Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Crouching, thinking, striking....

The first time I had anything of note published (words, anyway) was a letter to the editors of the New York Times Arts page, taking issue with an essay written by Stanley Crouch disparaging hip-hop. This was 1999, pre-blogs, pre-Ken Burns' "Jazz", not too long after Wynton disciple Peter Watrous had left the Times and Jazz at Linoln Center was still either a bright new crowning achievement or an gaping open wound, depending on who you talked to. I had admired Crouch tremendously when I was a young lion wannabe- he was grand (or grandiose), he was remarkably intelligent, and he never lacked opinions. Still doesn't. He really appealed to my natural intellectual. In some ways I have him to thank (or blame) as much as anyone for my intellectual and critical involvement in jazz and improvised music.

So I read with interest that none other than The Bad Plus host a lengthy, substantial and tremednously readable interview with Crouch today on their blog. The two links they provide about Crouch, a profile in the New Yorker and a review of his recent book, are also must reading. I know of Ethan's tremendous admiration of (and occasional frustration with) Crouch from talking to him, both of which I think come across here. (Ethan said he had a doozy coming. He wasn't kidding)

In reading the interview, I'm reminded of Crouch's huge, probing intellect, and gifts as a writer and thinker. To wit, here's Crouch again:

In Considering Genius, it's always an attempt to deliver the player to the reader, so that the reader realizes that this is a special person.

And as a white person who has always been skeptical of a lot of the outward displays of "hyper-blackness" I've seen in the artistic community, but too chicken-&^$t to say much, to read his critiques of black nationalism is refreshing:

There's a lot of resentment--or hand-me-down resentment--in both races about that period of black nationalism.

But, that said, the interview highlights why I can never fully stomach Crouch. Again, he does it himself:

I don't write things to shock people, necessarily, but sometimes, when making an argument…

Let me put it this way: Some people go out into a field of wheat and they'll pick something--just one thing that they like. However, other people will drive a thresher through there.

Sometimes, if I have a choice, I'll just drive the thresher through.

Ethan responds gently:

Well…there are friends of mine that you have driven the thresher through, and I know that it doesn't feel good.

But I understand that there is an argument for being over the top, just putting it out there, and seeing the dust settle.

I'll be less tactful. Crouch is called by his detractors an intellectual schoolyard bully (with the fistfights to prove it.) My experience with bullies is that their bluster is there to hide their insecurities, or the holes in their positions, or both. If I need to "throw down" to prove ANY point, I've lost the arguement whether I win the fight or not. I feel like Stanley is so smart, and capable of real thinking, that when he throws verbal hand grenades he's shortchanging himself and his audience, and often needlessly hurting people in the process. (Which makes the fact that Marianne Williamson considers him an intellectual godfather that much more curious.)

More specifically, I think David Adler nails my primary problem with Crouch's music criticism far better than I would say it:

Considering Genius represents Crouch’s frustrating attempt to square a circle: emphatically drawing the boundaries of jazz while proclaiming the music’s universality.

To wit:

Being acceptable is not a primary concern. If I wanted to be acceptable, I would join those dolts who think they will get young people to listen to them if they praise rap.

Is it possible that "they" find value in some quality "rap"? Like some forward looking critics once stood alone in the wilderness defending "jazz"? (And here I contradict myself- I agree with him about reading Schuller) Further...

There is nothing wrong with Douglas, who can play what he can play and should continue to do whatever he wants to do, but there is something pernicious about [Francis} Davis and all of those other white guys who want so badly to put white men--American and European--in charge and put Negroes in the background. Douglas…is far from being a bad musician, but he also knows that he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton, to name but three, any one of whom on any kind of material--chordal, nonchordal, modal, free, whatever--would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand.

I can't really touch the racial element Crouch brings up here... I'd get skewered. But I will speak to music... I've heard Dave tear it UP, and I think his current pass with the SFJazz Collective could well quiet many remaining doubters. But even if Dave couldn't "swing" by Crouch's definition (and I disagree with that contention), do you really want to hold up Wallace Roney as an example, who spits up Miles Davis licks the way a cow spits up half-eaten grass? (oops, I just pulled a Crouch there). Aping tradition is not the same thing as celebrating it. (And I've never heard what was so special about Payton, but that's another discussion...)

I think that too often critics have and do use the word "expression" to cover for a lack of quality. Later in the article, Crouch's commentary on Ornette is a great example of the right way to talk about "unconventional" (read avant-garde) expression. But to my eyes and ears Crouch mistakes "quality" with "how I want it to be", and then waylays the artist for it. (the old bit about criticizing an ice cream soda for not being hot) You don't have to like it, but if it's quality then I don't think you have the right to thrash it. When I review any musical material, this is a line I try to tread very carefully- I think you owe it to the artist and the audience. And I feel like Crouch doesn't just cross the line, often he pisses on it out of spite.

If you are going to hold jazz up as a model of community, you have to allow for this community to grow and evolve naturally, even if it doesn't fit your idea of what a community is "supposed to be." Crouch is a beautiful interpreter of the music he likes, and of a vision of what jazz has been, but that's not the same thing as what it will (or should) be. To pigeonhole Crouch's politics is insulting, and I wouldn't dare do so, but in this case Crouch's view is about as useful as that of a social conservative who is fighting gay marraige by holding up some idealized vision of a '60s family. (insert armchair psychoanalysis here) As one of my teachers likes to say: "Don't keep up with the Joneses; they're probably even more messed up than you."

Stanley Crouch is always worth reading, especially here, being interviewed by a very astute and knowledgeable peer. But this whole conversation is why I'll never be entirely confortable wiht the word "jazz". (I should explain this statement, but later) He too often recasts the shining light on a hill as a lightning rod, to, I believe, no one's benefit. Not the music, not the artists, not the audience, not even his.

Darcy's commentary is also worth reading.

I've said too much- back to the work at hand tomorrow.

1 comment:

Dan said...

There's a joke here somewhere about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but I just can't seem to formulate it...

Been enjoying your writing for some time Pat. Also impressed with your yoga practices and music - I did some research and writing a while back on musicians' spiritual and improvisational practices and how they may or may not inform each other.