Powerful, pugilistic writing from a man who constantly provokes and issues challenges.

Edited by Glenn Mott.

Liveright, (448p) ISBN 978-1-324-09090-8

Stanley Crouch one of the most outspoken commentators on jazz and American life died in 2020.  His last major work was the first volume of a life of Charlie Parker ‘Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker’.  The present book is a collection of his writings.

Few will agree with all of Stanley Crouch’s opinions.  It is not a book to read if you want a reaffirmation of your views.  It is, however, powerful, pugilistic writing from a man who constantly provokes and issues challenges.

Crouch had a vast all-encompassing intellect. He could write well and meaningfully about Quentin Tarantino, Malcolm X, Bette Davis, Max Roach, Spike Lee, Sidney Poitier, Joyce Carol Oates, Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis.  It was all in prose that was stylish, confrontational, imaginative and well informed.

Crouch wrote in an earlier book one of the most scathing articles about latter day Miles Davis. There is a chapter in this book about Davis as romantic hero. Miles’ recording of ‘My Funny Valentine’ (Columbia CS 1906) is the subject.  Crouch makes it a sermon on dignified masculinity.  He muses on why an artist like Davis had to work ‘in those little murky clubs from one end of the country to the other, leading a band and making beautiful music in circumstances that were about as opposed to artistic statement as one could imagine. Drinks were sold, people talked, drugs were pushed, prostitutes circulated, and the cash registers rang. At their worst, those circumstances could be as wild as any in the Old West, which is why some of the joints were referred to as “buckets of blood.’ Crouch acknowledges the unsentimental beauty of Davis’ playing on that concert. ‘Little, dark, touchy, even evil, Miles Davis walked onto his bandstand and made public visions of tenderness that were, finally, absolute rejections of everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men in either the white or the Black world. That was his power and that is what makes My Funny Valentine so uniquely touching.’

The avant garde was within the orbit of Crouch. Cecil Taylor was always a controversial player.  Crouch could sense the rootedness of his playing.  Crouch describes one occasion when Taylor played with Max Roach.: it was a duet. Crouch notes how Roach played Taylor’s rhythm back to him faster than Taylor played it initially. Crouch feels that Taylor’s music had a strength and beauty and was inspirational.  The description of the concert drives you towards the Soul Note recording.

Crouch notes that the stereotypical view of Duke Ellington was that his greatest instrument was his orchestra. Crouch disagrees and elevates Ellington’s pianistic skills. Crouch incisively listens to the Ellington – Armstrong pieces on Roulette and describes in detail Ellington’s technique. He also listens to and comments on the album with Coltrane.  Crouch exhorts his readers to listen to the accompaniment to Hodges playing ‘Daydream’ in the album ‘And His Mother Called Him Bill’. He finishes with comments on ‘Ad-Lib on Nippon’ from ‘The Far East Suit and ‘Wig Wise’ from the Mingus album.  Crouch does not make vague assertions: his opinions are rooted in the music as he makes the case for Ellington’s skill as pianist.

Crouch completed the first part of his biography of Charlie Parker before he died. Parts of the second volume were discovered amongst his papers.  The chapter ‘The Street’ seems to be a complete chapter from what he intended to be the second volume. Crouch describes Parker and Gillespie working together. ’Tunisia,’ Dizzy said softly, and the bass and drums began the Afro-Cuban rhythm. As was usually the case when he was high on heroin, Bird’s sound had a shrill coloring; his eyes, though dreamy, were half-closed and cynical, cold. Then, when they got to the introduction for his saxophone break, Parker stood there, motionless; he had closed his eyes, he was in a nod. Quickly, Gillespie took the break. When he finished, he motioned Haig to play, using his trumpet to set the stage for the saxophone break when the pianist beckoned him in. Still Parker stood there, seemingly asleep as Gillespie nervously rendered his introduction, screaming the last few notes like a desperate whistle. Then the band dropped out and suddenly the saxophone blazed. Dizzy screamed in approval. Yard leaned forward, twisting the tune, fighting the rhythms—playing against the beat, with it, between it. His rage took him to altissimo extremes of the alto, notes from that register came like darts, then he swooped all the way down, his horn honking and grunting, then suddenly moved to smooth melodic lines, sensual and ethereal in their translucency. At one moment he seemed to be sobbing, at another cursing—himself, the world, his condition—only to resolve it all into a tenderness full of bereavement and mystery, before bowing out with a flippant, staccato muttering’.

The chapter on Sonny Rollins is an example of Crouch’s honesty. Although an admirer of the saxophonist, Crouch writes: ‘Rollins works at extremes. He is either astounding or barely all right. He hates clichés and signature phrases—“licks”—and refuses to play them. Consequently, for him there are no highly polished professional performances. When he’s on, which is seven or eight times out of ten, Rollins—known as “the saxophone colossus”—seems immense, summoning the entire history of jazz, capable of blowing a hole through a wall. On his off nights, though, he can seem no more than another guy with a saxophone and a band, creeping through a gig. Those who hear him on such nights come away convinced that the Sonny Rollins of legend is long gone.’

The Rollins chapter is one of the best summations of Rollins’ career.  He mentions how the immensely self-critical Rollins was reluctant to listen to the recordings made by one Rollins admirer who had recorded Rollins concerts for many years.  Crouch successfully persuaded Rollins to consider issuing some of the recordings.

Wynton Marsalis figures prominently in the book.  Crouch was a strong advocate of Marsalis because he appreciated the way that Marsalis recognized the past of jazz.  Crouch believed, as does Marsalis, that tradition was just as important as innovation.  Crouch wrote the liner notes for the Marsalis Columbia albums.

Intensely political, the writing ranges across the American scene. The chapter ‘By Any Means Necessary’ is a book review that morphs into a savage criticism of the Black Panther Movement.  It is pertinent because in his youth Crouch had held similar views.  Crouch moved away and developed a more nuanced stance and his skewering of the ideology of the Panthers is informed and detailed.

Crouch was as admiring of writers as he was of musicians. He was described by the music critic of the New York Times as having a style that is ‘free-flowing and severe, volatile, expansive, allusive and indulgent. From bravura sentence to serpentine paragraph …. a virtuoso performance of musical literary mimeses.

One of the finest pieces in the anthology is an account of the Ellington band in 1973 playing at Disneyland in California.  Crouch submerges his distaste of the amusement park under his love of Ellington. ‘No, there is no magic at all to Disneyland, and that is the essence of its ugliness. It is a lacquered cigar band passed off as a diamond ring and is one of the capitals of our sadness; it is a corpse made of neon lights, plastic, concrete, and funny hats raised up just far enough to be passed off on the fool as a living thing. But there is no fool. Even the children do not believe there is any magic there: just rides and plastic elephants on metal poles spun at a comfortable speed that are supposed to be Dumbo flying if you have the right ticket to ride.

The Ellington band was contracted to play four shows a night for six nights. Crouch describes Cooties Williams:  ‘Avant-garde as ever, he is using all those strange rhythmic combinations: the staccato dotted notes that come off as sardonic hesitations, as threats, as malicious mischief; the growls that are anguish or joy raised way, way up. Never nostalgia, never sentimentality, just snarling power’.

Later Paul Gonsalves moves into the audience: ‘Gonsalves, the sidewinder, the will-o’-the-wisp, steps from the bandstand and begins limping through the audience as he plays ‘In a Sentimental Mood’. He plays to the people at the few tables allowed on the corners of the dance floor and puts the bell of the saxophone in the faces of children who are mutually awed and embarrassed, thrilled and made special. This is by no means a gimmick, as Gonsalves is playing beautifully, an aural smoke working its way out of the horn. His sound is plaintive, bitter with the taste of sorrow, but carried by a mysterious and durable romanticism inherited from Ben Webster that is a trademark of the collective Ellingtonian vision.’

The whole book places jazz right in the centre of American cultural life.  The scope of Crouch’s vision and sympathies is stimulating.

His anthologies included “Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989” (1990); “The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994” (1995); “Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997” (1998); and “Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz” (2006).