Hanging the Judge

Crouch, Jazz & the All-American Skin Game

So JazzTimes even went to the trouble three years ago of trying to test for an elephant by assigning Baraka to re-examine his "Jazz and the White Critic" (1961), the music's most acclaimed article on jazz journalism's race relations. But, with telling irony, the magazine has been sitting on the new article ever since. The article's main thesis is summed up in the lead: "The fact that an oppressor nation could judge the creations of the people they oppress is not strange but is natural in the context of the relationship between ruler and ruled."

"I wrote 'Jazz and the White Critic Revisited,' " says Baraka, "and I asked what's happening. They told me, 'it doesn't cover the things we want it to cover; it doesn't say the things we want it to say.' "

"In Baraka's case," answers JazzTimes, "it was a combination of him turning in late copy and handing in pieces or reviews that didn't fulfill the assignment." "But the point is this," says Baraka. "If you can't stand to hear different ideas, what business are you in?" He's right. Examine the following excerpt on Crouch's 1980s dismissal from the Voice that appears in the unedited version of Baraka's unpublished article:

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

"Is it, in this case, because Stanley could say some heavy stuff that perhaps dem udder guise wdnt dig? It seems Die Ubermenschen hate for the darkies to sound knowledgeable about anything, even their own lives. But tell me this glaring ugliness or arbitrary (racial?) exclusion from access to professional position in a subject which must bear some relationship to Afro-America is not dagger-sharp proof of the continuing national oppression of the Afro-American people, aright now!"

Informed readers know that übermenschen is German for "supermen," and that Baraka is a Hegel and Nietzsche scholar; that "dagger-sharp" carries violent connotations on purpose; that "udder guise" means other guys as well as editors who hide under guises, perhaps sucking on the industry teat; that five D's create a percussive alliteration. Not only is this passage clear, it's poetry.

On the matter of Crouch's Voice termination, Baraka is knowingly describing a subtext he perceives, but according to the Voice's personnel files, the newspaper fired Crouch in 1988 after two assaults on co-workers, and following a later return, he resigned in 1991. So Baraka's claim that canning Crouch is proof of oppression is hyperbolic, but Baraka's passage seems ironic today.

"I've asked people to name one black music critic at a major newspaper in the United States—The New York Times, [The Washington] Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune," says Baraka, "and somebody says Stanley Crouch. Well, that tells you something, and now that he's gone, that tells you more." The actual numbers seem to be tiny, but it goes to Baraka's point that neither the National Association of Black Journalists nor the American Society of Newspaper Editors collects statistics on the number of black critics. So the fact that JazzTimes approached Crouch and Baraka at all makes the magazine look open-minded. "And just because it didn't work out with Crouch and Baraka," says Porter, "it doesn't mean we will stop reaching out to black writers—or any group that is under-represented in jazz journalism."

Koransky may say, "It's absurd to think there's a bunch of us white guys sitting around deciding which musicians to oppress," and he's right, but he's not addressing Crouch's point that shared cultural assumptions, not meetings, bind the white critical establishment. And if there is a meeting, the country's three top jazz publications, Downbeat, JazzTimes, and JazzIz, have no black editors to send.

Decades have passed since 1961, the year Leonard Feather called John Coltrane "anti-jazz," but terms like that one have not disappeared. This year, JazzTimes and Downbeat have called Crouch "vitriolic" and "ludicrous," and might as well call him anti-criticism—and others have said he's a thug, not a thinker. But, as A.B. Spellman once wrote, "What does anti-jazz mean and who are these ofays who've appointed themselves guardians of last year's blues?" And, we should ask, who are we, white editors and writers, who've appointed ourselves guardians of this year's jazz criticism? JazzTimes fired and censored the only black critics willing to ask that—precisely because they did ask—calling them vitriolic and impenetrable and simultaneously validating their charges.

We must print Crouch and Baraka. Silencing them is a move toward ideological, racial, and stylistic consensus as well as drop-dead proof that an establishment exists. Who other than Crouch fumes furiously over fusion and argues with rap-like aggression against rap? Who but Baraka cites Hegel in German and ties him into the poet's own sermon with full control over rhythm, tone, and ritual in his jazz prose?

Hentoff, Baraka, Giddins, Crouch, Porter, Koransky, and Mandel will not be around forever, and we 23-year-olds will take their places, but we needn't inherit their old-boy battles.

JazzTimes can be reached at 301-588-4114, and Downbeat's number is 630-941-2030.

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