I saw a different side of Stanley Crouch
He was supportive of young writers beginning their voyage into the literary dimensions of jazz
Stanley Crouch died Wednesday at a hospital in the Bronx, New York, ending five decades of his compelling, comprehensive and often controversial prose and commentary on jazz, politics and race. He was 74.
His writings were compiled in several books: Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), The All-American Skin Game (1995), Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997 (1998), The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity (2004) and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006). His only novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, was published in 2000, and the long-awaited first installment of his Charlie Parker biography, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, was published in 2013. His many awards included a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and an NEA Jazz Master award. Crouch also mentored New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, writing many of his liner notes, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning recording, Blood on the Fields, and co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Just as he was famous for his elegant and impassioned prose, he was infamous for his often pugilist defense of that prose. He was critical of the post-John Coltrane jazz avant-garde. He called Toni Morrison’s Beloved a “blackface holocaust novel.” He deplored “gangsta rap,” and was especially withering in his dismissal of Miles Davis’ fusion recordings.
Though his views were seen by many as conservative and contrarian, I saw a different side of him: a side that was supportive of young writers beginning their voyage into the literary dimensions of jazz. I met Crouch in 1987, years after I was introduced to his writings via his Marsalis liner notes. In the late ’80s, I was filing arts pieces for NPR’s Morning Edition. I used Crouch as my critic in two pieces I produced on jazz pianist Billy Strayhorn and bassist Charlie Haden. From that moment, there would be decades of emails, luncheons, concerts and gigs where I would ask him questions about the music, to which he would begin saying, “See, Eugene, the thing about jazz is this …” From decoding Wayne Shorter’s LP, The All Seeing Eye, to Ornette Coleman’s blues connotations, he would patiently, and often passionately provide the illuminating thread through the maze of notes, tones and rhythms of this American art form.
My relationship with Crouch got deeper when I lived in New York City (Sugar Hill in Harlem, to be exact) from 1993 to 2003. Living in Manhattan, I would take the subway to his Greenwich Village apartment, which was a short walk from the legendary Village Vanguard nightclub. With so many books in his apartment, it could have been an extension of the New York Public Library system. At home, he would be relaxed, cracking jokes, the total opposite of the literary raging bull many saw him to be.
I last saw him on two occasions: In 2013, I traveled from my home state of Delaware – where I moved back to in 2003 – to Brooklyn, where he was living because his beloved apartment burned down. I went there to interview him for my Publishers Weekly piece on his Charlie Parker biography. When I saw him he looked smaller, and his speech was slower, but he was still the same fiery Crouch. Three years later, I saw him at a gala in Harlem. By then, he was walking with a cane, and his speech was even more halting. I went to him, clasped his hand, told him how much I appreciated everything he’s done for the music and me.
The most positive thing Crouch ever said about me occurred during the intermission of a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in the ’90s. We were both talking to Michael James, Duke Ellington’s nephew. James saw us and said, “There’s Eugene Holley, Stanley’s protege,” to which Crouch replied, “No, he’s on his way to finding his own conception.”
The fact that Crouch was more interested in me finding my own voice was his greatest gift to me.