(This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Invisible Man. Below is an essay on Ellison that I wrote for n+1 in 2008.)
THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS
Some time ago I came across a skinny little book bearing the title With Borges. It is the recollection of a brief stint in a young man’s life spent reading to the Argentine giant of letters, Jorge Luis Borges. Much in the book was familiar—Borges lived with his mother into his sixties, he devoured books with a fiendish voracity, his blindness in old age necessitated that others read aloud to him—but one tiny passage, an aside, was new and striking to me: in it, the memoirist notes that though the great cosmopolitan boasted a taste for everything under the sun, from ancient Nordic folk verse to kabbalistic number games to cheap Westerns and detective stories, Borges nonetheless remarked that there was absolutely nothing he could find of universal importance in American Negro culture. It was simply too provincial. And because, as he saw it, Negroes had failed to produce a “universal culture”—like that of the ancient Greeks, the English, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Jews—because they could offer nothing of equal worth to the rest of the world, they were therefore in a sense inferior. This was Borges’s view and it is something that I have come to think about often.
In Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, one thing above all else stood out for me there, too: Ellison dedicated his life to debunking exactly such a view as Borges’s. And it is this, I think, not simply the solitary literary feat of Invisible Man or the subsequent failure to produce a second act or the charges of elitism and snobbery that have long dogged his name, which should be his ultimate legacy.
With Ellison, the work cannot be separated from the life of the man, both point toward a common end: a consistent refutation of a very real and problematic black provincialism, as well as a dead serious rebuke against the naked bigotry that lies just beneath Borges’s (and others’) criticism. Ellison’s life—up from soul-crushing Jim Crow-era poverty in Oklahoma and Alabama to the pinnacle of artistic acclaim in New York City—is tangible proof that African-Americans, with our unique history, with our folk traditions and communal wisdom, our flaws and our suffering, our pride and our ambition, far from inhabiting a space somehow outside the realm of the universal, far from being merely “the lady among the races” (the language of the day), possess a perspective every bit as human and universally applicable as that of the French or the Argentine, the Russian or the Indian. “I am more than ever convinced,” a young Ellison wrote privately, “that as a people our horizon is narrow less because we are intellectually inferior, than because we need to protect ourselves from the chaos and indignities of our condition.” The widening of black horizons along with the concomitant compelling of white recognition for black art was Ellison’s beautiful contribution to the world—the linking, irrefutably, of the Negro experience, through art and example, to the universal—and it was not a small one.
Yet as I read about his life I could not help but think that the work he began has not continued, it has languished; that one of the baleful, unexpected effects of the civil rights movement, and of the ’60s in general, on black culture was precisely to distance us from any commitment to producing work in the highest realms of the human spirit and intellect. Ellison took a controversial intellectual position, in the culture wars of the ’60s and after, by which he lived his life. His side lost.
Since emancipation, a fundamental divide has existed in the black intellectual discourse—a Negro dialectic. On one side there looms the figure of Booker T. Washington with his secular gospel of “Black Calvinism.” “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” he said in his historic 1895 address at the Cotton States and International Exhibition. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” Lest anyone be confused as to the Negro’s relationship to culture, Washington makes his point unambiguously clear: “the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” Cultural matters such as literature, art, and philosophy are peripheral. Or, in the words of the old Harlem newspaper the New York Age: “When Race Gets Bankbook, its Troubles Will Cease.”
For anyone who pays attention to the contemporary black scene, it is obvious that this is the prevailing ethos of our day. From Harlem, where hustlers pitch coke, all the way down to the Financial District, where Ivy-educated “buppies” and “baps” secure six-figure bonuses, this school of thought is embedded in black consciousness and exacerbated by the wider American consumerist culture. And this entrenched emphasis on the strictly material as the sole means of advancement for blacks in an historically anti-black society has produced many things, among them a sizable home-owning middle-class, a miniscule aristocracy of entertainment moguls like Sean Combs and Robert L. Johnson, a breed of archetypal street legends like Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, and virtually nothing in the way of a universal culture as Borges would conceive it.
On the other end of the debate, there has always been a competing, if minority, thesis in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Hegelian notion of bildung, or self-cultivation through cultural education and humanistic learning. In his 1926 NAACP speech on the “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois said:
I do not doubt that there are some in this audience who are a little disturbed at the subject of this meeting, and particularly the subject I have chosen. Such people are thinking something like this: “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals, trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization … how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with Art?”
Many blacks, both in Ellison’s day and today, have wondered the same thing. In 1967, a Newsday reporter accompanied Ellison on a visit to the University of Michigan: “This past week I have heard angry young Negroes here call Ellison ‘an uncle Tom’ and ‘a house nigger’ and, in rare moments of comparative civility, ‘a man 10 years behind the times.’” While the cities and campuses were exploding, Ellison hewed to a line of absolute artistic independence and even political aloofness. He paid a steep price for this. At a party at Grinnell College, after Ellison participated alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in a panel discussion on “Urban Culture and the Negro,” a leather-clad black militant from Chicago cornered him and got into a “vehement argument with him about Invisible Man.” Rampersad relates the scene: “‘You’re an Uncle Tom, man,’” the militant shouted. “‘You’re a sell-out. You’re a disgrace to your race.’ Conversations stopped in mid-sentence …” “‘I resent being called an Uncle Tom,’ Ralph responded, visibly controlling his emotions. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about… . What do you know about my life? It’s easy for you. You’re just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That’s all you’ll ever know about.’ A black student leader … broke up the confrontation,” but Ellison broke down in tears—”‘I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom,’ he sobbed.”
Being ostracized pained Ellison, yet he was determined not to let go of his larger vision. “He would not resign his vocation as an artist, and he would not give in to what he saw as the lunacy of the age,” writes Rampersad. When white critics, most notably Irving Howe, publicly questioned his integrity as a black writer who eschewed the call of “protest literature,” he was resolute: “Need my skin blind me to all other values?” he wrote in “The World and the Jug.” “The writer’s real way of sharing the experience of his group is to convert its mutual suffering into lasting value.”
Ellison won that battle: “Probably for the first time in modern American history,” writes Rampersad, “a black intellectual had fought a public duel against a white intellectual and won.” (According to the writer Paul Berman, later in life Howe would concede that, given the realities of the political situation in the 1960s, Ellison was right.) But in the long years ahead, he lost the war. Whereas his closest peer in talent, James Baldwin, who in his landmark essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” entered the black intellectual scene from an ideological space very similar to Ellison’s, would become ever more involved in activist politics over the years, Ellison only dug his heels in deeper. In doing so, he cut himself off, not only from the black body politic, but also from other black artists of his day, especially the younger ones. He became arrogant, prickly, and snobbish. Rampersad, who evinces a personal dislike for Ellison the man even as he produces a sweeping and ultimately sympathetic account of his career, lists all the petty and not-so-petty ways in which Ellison slighted his fellow black artists as they came to him for guidance. There were many such instances.
Partly as a result of Ellison’s extreme lack of charity, such writers as Leroi Jones and Toni Morrison, as well as many lesser names, would turn from fierce admirers of Invisible Man to outspoken critics of its author. A young Nikki Giovanni “spoke for many of her peers in dismissing Ralph,” writes Rampersad. “‘I never wanted to be Ralph Ellison,’ she insisted ,‘… as a writer Ellison is so much hot air…’” Mostly, though, it was his politics that repelled other black writers. As Black Power, Black Nationalism, and Afro-centrism swept over black America, Ellison became an island in the storm. The reduction of the novel to the question of whether or not one may be served at this or that café, for Ellison, would always seem “obscene.” Though time, from an artistic vantage, has in a sense taken Ellison’s side—what black novel has stood up to Invisible Man?—the political debate and all the ill will it generated took its toll on Ellison.
Invisible Man is a great and thoroughly black book full of slang and folk knowledge—it turns the particular quirks of southern black culture into universal art, creating the very thing that Borges in his casually racist remark claimed could not be done. Yet Ellison was doomed to be only partly successful in deflecting the deeper implications of Borges’s charge, if that charge is interpreted to mean not that black America is incapable of producing, here and there, individual geniuses who create universally resonant work, but rather that the culture, when taken on the whole, operates primarily on the level of the provincial. Because the terrible truth is that black America has never—not even during the Harlem Renaissance—produced a whole class of mature cultural elites working and consuming at the very highest standards. In the figure of Ellison we can see, on the individual level, the tremendous odds against breaking through the local. Unlike his friend and peer Saul Bellow, who wrote prolifically, using his Jewishness as a launch pad from which to set out into the world beyond and in the process make the Jew a mainstream figure, Ellison was practically excommunicated from the black community. Charles Johnson, a National Book Award-winning black novelist whom Ellison once overlooked for a MacArthur grant, furnishes Rampersad with an especially poignant anecdote that hints at the extent to which Ellison was uprooted: “Johnson, then a student at Southern Illinois University, remembered asking a librarian in the new black studies program for a copy of Invisible Man. ‘We don’t carry it,’ she told him. ‘Really? Why not?’ ‘Because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.’”
But let’s forget literature and readers for a moment: Even jazz music, the most widely respected and acknowledged black contribution to world culture and one of the great modernisms of the 20th century, was not primarily consumed or supported by other blacks. The poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas has noted that black artists and jazz musicians were measurably isolated from the wider African-American community and therefore subject to overwhelming outside influence from white critics: “Neither black audiences nor the musicians themselves seemed to be able to control the aesthetic or commercial direction of [jazz].” Harold Cruse described this problem most powerfully in his classic 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual:
The Negro intellectual has never really been held accountable to the black world for his social role [because] the black world cannot and does not support the Negro creative intellectual. The black bourgeoisie does not publish books, does not own and operate theaters or music halls. It plays no role to speak of in Negro music, and is remote from the living realities of the jazz musician who plays his nights in the effete and soulless commercial jungles of American white middle-class café culture.
In order for jazz to properly connect the black experience to the universally human one, it would first have to be autonomously black. Without the adequate black cultural institutions and reciprocal engagement with the form, this proved impossible.
It was Ellison’s explicit hope to single-handedly change the image of his community, his readers, in outsiders’ eyes, to write the American Negro into history once and for all, as Joyce had done for the Irish. “He looked beyond himself to make Invisible [the unnamed protagonist of the novel] an Everyman in whose face the world might see its own,” writes Rampersad. Or in Borgesian terms, he sought to render Harlem an aleph, through which all else might be visible. And in fact Invisible Man demonstrates that Harlem, like Dublin or Buenos Aires, is also the world. What Ellison could not do was change his community of readers. Harlem has not kept up its end of the bargain.
We live today in the era of hip-hop, when all about both politics and serious culture has fallen by the wayside, where the dominant ethos amounts to little more than the Booker T. Washington school of thought stripped of context and carried away to the point of absurdity. It is an era that can be summed up in Kanye West’s play on Malcolm X: “Buy any jeans necessary.” Kanye is being witty, of course, and the line is at least partly ironic. But mostly it is merely self-aware, criticizing black materialism even as it parades its garish embrace of it. It does not begin to transcend the problems of materialism. To be sure, this is by no means a uniquely black phenomenon. From Benjamin Franklin to Paris Hilton, white America has genuflected most ardently and most often at the altar of materialism. And with the institution of slavery whites hit rock bottom, reducing man himself to mere commodity. The problem for black America, then, is not one of kind but one of proportion: whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates—i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place—black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces. Anyone willing to spend an hour in the company of Black Entertainment Television or to venture into the “Urban” section of the bookstore could argue that today black culture has lapsed into a greater provincialism than ever before. It would not be hard to argue that.
What, then, is to be done? W. E. B. Dubois, answering his own question posed above, urged blacks to pursue a universal culture by means, in the Hegelian sense, of a heightened slave consciousness:
We black folk may help [mankind] for we have within us as a race new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be … and there has come the conviction that the youth that is here today, the Negro youth, is a different kind of youth … with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind.
Ellison’s answer to the question of how to reconcile the local with the universal was to build on Du Bois’s idea of the talented tenth, to argue for “a corps of artists and intellectuals who would evaluate Negro American experience from the inside, and out of a broad knowledge of how people of other cultures live, deal with experience, and give significance to their lives.” But he also insisted that it was a mistake to dwell on the seeming unfairness of Negro life. To do so would be to live a life fueled by resentment, which is really not to live at all. Blacks are “in such haste to express our anger and our pain,” he told Harper’s in 1967, “as to allow the single tree of race to obscure our view of the magic forest of art.” The emphasis on suffering instead of on visions of life’s beauty as glimpsed through black eyes is “where assumptions of white superiority, conscious or unconscious, make for blindness and naiveté.” Only through the freedom and discipline of art, Ellison believed, could blacks unequivocally transcend their local social reality.
Things have changed since the publication of Invisible Man (though perhaps they have not changed enough). Since those early post-war years blacks have had a profound and alienating experience in the great American cities, an experience which the rest of the world has primarily learned of through rappers and entertainers. This experience has been alluded to, sometimes with skill, in the fragmentary poetry of Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Gang Starr, and so many others—but as the pools of critical ink that continue to spill over the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur might indicate, the field of genuine description is still very much open. Who will describe this experience in something more than mere fragments? Who will piece this complex black reality together at the highest level of art?
Among the many aspects of our cultural and racial situation brought to light by the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama, one in particular holds real significance for today’s black artists: This is the chasm that divides the black community between an ascendant black middle- and upper-middle-class, heirs to the civil rights movement and a more egalitarian post-‘60s educational system, and the large minority of black citizens who continue to feel that for them there is no hope. A few months ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing in the New York Times, cited an “astonishing” Pew Research Center report that found that 37 percent of African-Americans felt that “‘blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race’ because of a widening class divide.” The report also found that a vast majority of blacks believe that while poor and middle-class blacks are growing further apart in their values, most blacks feel blacks and whites are growing closer together. Class, in other words, is actively trumping race. This is simultaneously very encouraging and very depressing.
It may explain, too, why so many poor blacks have been so reluctant to embrace Senator Obama, and why, dismayingly, this past Martin Luther King Day, the Reverend Calvin Butts of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.‘s own Abyssinnian Baptist Church in Harlem endorsed Hillary Clinton as the candidate with “the vision to return [the black community] to a place of prosperity.” The black bourgeoisie and lower class have not only lost the ability to see eye to eye, they have lost the ability to trust each other, too. This development is detrimental to both art and politics: while the lower class cuts itself off from potential leaders like Obama, whose victory would be a deeply symbolic one for all blacks, the bourgeoisie, though economically remunerated and at home in mainstream America, loses touch with its rich local reserves of cultural vitality and tradition. Neither side can complete itself in this scheme. It is the task of the black artist to try to bridge this divide. But will anyone be paying attention if and when he does?
Reading Rampersad’s book, it occurred to me to ask a black childhood friend, a second-year at one of the country’s best law schools, what he thought of Invisible Man. “It’s okay, but honestly I can’t get into some shit about country Negroes in overalls,” was his only reply. My friend is very smart, with both hands wrapped around Washington’s proverbial bankbook. But then the argument was never that blacks couldn’t make fine lawyers.
Few cultural critics have a vision as eclectic and intriguing as Stanley Crouch’s. Fewer still actually fight to prove their points.
By Robert Boynton
The New Yorker, November 6, 1995
On a balmy New York evening, Stanley Crouch navigates his stocky figure down the Village Vanguard’s long, steep stairway. It is his third visit to the club that week, and the opening set of the Wessell Anderson-Wycliffe Gordon quintet, whose members have all passed through Wynton Marsalis’s ensemble, is just getting under way. After being warmly greeted by Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner, Crouch gestures toward the members of the band, who all smile and wave back.
Launching into their first tune, the band plays in the clean, modem style that has inspired a generation of young musicians to join Marsalis’s revolution. The club is packed with men and women of every age, ethnic group, and background-a diversity that Crouch notes with satisfaction as he lights up an enormous cigar and takes a few long, appreciative puffs.
During a break, the band files past Crouch’s table, exchanging pleasantries and asking how they sound. Crouch pulls the drummer, Greg Hutchinson, aside to chat about the rhythms that he has been experimenting with. Just then, Marsalis himself glides in-“stopping by to check up on the guys,” he says, with an older brother’s pride. After he and Crouch have discussed some business concerning the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, which the two men helped found in 1991, Crouch heads over to Bradley’s to hear the alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, “one of the very best who has ever picked up the instrument,” according to the liner notes Crouch wrote for Bartz’s new album.
At Bradley’s, Crouch is the center of attention. “Yo, Stanley! How’s the weight’” someone shouts. Crouch pats his ample belly. “My wife has me on a diet,” he says. “It’ll be gone soon.’ The pianist John Hicks locks him in a bear hug; musicians paw him as he sidles past the bar; the actor Michael Moriarty, of “Law & Order” fame, invites him over for a drink. Moriarty and Crouch met recently at the National Board of Review awards, where Crouch accepted the Best Director prize for Quentin Tarantino; the filmmaker had asked Crouch to take his place at the ceremony because he so admired Crouch’s essay on “Pulp Fiction.” (“A high point in a low age,” Crouch wrote in the Los Angeles Times).
“I love this guy,” Moriarty says. “Whenever I act, its for Stanley. He’s one of the few people who understand what I’m trying to do.” Crouch clearly enjoys the attention. Grinning serenely, like an ebony Buddha, he lights a cigarette and blows the smoke nonchalantly past his thick tortoiseshell glasses; it drifts back over his enormous bald pate. “This guy is so cool,” Moriarty goes on. “Just look at the way he smokes.”
Dropping his shoulders in a mock gangster pose, Moriarty sneers, takes a theatrically long pull on his cigarette, and exhales derisively in a dead-on imitation. Not to be outdone, Crouch narrows his eyes and sucks hard on the cigarette, affecting an even more sinister air. “Check this out, Michael,” he growls. “This here is the real deal.’
Stanley Crouch hardly lacks for venues these days to convey what he variously calls “the real deal” or “what’s actually going down” or “how it really is.” In his Daily News column, in frequent appearances on “Charlie Rose” and on National Public Radio, in essays for the Los Angeles Times, Time, and The New Republic (where he is a contributing editor), Crouch, who is forty-nine, has fashioned a place for himself as one of America’s most outspoken and controversial critics. After thirty years as actor, poet, playwright, jazz drummer, professor, and essayist, Crouch is a rare figure in a narrowly specialized intellectual world: he’s an independent thinker, unconstrained by affiliation with any camp, creed, or organization. Which isn’t to say he’s without connections. His marriage to Gloria Nixon, held last New Year’s Eve in the political columnist Jack Newfield’s townhouse, presidded over by Judge Milton Mollen. He’s had dinners with Vice-president Al Gore; and New York’s Representative Charles Schumer counts him as an informal Adviser. “Stanley pokes holes in the conventional wisdom of the left and right,” Schumer says. “His views are neither black, nor white-they’re just smart.”
Crouch is master of the intellectual sound bite. The Million Man March, he says, “will be remembered as the Waterworld’ of Afro-American politics: a lot of money and publicity, but it didn’t work.” Gangsta rap is “‘Birth of a Nation’ with a backbeat”; its performers are “the biggest Uncle Toms of the twentieth century.” Black nationalism is “a nappy-headed version of “Workers of the World, Unite!’” and Afrocentrism another “simpleminded hustle.” He calls the black feminist critic Bell Hooks “a terrier with attitude,” Malcolm X “the Elvis Presley of race politics,” and the novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison “as American as P.T. Barnum” and a writer with “no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity.” He is a famously dexterous raconteur, whose epic bouts of “holding forth” raise free association to an art form; his best speeches are hip versions of the learned diatribes delivered by Saul Bellow’s fictional alteregos. In the Crouchian view of the world, everything is somehow related to everything else. He translates E. M. Forster’s modest dictum into rugged Americanese: always connect. A self-appointed “hanging judge” (“Notes of a Hanging Judge” is the title of his first essay collection, published five years ago), Crouch is-depending on your point of view-cither a tough-minded independent critic or a neoconservative hit man who targets African-American arts and letters.
Among Crouch’s most effective rhetorical tools is his “flip test,” which he uses to unmask what he sees as the double standard of our racially neurotic society. “What if Woody Allen were accused of murdering Mia Farrow and a friend, and the cop who searched Allen’s apartment turned out to be a rabid anti-Semitic who had said he’d plant evidence on a New York Jew if he had half a chance’” Crouch asks a few days after the Simpson verdict. “At trial, the prosecution portrays the cop—its star witness—as Captain Whitebread, but Allen’s lawyer learns of his attitude towards Jews and uses it. Would he be accused of waving the bloody shirt of Anti-Semitism’ I’m sorry, but the case would go down! And when the nine Jews on the jury voted to acquit, it wouldn’t be because they were crazy, it would be because the prosecution embraced a scumbag and got caught!” Another favorite riff: “Black kids who dress like gangsters complain that they get bad service at restaurants and stores. They say, “Hey, we aren’t thugs, we just dress that way.’ Well, let’s flip it over. Let’s say a white guy comes into a store wearing a K.K.K. outfit, and everybody is horrified. And he says, “I’m not really a Klansman, I just like the look.’ Now, with ninety-nine percent of those black kids it is only style, but we just don’t have time to go around interviewing them. “Excuse me, young man, are you actually carrying a 9-mm pistol or is your outfit just a cultural signifier””
Crouch’s constitutional contrarianism has led some people to charge that his only consistent aim is to draw attention to himself. Others are skeptical of his claim to toe no ideological line. They point out that his targets are disproportionately left and liberal, black and female; and they cite some of the positions he has gravitated to-his tough “law and order” stance, his impatience with the “excesses” of the black-nationalist, feminist, and gay-rights movements. Bell Hooks says, “Stanley’s attacks go so far over the top they have a kind of RuPaul drag-queen quality. He apes a peculiar hybrid of jungle-bunny masculinity and new-right Fascism. He has seen that it pays off when you kiss the ass of white supremacy.” Cornel West is also skeptical about Crouch’s public persona. “I admire the brother’s candor, but his abrasive style is so alienating that it tends to reinforce the polarization,” he says. “The low points, like the vicious attack on Toni Morrison, gain more attention. His brilliant jazz criticism is overshadowed.” Some of his critics are too incensed even to talk. “He’s a backwards, asinine person!” Amiri Baraka sputters, before slamming down the phone.
The most bitter denunciations, however, come from people who were once his close supporters; Crouch has more ex-friends than most people have friends. “He turns all his intellectual attacks into personal vendettas-he has trouble finishing projects and takes out his frustration on other artists,” says the writer Quincy Troupe, with whom Crouch was friends for twenty-five years-until Crouch, in The New Republic, savaged a book Troupe had written with Miles Davis. The saxophonist David Murray, once Crouch’s best friend, is still reeling from their break a decade ago. “He thrives on upsetting people,” Murray says. “It makes me sad, but nobody should change as much as he has.”
Crouch’s willingness to challenge opponents anywhere and at any time can be off-putting even to admirers. “He once threatened to throw me out of a window,” Robert Christgau, a senior editor at the Village Voice, says. “But he didn’t. For all his shit, Stanley is one of the most charming people I’ve ever met.” There have been plenty of times, however, when Crouch’s belligerence has overwhelmed his charm. Stories of his brawls are legendary; there seem to be few people in the jazz world with whom he hasn’t exchanged blows. “I have a kind of Maileresque reaction to the way some people view writers,” Crouch says. “I want them to know that just because I write doesn’t mean that I can’t also fight.” But Crouch’s pugilistic style has other sources as well. He is an old-fashioned moral absolutist: to his mind, positions he disagrees with aren’t merely wrong-they’re bad. “I know it sounds extreme,” the writer Sally Helgesen, a former girlfriend of his, says, “but Stanley really does believe that rap and rock and roll are the Devil.”
Enthusiastic, combative, and never averse to attention, Crouch has a virtually insatiable appetite for controversy; he is happy only in the heat of a battle (he calls his office “the war room”) or when he’s pressing a favorite cause—something he often does by phone. The writer and poet Steve Cannon has been on the other end of the line a good many times. “Once, Stanley woke me up at six-thirty on a Saturday morning and said, “Hey, man, what do you think about Leon Forrest’s new novel, “Divine Days”” After “Invisible Man,” this is the one to beat. Have you checked it out yet, brother”” The eleven-hundred-page novel had been out for a week.
Pesce Pasta, a modest Italian restaurant on Bleecker Street, is currently Crouch’s favorite lunch spot. Jugs of olive oil and bottles of red wine wrapped in wicker line its brick walls, and wooden tables creak convincingly in faux-peasant atmosphere. It has been four days since a water main burst on Crouch’s tree-lined West Village block, and he has eaten his last three meals here. After practically inhaling two baskets of bread and a large bowl of lobster fra diavolo, he tucks into a steaming plate of fresh pasta, heaped high with seafood and tomatoes.
Crouch has been busy of late. He has just completed an essay for a new edition of Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” and an introduction to a Modern Library edition of Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses.’ A second batch of his own essays, “The All-American Skin Game, or, the Decoy of Race,” will be published by Pantheon next month, and he is editing two anthologies-one about jazz, the other devoted to the an of the literary hatchet job, which he plans to title “Scalps.’ He is trying to finish a novel, “First Snow in Kokomo,” and a Charlie Parker biography, which has been in the works for well over a decade. In his spare time, he is writing a treatment for a television documentary on the history of jazz.
“The central thing I’m trying to over come in everything I am writing is the reductive idea that Negro culture is stuck out on some distant sidetrack in a railroad yard,” he tells me over lunch. “It’s as if you come in the station and ask, “Excuse me, where is the Negro car’,’ and someone points into the distance and says, “It’s way over there, off to the side the run-down one with three squeaky wheels and paint peeling off-that’s the Negro car.’ This is the way black achievement is often viewed in America: Attempting to reinstate a more robust notion of African-American identity in the culture, Crouch considers himself a member of a “lost generation,” which is only now recovering from having renounced the humanistic vision of the civil-rights movement in favor of the xenophobia and marginalization that followed. “When I see black people going through this shit today about the importance of being African-Americans, I know they’re still lost,” Crouch says, adding a prodigious amount of sugar to his coffee. “They’re constantly talking about what some mysterious “they’ are trying to do to some unified “us.’ In the past twenty-five years, this way of thinking has had a disastrous effect, spawning a cult of victimization in which one group after another has pursued a tragic past so that each can look Negroes in the eye and say, “It happened to me, too.’ First it was women, then homosexuals, and now we have the so-called angry white men.”
“Our priorities have gotten totally turned around,” he says later. “The test used to be “Can you, as a minority group, live up to these bourgeois standards” This was something Jewish immigrants had down. They knew, as a minority group in a democratic situation, that more sophistication is demanded-not less-because in the end you’ll never be able to bully your way to what you want. But now the test is “Can you, faceless white America, put up with me acting obnoxious and not get irritated’ Because, if you do get irritated, then you’re the racist pig I always knew you were.’ Now, I tend to believe that people are getting pretty sick of that old con. Before the civil-rights movement was hijacked by radicals, a complicated process was under way in which the three-dimensional humanity of black Americans was beginning to be recognized by the country at large. The civil rights movement said, “If we can just melt down this huge iceberg of stereotypes, we’ll be able to recognize our parallel humanity and get on with the business or democratic life.’ But then all the Jew- and honky-baiting started, and a tremendous opportunity was squandered. The problem with nationalists today is that they’ve essentially thrown their birthright out the window and are letting people like Newt Gingrich define “American civilization,’ Which is a term he uses all the time. Well, I’m not going to just sit here and let that happen.’
The intellectual tradition that Crouch aligns himself with is anchored in the works of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Its most powerful expressions are Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and his essays in “Shadow and Act” and “Going to the Territory,” and Murray’s “The Omni-Americans.’ Fleshing out James Baldwin’s observation that “the story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” these writers argue that African-Americans are the moral center of the country’s hybrid culture; Ellison, indeed, went as far as to assert-in his 1970 essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks”-that America “could not survive being deprived of their presence.’
Albert Murray, a gifted essayist whose attachment to literary culture is so vivid that he refers to the thousands of books lining his Harlem apartment as “colleagues,” propounds a vision of the black intellectual’s vocation that informs Crouch’s almost messianic zeal. “We are trying to deal with the same existential problem Eliot confronted in “The Waste Land,’” Murray says, of his and Crouch’s larger cultural project. “When the hero comes to the barren land, Eliot’s assumption is that long ago there was a golden age when the king was well and the land was healthy. Eliot tells us that the central dilemma of the modern age is that nobody is capable of truly heroic action. Today, America’s only possible hope is that the Negroes might save us, which is what we’re all trying to do. We’ve got Louis, Duke, Count, and Ralph, and now were trying to do it with Wynton and Stanley. That’s all we are-just a bunch of Negroes trying to save America.’
Serving time in a San Francisco jail for drug possession. James Crouch learned of his son Stanley’s birth when his wife held the newborn infant to the phone and smacked him so that his father could hear his screams. Or so family lore has it. Stanley describes the elder Crouch as a heroin addict and a hustler, who had migrated from East Texas to California in the thirties. Father and son didn’t meet until Stanley was about twelve, and over the next decade they saw each other only occasionally. Today, after thirty years of silence, Crouch is considering hiring a private detective to find out what has become of his father.
Emma Bea Crouch, Stanley’s mother, supported the family by cleaning houses in Los Angeles six days a week. She doted on her children-Stanley had an older sister, who is now an accountant in Houston, and a younger brother, who died of complications from gunshot wounds in 1980-and she taught Stanley to read before he started school. In the evenings, she made them watch movies of “Richard III” and “Macbeth” and the like on television. “My mother was Little Miss Perfect Lower Class,’ Crouch says. “She was an aristocrat in that strange American way that has nothing to do with money.”
When he was a child, asthma kept him home so much that neighbors weren’t sure whether the family had two children or three. He spent much of that time reading. According to childhood friends, by eleventh grade he had devoured the complete works of Hemingway, Twain, and Fitzgerald. While he was in high school, he also started a jazz club and, according to one childhood friend, the poet Eric Priestley, he “knew more about jazz than anyone else in the community.” Priestley (though not Crouch) recalls, “His mother didn’t want us getting caught smoking on the street, so we’d get high and listen to music at his house. The room was real dark, and we’d smoke and listen to Bird, Diz, Monk, Miles, Rollins, Eric Dolphy.”
After graduating from high school, in 1963, Crouch attended two junior colleges on and off for three years without receiving a degree from either. During that time, he became interested in poetry and drama, and was particularly taken by the work of LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), who wrote both. Crouch’s exposure to the civil-rights movement came through a series of jobs raising money for SNCC. When riots swept through Watts, in August of 1965, Crouch was startled by the emotions that were unleashed. He sensed that a tremendous change of consciousness was taking place in the black community-that some younger people were increasingly impatient with the nonviolent civil-rights movement, and were increasingly angry at whites. “That was after reports came out of the Congo about these nuns who had been raped, and I remember sitting with some guys and hearing one say, “Good, they should have killed the bitches,” he says. “This was something new.”
In the aftermath of the riots, a number of programs sprang up in Watts to help the area recover from the devastation. The screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg started the Watts Writers Workshop, whose seminars and readings launched the careers of authors like Quincy Troupe and the poet Ojenke. Many of its members lived in a commune that they named the House of Respect. The readings were sometimes held at the nearby Watts Happening Coffee House. Although Crouch was not a formal member of the workshop, he often participated in these readings. From 1965 to 1967, he was a member of Studio Watts, a local repertory theatre that performed plays like Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” as well as works written by Crouch and other members of the group. The studio was run by Jayne Cortez, a poet, who had recently broken up with the saxophonist Ornette Coleman; soon after Crouch joined the group, he and Cortez became involved with each other, though neither will discuss this side of their relationship. Cortez’s devotion to the theatre had a profound effect on the twenty-year-old Crouch: “I’d never met anyone with that kind of aesthetic commitment, who’d drawn a line in the dirt and said, ‘I am an artist.’”
Even while Crouch was exploring the theatre, his reputation as a poet was growing. The poet Garrert Hongo, who later studied with him, remembers hearing him read. “He had these chantlike lines that resembled Whitman, but they were in a black street vernacular that was eloquent and pissed off,” Hongo says. “He’d run this rap, with quotations from Shakespeare and Melville, riff on Langston Hughes and Cecil Taylor, and then relate it all to that day’s news.”
Crouch’s poetry focused not only on jazz but also on the nationalist themes that were the order of the day in one poem he calls the police “blue-bellied snakes.” His 1972 collection of poems, “Ain’t No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight,” takes its title from the response that a black person purportedly received during the riots after calling for help. In the poem “Too Late Blues,” though, Crouch’s skepticism toward the nationalist impulse is already evident.
when the beasts with the badges arrived’
40 million slabs were laid out
Fashion-plate nationalists were too busy
making money selling clothes
They died in their bright African colors,
Swahili curses dripping from their mouths
got theirs in the ass
as they bucked atop
another bourgeois bitch:
Preparing her for the revolution.
By 1967, Crouch was organizing “poetry and jazz afternoons” at Watts Happening. One day he heard Budd Schulberg talking to a workshop member who had just given a particularly poor poetry reading. Crouch recalls, “One line was so awful I’ll never forget it: “A ship, a chain, a distant land; a whip, some pain, a white man’s hand.’ And Schulberg was politely telling this guy the small reasons the piece didn’t work, when the problem was that it was completely awful. Schulberg was nervous, because he knew that I knew that this was some real garbage. That day was one of the pivotal moments of my life, because I saw how even a guy with the best intentions could be incredibly paternalistic and encourage third-rate work.”
As universities began responding to the racial unrest of the sixties, more positions opened up for black teachers. In 1968, Crouch became the poet-in-residence at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, and soon he was appointed the first full-time faculty member of the Claremont Colleges Black Studies Center. Sensing that the program was an uncertain base, Crouch soon sought a position in the English Department of Pomona College, another of the Claremont College. Only twenty-two and lacking even a college diploma, he relied on his wit, in lobbying for the job. “There was one night of grand politicking, when I visited four members of the department to display my wares,” he recalls. “One was a Joyce scholar, so we talked about Joyce; another loved Melville, so we talked about him. I always knew something about the subject at hand that they hadn’t ever heard before. So I’d just let loose with my special take, and that was the sword that cut the dragon’s throat.”
Crouch gave classes in theatre and literature, and was evidently an extraordinary teacher. “Stanley lectured the way Tina Turner sang,” Hongo says. “It was rough, sexy, and raw. He said American literature was the story of the hunt: it was about exploitation, conquering something, putting a gun to its head and blowing it off. “Moby Dick’ was a gang vendetta on the natural world.” At lily-white Claremont, Crouch’s presence offered something for everybody. “A big black guy who wore a dashiki and lectured on Melville’” the engineering mogul Cedric Johnson, who was a student at the time, says “Man, it played like a pop tune to us.”
Crouch had an especially strong effect on female students, one of whom, Marianne Williamson, would become famous as a New Age guru. “He was my professor, my friend, and my escort from childhood into adulthood,” she says. “You know how with some people you say, “Don’t lecture me” With Stanley you want to say, “Please lecture me.’”
The movie producer Lynda Obst, whose credits include “Sleepless in Seattle,” also studied with Crouch. He is now her son’s godfather; at Pomona, he was both her teacher and her lover. “Stanley cultivated this gangster look with a little cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth,’ she says. “He had a real tough Panther walk—a cross between Ike Turner and Bobby Seale—that crackled with energy, all coming from his head. It was very physical and intellectual, which, of course, also made it very sexual.’
And his presence in the classroom was equally galvanizing. “The first day of class, I sat in the front row because I had broken my leg in a motorcycle accident coming back from a “be-in.’ He was the most charismatic speaker I had ever seen,’ Obst recalls. “The class was one-third black and two-thirds white, and all the white students were gazing up, slack-jawed, writing down every word. At one point, Stanley said something outrageous, like “There’s no such thing as a white musician,’ and I looked around the room and saw that these kids were seriously writing it down. I thought, What the hell does that mean’ So I raised my hand and said, “Well, what about the Beatles” At that, he burst out laughing and said, “Oho! Little Miss Beatlemania!’and he called me that for years. From then on, we had these huge ideological battles over breakfast each morning: Miss Beatlemania and the leader of the black-power movement. I’m from a classic Jewish intellectual family in Westchester, and he was fascinated by that. We were perfect: Stanley, the student of Bellow and Roth, had never actually met a creature from Bellow- or Rothland, while I had never met anybody who wasn’t.”
At Pomona, Crouch lived with students in a rambling off-campus house. “Since it was the sixties, we didn’t see the need for any furniture,’ John Payton, now a Washington lawyer, says. “Stanley had about a billion books stacked against the walls, thousands of albums, a stereo, and an enormous drum set, which was right in the center of the room. I’d walk in at 2 A.M. and he’d be sitting there alone, playing his heart out.” Crouch had taken up the drums in 1966, teaching himself the “free style” that was becoming popular. “The problem was that I couldn’t really play,’ Crouch says. “Since I was doing this avant-garde stuff, I didn’t have to be all that good, but I was a real knucklehead. If I hadn’t been so arrogant and had just spent a couple of years on rudiments, I’d have taken it over, man-no doubt about it. I was in a group for a while, but when I realized that nobody would ever hire me I started my own band.” He called it Black Music Infinity.
Black Music Infinity rehearsed in Crouch’s living room, With David Murray on tenor, Arthur Blythe on alto, James Newton on flute, Mark Dresser on bass, and Bobby Bradford on trumpet, it was a stylistically diverse mixture of musicians, all of whom went on to distinguished careers. During this time, Bradford and Crouch had long conversations about the history of jazz-and about Louis Armstrong in particular. Twenty years later, when Crouch and Marsalis teamed up to push the cause of traditional jazz, it became clear just how important these conversations with Bradford had been.
Besides playing in Crouch’s band, Bradford composed and arranged music for several of the plays Crouch was writing and directing at Pomona. With a corps of devoted students at his disposal, Crouch used the theatre as a laboratory for aesthetic and philosophical experiments. By all accounts, his plays were ideologically compelling and technically accomplished-full of rotating stages and innovative lighting. George C. Wolfe, producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, was a student, and those familiar both men’s work say that Crouch’s influence on Wolfe is still apparent. Slavery and exploitation were among Crouch’s favorite themes, He adapted Melville’s “Benito Cereno,’ after rejecting Robert Lowell’s version, which he felt was marred by the poet’s liberal sentimentality “In Stanley’s version, the captain is brutally murdered by the slaves,’ David Flaten, the director of the production, recalls, “Everyone was shocked and horrified, because at the time this was everyone’s worst nightmare. White liberals found it racist, and blacks were offended. Stanley always wanted to make the audience feel threatened.”
By 1975, Crouch had been teaching at Claremont for seven years, and he was becoming restless. He was convinced that in order to make it—as a drummer, a poet, a playwright, or a critic—he had to leave. “Stanley always had a thing about New York, ” Lynda Obst says. “He had very complicated theories about how every thing worked there long before he got there. He knew all about the relationships between musicians and record executives, between landlords and tenants, and, especially, between blacks and Jews. It was hilarious, because he’d sit there explaining it all to me, when I was the one who had grown up there.”
Jews, Crouch will tell you, have always held a special place in his life. His mother often took young Stanley along to her Jewish employers’ homes. “I was struck by the fact that they discussed everything,’ he says. “Who do you think should be President’ What about our foreign policy” And I thought, Gee whiz-so this is how it goes over here. This isn’t bad.” He continues, “In America, most people who come from a certain background are trying to figure out how to be smart without being dull. If you’re Jewish, that isn’t a problem, because there’s a place in Jewish culture for a guy to be smart, period.” Given these sentiments, it’s not surprising that Crouch’s identification with Jews is sometimes on the list of his critics’ grievances against him. Ishmael Reed captures this resentment in his satiric novel “Reckless Eyeballing,” whose Paul Shoboater, the pompous, self-important columnist for the Downtown Mandarin, is clearly based on Crouch. “Instead of fighting the Jews, you ought to be like them,’ Shoboater lectures a friend.
Crouch arrived in New York in 1975, and he finally had an opportunity to test his theories about Jews. “We were always getting into these long discussions about Job,’ says Paul Pines, the owner of the Tin Palace, which was then one of the hottest jazz clubs in town. “Stanley’s mind is essentially Talmudic. Intellectually, he found the world of Jews very attractive, and was trying to figure out his own relation to it.” Crouch and David Murray moved into a loft above the Tin Palace, at Second Street and the Bowery, where they gave concerts and readings. Before long, Crouch started a Sunday-afternoon jazz series downstairs, and eventually booked the entire club. During this time, he developed a reputation for promoting avant-garde musicians like Butch Morris, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe, and Oliver Lake. In the early morning, the club would be filled with musicians who had finished gigs elsewhere. A fourth set was added’starting at 2 A.M.’which often degenerated into a huge, unbridled jam session.
By then a fixture in the jazz world, Crouch approached Pines about opening a club of his own. (“He has all the sharpness of a black Sammy Glick,’ Pines wrote in his journal at the time.) Crouch sometimes helped out the bouncer at the Tin Palace, although not all his disputes were resolved physically. One night when a disagreement with a patron was about to turn violent, Crouch proposed an alternative. “I won’t fight you, but I will race you,’ he said. After Crouch removed his shoes, the two bulky men took off into the night. “Stanley ran his heart out and won,’ Charles Turyn, a bartender, recalls. “Then, as punishment, he made the guy parade up and down the street yelling at the top of his lungs, “Stanley Crouch just beat the shit out of me!’”
After a few years, the New York club scene began to wear thin. David Murray married the playwright Ntozake Shange, whom Crouch detested, and Crouch’s first wife, Samerna (who had been a student at Pomona), came to New York and gave birth to their daughter, Dawneen. Soon Crouch and Samerna split up, and the mother and daughter returned to California. With money in short supply, Crouch was evicted from his loft, and for a time he slept on friends’ couches. His taste for bohemia was ebbing; life in New York, he decided, could be as provincial as life in academia. “The goal in the East Village was to never become successful or have an impact on anyone other than those in your little world,” he says. “I was tired of most of those people and their ideas about art.”
Bohemia wasn’t all that Crouch was rejecting in the late seventies. As his friendships with Ellison and Albert Murray grew, his always ambivalent relationship with black nationalism was strained to the breaking point. “Meeting Albert Murray was pivotal for me,” he says. “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. American intellectuals have difficulty understanding social complexity. They prefer savage purity and are blinded by their contempt for middle-class achievement.” Soon he found his reviews for the Liberator and Black World being rejected as “too Western.” “In the first place, the nigger just plain can’t write” is how Crouch began a review of a collection by the celebrated Black Arts poet Haki R. Madhubuti.
In a Village Voice exchange with Amiri Baraka (whom he addressed as Papa Doc Baraka) in 1979, Crouch publicly severed his ties to the movement by accusing the man who had been its leading spokesman of espousing “Dick and Jane black nationalism.” (“See white man be devil, devil, devil; See black man be beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”) He wrote, “LeRoi Jones is one of the greatest disappointments of this era and one of the most intellectually irresponsible men to have ever addressed a people tragically in need of well-researched and articulated information.” In response, Baraka denounced “Comptador” Stanley as an “agent of a foreign power which oppresses “his own’ nation.”
Ironically, the left-liberal Village Voice, where Crouch was made a staff writer in 1980, was the locus for his political transformation. After years of writing primarily about jazz, he broadened his scope to include social and political issues. At a paper then better known for preaching racial diversity than for practicing it, Crouch’s presence was felt.
“Stanley was always hanging around the office I shared with Richard Goldstein,” Karen Durbin, now the Voice’s editor in chief, says. “Here we were, a women’s liberationist and a gay liberationist, both with lefty politics, and Stanley was just magnetized. He’d pop in and say, “So what do you think about this’ Do you really believe that’ Come on, let’s fight!’ Once, Richard told him that his fascination with homosexuality was a sign of latent sexual confusion. When Stanley heard that, he just broke out into this broad, amazed grin.”
The Voice editor Robert Christgau says, “Stanley is a superb critic, and writes better about the drums than anybody. But sometimes he just faked it. He’d hand in a shiny review and I’d mark it up and he’d rewrite it in forty-five minutes, which is probably longer than he’d spent in the first place.” Doug Simmons, now the Voice’s managing editor, also edited Crouch. “His most endearing moment was when he gave me an awful piece’which was unusual’and I told him it sucked,” Simmons says. “He started to get angry and said, “What do you mean, it sucks” And I said, “Look, it’s just no good and we won’t print it.’ He thought for a minute and said, “You know, you’re right, it does suck.’ And he rewrote it. He was just happy to have someone engage him.’
On many occasions, however, Crouch was not nearly so yielding. A fistfight with a black fellow-writer, Harry Allen, for which Crouch was fired, was preceded by a number of violent clashes with other staff members. “Stanley would sometimes just glare at you in a menacing way, as if he were calling you out,” one writer says. “It was a powerful ploy, because you couldn’t say anything without looking like a wimp.’ Crouch’s dismissal, in 1988, left the Voice staff divided: some thought he had been given far too many chances by the weekly’s guilty liberal managers; others thought he was being unfairly punished because of his race. “Fights with Stanley often consisted of him simply getting in your face,” Christgau says. “He’s a big guy, he talks loud’and he’s black. Although the first two things bothered people, I always thought the third bothered them, too.’ Others disagree. “There was a lot of ridiculous hand-wringing,” one staffer says. “But the fact is that Stanley is just a bully’a mean guy with a violent streak and a dumb schoolyard attitude.’
For all his bravado, Crouch retreated to an editor’s cubicle after being given notice, and wept. “Now I’ve really done it,” he moaned. Since leaving the newspaper, however, he has adopted a more cavalier attitude. “The two best things that have ever happened to me were being fired by the Voice and being hired by the Voice’in that order,” he says.
Perhaps getting fired was the best thing that could have happened. Within two years, his essay collection “Notes of a Hanging Judge” was being praised by the kinds of people who never read the Voice. He received a Whiting fellowship and a MacArthur “genius” grant. In 1991, he became the artistic consultant to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, joining Marsalis to run the influential series.
With this power came controversy. The Lincoln Center program has received attacks from all directions. Conservatives decry Marsalis and Crouch as racists for excluding white musicians and composers. “They’re talking about race, not aesthetics, and the fact is that this isn’t an affirmative-action program,” Crouch snaps. With equal fervor, however, progressives accuse the program of pushing a traditionalist agenda that ignores jazz after 1969. “Lincoln Center won’t play our music,” says Kunle Mwanga, a friend of Crouch’s who has managed Ornette Coleman and other avant-garde musicians. “But the most hypocritical thing is that the series is being run by people whose entire reputations rest on avant-garde music.” Crouch is reluctant to discuss the much covered controversy, but says that he could easily call his opponents’ bluff. “The real problem with the avant-garde is that many of them simply can’t play.” he explains.
Whatever else one says about Marsalis, nobody has ever doubted his extraordinary skill as an instrumentalist. “The most startling member of the band is 19-year-old trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis,” Crouch wrote in a brief 1981 review of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “The ease with which he covers the entire range of the horn, his big tone and superb articulation, turn both musicians and listeners around.”
And Crouch was turned around as well. Since coming to New York, he had been extremely close to the saxophonist David Murray. But in the eighties, as he gave less encouragement to the avant-garde music with which Murray was identified and began spending more time with Marsalis, some people in the jazz world speculated that Crouch had switched his allegiance to someone who was more commercially promising. No matter what Crouch’s motivation was, he quickly established himself as Marsalis’s mentor, taking responsibility for widening his new protÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ©’s cultural knowledge with trips to the Metropolitan Museum and with reading lists of books by Homer, Malraux, Ellison, and Mann. Today, Marsalis calls Crouch “the professor of connection.” He recalls, “When we first met, Crouch invited me to have dinner with his old lady. People just don’t do that kind of thing up here; I felt like I was back in the South. He asked me what I thought of people like Ornette Coleman. Although I had never actually listened to him, I said, “Aw, man, that stuff is just plain out.’ So a little later Stanley put on this record of some fantastic alto stuff and asked me “Hey, man, what do you think of this” and I said “Wow, I never heard Bird play like that!’ and he said “He didn’t-that’s Ornette Coleman.;’ Marsalis proved an eager and impressionable student. During one conversation, Crouch mentioned that Marsalis could expand his range of tone color, by experimenting with mutes. When Crouch saw him perform a few weeks later, an entire tableful of mutes sat next to the bandstand.
Crouch encouraged Marsalis to pay more attention to jazz’s great composers. “When I was twenty, Crouch brought the Smithsonian collection of Duke Ellington by and said, “Man, you ought to listen to Duke,’” Marsalis says. “I didn’t like his stuff, because I had grown up rooted in the nineteen-seventies funk philosophy’listening to Ellington was unheard of. Finally, after a year, I started to like it. But I was intimidated, and told Crouch, “This stuff Duke writes is so complex I could never figure it out,’ and Crouch said, “Hey, man, you never know what you can do in ten years.”
In May of 1992, the Times hailed Marsalis’s hour-and-a-half-long jazz epic “In This House, On This Morning,” comparing the music to Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Meanwhile, many people began to wonder whether Marsalis had become Crouch’s mouthpiece. “Their relationship certainly isn’t unprecedented, but out in the street the word is that he has become the mind of Wynton,” the critic Thulani Davis says.
If Crouch had begun to ease away from the avant-garde at the Voice, his association with Marsalis and Lincoln Center completed the move. Once an avid proponent of the avant-garde, he was now leading the backlash against it. There was nothing subtle about Crouch’s volte-face. “He is of that very rare breed, the magician, the interpreter, the visionary,” Crouch had gushed about Cecil Taylor in a 1979 review. Thirteen years later, Taylor and his sidemen embodied everything wrong in jazz: “I have rarely felt as much gloom in face of waste,” Crouch wrote in the Voice.
Like previous shifts in his thinking, this one rook place under the influence of his mentor, Albert Murray. “I told Crouch that if he really wanted to understand the avant-garde, he had to analyze the phrase on its most literal level,” Murray says. “”Avant garde means “advance party’-it’s a military metaphor. The marines, the commandos, in a war-they’re the shock troops and are therefore expendable. You can’t make a whole career out of being in the avant-garde, because the guys who secure the beachhead always end up dead or wounded.”
From Crouch’s rejection of the avant-garde has emerged a theory of music in which the forces of barbarism and the forces of civilization compete in a battle that is at once aesthetic and ethical. “Just turn on MTV and see what kind of condition we are in-anything working against that is good,” Crouch says. “Rock and roll and rap are about adolescent sentiments, which are completely foreign to jazz. In jazz, the focus is on adult experiences, and the skills required to express them are far more sophisticated than in rock, because they are of greater emotional complexity. It’s good for young people to test themselves in the arena of jazz, because it forces them to confront the fact that there are some things out there which are more profound than what they’re dealing with.”
While it’s not clear how many people share Crouch’s ethical philosophy of music, there is no disputing the fact that his and Marsalis’s efforts have transformed the jazz world. “Stanley is one of the great paternalists of our time,” the Times’ Peter Watrous declares. “He wants to multiply the number of people who think like him, and among jazz musicians his view has become prevalent. All young jazz musicians coming up today realize that they have to know blues and swing–which are at the core of all jazz from Armstrong to Marsalis-and this simply wasn’t the case fifteen years ago. Wynton and Stanley are responsible for that. Therein lies the whole story of the jazz renaissance.”
It would be no great exaggeration to say that “First Snow in Kokomo” contains every thought that Stanley Crouch has ever had. Bursting with references to gangsters, black nationalists, Hemingway, Homer, Watts, Paris, Jews, jazz, Africa, interracial romance, and politics, it offers a guided tour through the Crouchian unconscious. Originally conceived as a short story, “Kokomo” was a mere fifty pages long when the writer Steve Cannon first read it. “I said, “You got it all right there, just don’t fuck with it’-but he didn’t listen,” Cannon says. “Now he’s done put the whole history of the universe in that damn thing!”
The sprawling novel in progress is the story of Kelvin Thomson, a black writer who has returned to America after twenty years abroad. Kelvin is writing a memoir to help him make sense of his existential dislocation: part of the second “lost generation,” he left America just as the civil-rights movement was imploding, and returns from Paris to find America mired in racial chaos. Crouch says, “I want to create an antiphonal relationship between the sixties and other periods in history when things fell apart, in order to explain exactly how a generation’s mind changed, how we went from the high-mindedness of the civil-rights movement to the anything-goes attitude of the seventies. That story has never really been told.” Much of the novel takes place in the United States-where Kelvin is involved with a petite Jewish student, who bears a striking resemblance to Lynda Obst but its best scenes are in Paris, the city where (as Kelvin rhapsodizes) “Charlie Parker canceled the checks of clichÃƒÂ©s with his alto saxophone, then partied in Fontainebleau like a nappy-headed Napoleon who had no idea what humiliation and exile the snows of Russia would predict.” Occasionally, the novel reads like multiculturalism run amok: “I thought of the Chinese journalist in the Bugs Bunny T-shirt that I had seen speaking of the wonder of American ice cream and holding his Amish girlfriend’s hand on the Seine.” But Crouch sees “Kokomo” as a collective to the provincialism he finds in so much fiction by or about African-Americans. “I wanted to do something that I hadn’t seen in most novels about Negroes, which is to put them in the world,” he says. “Not just in the urban North or the rural South, but to place them in a variety of situations where they have to deal with the world in all its richness and complexity.”
In the past few weeks, Crouch has been in great demand as an O.J. commentator and has been writing essays on the subject for Esquire and the L.A. Times. “First Snow in Kokomo” remains unfinished, and a looming stack of untranscribed interview tapes for the Charlie Parker biography gathers dust on the mantelpiece. For all his intelligence and charisma, Stanley Crouch is himself very much a work in progress—something of which he is aware.
“My real ambition hasn’t been achieved, because it exists on so many different levels,” he says. “If I can bring off what I want to do in the Parker book, then I have written a major biography. With “Notes of a Hanging Judge’ I think I’ve already produced something that stands up there with Ellison’s “Shadow and Act’ and Murray’s “The Omni-Americans.’ Then there’s “First Snow in Kokomo,’ which has sections that—if I can get the rest working—will elevate it above ninety-five per cent of contemporary American fiction.”
Grand claims, certainly, but it would be disappointing if he were to make anything else. Measuring himself against his literary heroes, Crouch would rather fail trying to fulfill an enormous promise than succeed more modestly.
“In 1990, I went to the National Book Awards with the novelist Charles Johnson,” he recalls. “When we walked in, Ellison was talking to Saul Bellow, who had this sharp tuxedo. But that night I had them all. I was wearing a black silk bow tie, gray-and-black checked pants, and a black cashmere jacket. Man, I was like black steam. So Bellow, whom I had never met, walks right over to me, touches my jacket, and says, “Ah, it feels as good as it looks,’ and then we got talking. With Ellison and Bellow only a few feet apart, the energy in the room was amazing; it was one of the greatest literary moments of my life. Charles won the award for “Middle Passage,’ and in his acceptance speech he honored Ellison. Then Bellow got an award and spoke of “Ralph Ellison, about whom too much cannot be said.’ I was sitting across from Ellison, watching him, and thought, Man, this is deep. Being there was a tremendous experience. Once I knew I had climbed over that fence without tearing my pants-that is, the fence of Murray, Ellison, and Bellow-I was finally in the yard I wanted to be in. Now, whether I can actually plant something there that will grow to the height of what they did, that is another question. But that night I knew I’d gotten over the fence. That’s the way I look at it.”