Hanging the Judge

Crouch, Jazz & the All-American Skin Game

In a recent issue of JazzTimes magazine, Stanley Crouch accuses white critics of elevating white musicians "far beyond their abilities" to "make themselves feel more comfortable about . . . evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated." Crouch also claims that white writers, who were born in "middle-class china shops," ensure "the destruction of the Negro aesthetic" by advancing musicians who can't swing at the expense of those who can. While people can argue whether that column, "Putting the White Man in Charge" (April 2003), is typical Crouch, the usual does allegedly include sniping at performers and critics, cursing out colleagues, and receiving more complaints than any other contributor. Still, when JazzTimes, the most widely read magazine in jazz, fired him after running that column, questions arose as to whether there was a connection between his accusations and his removal.

"Hi, Stanley—We've decided to end your column," begins the e-mail, sent to him a few weeks ago. "You've made your point many times about what jazz is and who can play it, and we feel the column has now run its course. It's time for us to move on. Thank you for your contributions to JazzTimes over the past year."

"He was also routinely late with copy," adds Chris Porter, the magazine's managing editor. "His columns were becoming tedious, generally alternating between vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies."

"Sure, I was late, but then I ceased to be late," answers Crouch. "That a writer of my status and reputation would be dismissed in this way, with no discussion at all, constitutes some serious brand of injustice. . . . How does my article constitute a 'vitriolic rant'? Because I challenge ideas without holding your hand?"

To a JazzTimes contributor—23, white, and close friends with Porter—Crouch's allegations, and his pink slip, are fiercely personal. Crouch is writing about writers like me, whose white editors apparently fire black critics for criticizing us. Crouch's dismissal arises from the fact that we whites do get upset when we're attacked; that we often use tardiness and redundancy to deflect allegations that we are, as he says, "intimidated by Negroes," and that we "use that Negro as a weapon" against our "own middle-class backgrounds." Instead of providing Crouch's in-your-face ideas a platform in the magazine, Porter censored any more such views, at least in his backyard.

When Porter charges Crouch with celebrating his buddies, he is referring to Crouch's frequent glowing mentions of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his bandmates—Crouch's friends, and a powerful group of jazz traditionalists. "Every major jazz critic is a best friend with some musician," answers Crouch, arguing that a critic's right to befriend musicians should extend to all or none. "Martin Williams knew Ornette Coleman very well. You think Nat Hentoff is kidding when he writes about his 'friend' Charlie Mingus in JazzTimes? You think Howard Mandel, the president of the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA), who writes for Downbeat, doesn't know musicians? So, saying that my friendship with Marsalis prevents me from writing a column critically is really a smokescreen for something else, which is that I stepped out of the proverbial box and JazzTimes didn't like that."

Hentoff, who has his own JazzTimes column, also questions the relevance of the accusation. " 'Celebrating his buddies'? What does that mean? Either you think Stanley has a singular voice and raises questions or you don't. I think it is absolutely stupid to have done that. If this is a magazine devoted to freedom of expression like the very music it represents, what are they thinking? Stanley is right to be very exercised. Sure, people are mad at him—so what? When he was at the Voice, he did one of the very best pieces on Louis Armstrong I have ever read. When he wants to be, he's pretty matchless."

"I thought a long time ago that Stanley was going to get canned," offers jazz critic Amiri Baraka, who is, politically at least, Crouch's polar opposite and a man who has debated Crouch in print. Baraka's view is especially pertinent because he revolutionized jazz criticism in the 1950s and '60s by integrating black politics into music journalism, setting off similar fiery reactions. His move to Marxism in the 1970s began a downturn in his frequent assignments from left-of-center editors.

"If editors can't stand the stuff I'm saying because of my Marxist overtones, I didn't think they were going to stand for Stanley's straight-up 'white-people-this' and 'white-people-that.' As much as I disagree with Stanley, about everything, music is the one thing he knows something about, so I hope he does make a stink. The funny, fucked-up thing is that Stanley is a right-wing son of a bitch, but he's got the right to say some of the backward shit other people are saying."

"I think it was a huge mistake to discontinue Stanley's column," agrees Gary Giddins, another JazzTimes columnist. "Stanley may be the only jazz writer out there with the kind of rhinoceros hide necessary to provoke and outrage and then withstand the reader fulminations that have come to the magazine ever since his column began. The point is, everyone reads the column and talks about it. By firing him after [that piece], it looks as though JazzTimes might be responding to record-company pressure. I'm pretty sure that isn't the case, but the appearance is not good. And maybe the worst thing was the way it was done—the two-line Dear John. When Stanley sent me a copy, I couldn't believe that no one had at least phoned him; that courtesy is due anyone, and Stanley has been a major presence in the jazz world for a long time. . . . I think JazzTimes had a real coup in having Stanley's column, and I'm amazed that they would undermine that."

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