Stanley Crouch has been haunting my dreams lately. That's neither metaphor nor embellishment – in the past week, probably less than that, I have twice had dreams that prominently featured Crouch.
Once the dream took place in New York, and as I was calling it a night and just coming off the Brooklyn Bridge, I nearly got run down by Crouch as he drives past the bridge. I'm not sure how, but I understand that he is going out to the jazz clubs that I have not. In the other dream, which I had last night, Stanley's in my town, Washington, and we find ourselves sharing a park bench and having a conversation about the music.
I don't need to read Freud, or keep a dream journal, to know where this stuff is coming from and why it's coming now.
I've just received a couple of albums to review for the December issue of JazzTimes. One of these (I'd rather not be specific before publication) is sublime. Extraordinary. Absolutely the best album I've heard this year. It knocks cold my previous choice for album of the year.
The complicating factor? The previous selection was by a band that was entirely black. This new album, while multiracial, is led and dominated by whites.
This shouldn't be an issue. This shouldn't be an issue. This shouldn't be an issue.
I'm repeating it in my head over and over and over again. And it's true – it shouldn't be an issue. But it is, no matter how much I want it not to be. No matter how much I want to think I can be, and/or am, colorblind, Stanley Crouch makes me question myself.
Those of you who follow the jazz scene closely have probably already figured out where this is going: In the April 2003 issue of JazzTimes, then-columnist Stanley Crouch published a piece entitled "Putting the White Man in Charge," an inflammatory (to say the least!) essay that accused some white critics of being too eager to make the case for white cats, at the expense of black ones. "White musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities," he wrote, "in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art form from which they feel substantially alienated." Shortly after it hit newsstands, then-editor Chris Porter fired Crouch from the magazine. Whether the termination was the result of that particular column remains controversial even after four and a half years.
Regardless of whether one agrees with Stanley Crouch or not, he can't simply be dismissed. He's a critic of extraordinary knowledge and depth on his subject, and a man who knows what he doesn't like – he's listened to it and evaluated it with as much care as he has the music he does like.
I myself, though I've called him a "jazz nativist" and I stand by that characterization, have learned quite a bit from Crouch: for example, that if you're not listening to every member of the band, you're not getting it. And if he's heavily biased in his opinions (and he is), it's not because he's uninformed.
In short, love or hate Crouch, he’s smart enough and informed enough about jazz that when he makes a serious statement, outlandish or not, it deserves some attention. Four years on, it’s no less deserving of that attention; for me, just breaking into this profession, it’s crucial.
Any good jazz fan, let alone critic, comes into this music with one absolute truth seeded into his/her skull: jazz is an African American music. It’s designed around African American folk and pop traditions; built on African American experience; created, revolutionized, and (for the most part) maintained by African American musicians. All of which feeds into part of Crouch’s point: the critics pretty much tend to be white. And if jazz is built on the black experience, the white critic necessarily hears it filtered through the white experience.
Isn’t it possible that white critics hearing jazz as filtered through their white experiences are thereby able to relate more to white players, and thereby elevate them in their assessment and coverage? To say “No, it’s not possible,” is obviously dishonest. And to say “Well, it’s possible, but I’m white and 100% sure that I’m not doing that,” is probably equally so. I’m certainly unwilling to do it. On the other hand, I AM willing to go on the record and say that I’m white and 100% sure I’m not doing it…consciously.
Ahh, a different beast all together. If I’m doing it, I must be doing it subconsciously, and how can I stop that? I don’t even know I’m doing it, obviously.
The simple answer is, I can’t. Not only can’t, but probably shouldn’t try. A critic, any critic, has to be honest about his/her assessment of what he/she hears. Educated, immersed in the music, you do have to be. A careful, repeated, precise, and discerning listener, you MUST be. But forcing yourself to find something in it, whether merit or some kind of identification, is a no-no. Even if you disagree with every other critic out there, you have to be willing to say so without worrying about critical consensus.
Really, if you don’t have something of your own to say about a record, why are you writing about it in the first place?
What I can do is exactly what I said above: be a careful, repeated, precise, and discerning listener. Just as Crouch’s eccentric, outrageous, and sometimes rather silly-sounding opinions gain merit by virtue of his knowing the music, all critics’ opinions gain both confidence and weight when those critics know the music they’re discussing inside and out. White, black, etc., if you’re going to elevate anyone at all, you’d better damn well know what you’re talking about when you do it. Opinions themselves neither discredit nor humiliate their holder…but uninformed opinions do.
That said, the music I love will remain the music I love. White, black, Asian, mixed-race, or otherwise. I can’t really apologize for filtering music through my own experience, can I? What I can do, folks, is to be aware of it, and to remember that as much as my own experience shapes how I hear the music, ultimately it’s the music itself that’s in charge. Oh, and to examine it carefully—make sure the argument and analysis is as strong as possible. Certainly the stronger the argument, the less likely the arguer is to be accused of racism, conscious or not. Thus what I’m talking about here is not some liberal guilt trip—I’m talking about becoming a better writer, critic, listener, and appreciator.
The psychology textbooks say that this kind of subconscious behavior is what sparks the content of one’s dreams, and that by passing it from the subconscious mind to the conscious, the dream is no longer necessary. Whether I’ve done that here or not, I don’t know. But Stanley, if I need a refresher, a memo about being a better music listener, you’re welcome to stop on into my psyche.
I’ll leave a key under the id for you.