Hanging the Judge


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.”

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’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.

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:

“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.