Hanging the Judge

Crouch, Jazz & the All-American Skin Game

Hentoff, Baraka, Giddins, and Crouch are the most influential jazz critics living, and their collective disappointment in JazzTimes should tell Porter something. But, in the magazine's defense, there have been damning complaints that Crouch has tried to review musicians for whom he had written liner notes, and has actually gotten away with it in the past.

"I'd address that 'press release' question if that were the question," answers Crouch, who wanted to review a Marsalis album he had annotated, but was told he couldn't by JazzTimes. "The issue here is ideology—my challenging fusion, world music . . . I'm not that kind of press-release motherfucker and I never have been."

Not true. At The Village Voice in the 1970s, Crouch gave favorable reviews to a number of musicians without mentioning his own role as their drummer. "I don't remember," he says, although Voice archives implicate him. Should Porter ignore conflicts of interest? No, but it's curious that Porter didn't realize that until days after publishing "Putting the White Man in Charge."

Stanley Crouch, recently fired from JazzTimes magazine
photo: Robert Hale
Stanley Crouch, recently fired from JazzTimes magazine

"Stanley's insults are not about expression; they're not ideas," counters Mandel, referring to Crouch's attack on white trumpeter Dave Douglas's "middle-class" background. "Smearing musicians for their race is bigotry. If Stanley does not like Douglas's playing, he should criticize his music, or if he thinks Douglas lacks blues in his family, say that; but criticism should be analysis, not name-calling.

"My personal relationship with Stanley—him throwing a punch at me—is neither here nor there," adds Mandel, disclosing a bias stem- ming from an altercation with Crouch years ago. "As JJA president, I think opinions should not be censored. Nobody's questioning his craft; nobody's saying Stanley's not a powerful writer; they're saying he's gone beyond discourse."

"I have always found Stanley to be very cooperative," says New York Daily News editor Robert Laird, who has been editing Crouch for the past 10 years. "There have been times when he wanted to write about a particular subject that he had already written about, so I'd ask him to switch topics—and he'd do so. I might debate subjects and points of view, but I'm concerned about the writing itself, if an idea is being clearly expressed, if he's being consistent with what he's written before. We're not in the business of getting in the way of strong opinions."

At JazzTimes, though, it's not unreasonable to suspect survival motivations behind the magazine's decision. Crouch wonders whether record labels threatened to cancel advertisements if the publication would not pull his column, given that he'd received an e-mail from the magazine president saying that "industry folks . . . felt you were 'over the top' in your editorials." JazzTimes's defense of industry folks' views is perhaps what Crouch and others mean by "jazz establishment."

"It's all a conspiracy with Stanley," says Downbeat editor Jason Koransky. "Stanley's ridiculous. He's totally unfounded. It's absurd to think there's a white critical establishment."

"Stanley's thing about the white critical establishment? You've got to be kidding—of course there is one," counters Mark Ruffin, an African American Downbeat contributor based in Chicago. "There has never been a single full-time black music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times or the Tribune—and I've been paying very close attention. I was a freelancer at the Sun-Times, and the things they choose to promote boggle my mind as a black American who grew up immersed in this music. The more far-out the music is, the more white critics promote it. I disagree with Stanley about a lot of things, but this consensus blows my mind."

"I've been a [JazzTimes and Downbeat] contributor for years," says Willard Jenkins, a black critic, "and it strikes me as curious that Stanley was let go following this article, when he has written things before that have deeply angered many in the African American community, and has never been taken to task. But now that he offends many in the white jazz establishment, he's out. There were insights in what he wrote: There is a tendency among white writers [to] prematurely elevate . . . the white flavor of the month. The [all-white jazz-rock trio] Bad Plus are the most recent example of that."

"There's definitely a deeper story here," agrees John Murph, another black critic for JazzTimes and Downbeat. "Sometimes white editors do oppressive things they don't know they're doing. Stanley made some simplistic arguments, but I share in his frustrations, because I see double standards played out—in terms of the Bad Plus, who get praised as being the saviors of jazz. Stanley was going there in his article, and I share in it."

"That's totally ludicrous," counters Koransky. "Stanley is bringing us backwards. It's an old-school way of thinking." The disagreement here between black critics and white editors on the preferences of white critics proves that there is an elephant in the room. Because this disagreement has existed since the beginning of jazz criticism, the elephant has always been in the room. That's why JazzTimes prints cover stories on whether race matters in the music, but it is difficult to know if we all see the elephant or just hear talk of one.

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