about their music that attracts or interests you?
“They know how to craft songs that are very personal, yet can also have universal appeal. One of the things that I do frequently is make a playlist of the things that I’m listening to and study it closely. I’ve been also listening to a lot of Grace Jones and Joan Armatrading. When I listen to my Neil Young and Neil Diamond playlist I hear very smartly written, tightly constructed tunes that always put them in the center, but also have elements that are unpredictable. I really listen closely to them and admire their approach as songwriters and performers.”
In terms of the saxophone, who would you consider either influences or people you really admire?
“The two biggest influences for me are Joe Henderson and Yusef Lateef. They are the ones whose sound and style I really feel closest to in terms of how I play and how I structure things on the instrument. In terms of my playing, that is really where you can tell that I’m first and foremost a jazz guy. That’s the feel, the message that I try to send whenever I’m playing, no matter what the setting may be.”
This isn’t your first visit to Nashville. Do you enjoy playing here?
“Oh sure. This was my home base from 2004-07. It was very enjoyable working out of there and playing in different parts of town. There’s a lot of great musicians in Nashville and plenty of people who know and love music. It’s always a great experience to come back, and it’s one of my favorite cities anywhere.”