Home / Jazz Workshop: Music Criticism And The Race Card

Jazz Workshop: Music Criticism And The Race Card

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

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.

Powered by

About Michael J. West

  • Oh Jumpin’ Jebus on a Pogo Stick, Monsieur West. Regardless of whether one agrees with Stanley Crouch or not, he can’t simply be dismissed. Sure he can, if he’s saying something just foolish. Mr Crouch may be knowledgeable about music, but that doesn’t mean he’s Sigmund Frickin’ Freud who knows about the special secret dark psychology of white jazz critics.

    If anything, I’d expect the white critics to be a little extra skeptical of the white boys, being concerned with authenticity or exactly the kind of nagging white guilt and insecurity you display in this column.

    I’m sure some would call me delusional or worse, but I don’t much see the race thing as having any substantial impact on my perceptions of music, at least not 99% of the time – hardly at all with any kind of instrumental music certainly. Inevitably, some bit of political or racial sensibilities will enter in now and then dealing with something that is real specifically racially charged in a lyrical manner – Public Enemy or in a very different way someone like Snoop Dogg.

    I understand in theory that, say, Miles Davis was black and had black guy issues that shaped his sensibilities and such. But that means jack squat to me when I’m blasting the Bitch’s Brew out the car.

    You properly intend to disregard the race of the players when you listen to a record. Likewise, you should quit fretting about being a white jazz fan, and properly disregard your own racial insecurities. They won’t do anything to improve your critical judgment of music. They’ll just make you crazy and start you second guessing your own best judgment.

  • I’ve had to hear KG’s mauling of Armstrong at least twice while sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms lately (and that’s in addition to a whole host of other “jazz” atrocities.) I feel really sorry for the people who work in offices constantly under attack from the quiet burble of lite-jazz stations – they have to listen to that turgid crap all day long, every day, every week . . . I guess they must learn to tune it out after a while, but I imagine there’s a point every one of them reaches just before that “tuning out” where they think they’re going to go insane.

  • But it was inspired! By either his accountant or his record company ;&)

  • Pico, you actually had me going until you called his Louis Armstrong pairing “inspired.” 🙂

  • Preach on, Brotha Assistant.

    You guys bustin’ on Gorelick fail to recognize his monumental music achievement. While atonal sax players like Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler turned people off by the droves, Mr. G was the first atonal sax player to find a wide audience. What’s more, he actually convinced a good majority of them that he was playing in key, Pat Metheny’s efforts to reveal this secret to his success notwithstanding.

    His inclusion among the pantheon of jazz greats was cemented by his inspired pairing with a posthumous Louis Armstrong. With Madonna headed to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Kenny G’s entry has been paved for 2009. The awards and accolades pile on, much to the chagrin of jealous, Hatorade guzzling jazz snobs.

  • A hex on Donald for getting that damned song stuck in my head. Not cool, man. Not cool.

  • Me too!

  • God, I wish Chris Rose still did his “Comment of the Day” feature.

  • Kenny G would like to congratulate Paco for his good taste as most of the tone-deaf knuckle-draggers around here wouldn’t know good music unless Al Barger didn’t like it.

    First dealing with the article, Kenny G was certainly not surprised to find West dreaming of being on a date with Crouch. He congratulates him on coming out and hope his family took it well. Aside from the lack of fashion sense, they couldn’t have been surprised.

    Crouch himself has an obvious basis for those that study his work, frequently elevating bald musicians far beyond their abilities. He is intimidated by men with a full head of hair because they remind him of his lost virility and masculinity. He champions older artists over the new to create an illusion to himself that he is still a young man rather than an old, bitter fool who life has passed by and eternity will soon forget, much the way same way a number of geezers and fanboys on this site think Springsteen is still happening. Kenny G doesn’t need to read Freud or use the tools he learned in getting his Masters in Psychology to understand why these people identify with a song titled “Radio Nowhere”.

    Kenny G would also like to state that Kenny G doesn’t know who Boyd is, although Kenny G is never surprised when a deranged fan tries to impress others by claiming they know famous people. When Rick Rubin worked with Kenny G on his last album, he told Kenny G about Boyd breaking into his home.

    Kenny G would have responded sooner but has been busy the past couple of days discussing strategy both with the Kurds in dealing with Turkey and Josh Beckett in dealing with Cleveland.

  • Nah, Mark. I think that’s what Jeff Lorber’s doing these days…


  • “If you get caught between the moon and New York City…I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.”

  • hmmm….i think i hear the footsteps of Kenny G’s Assistant.

  • I know Kenny G. Kenny G was a friend of mine. And you sir, are no Kenny G.

    From Somewhere at a Starbucks,

    Christopher Cross

  • …breakin’ those stereotypes of the squishy liberal on a daily basis!!


  • Mark Saleski: TOUGH ON CRIME!

  • very bad Pico! i sentence you to a week of nothing but Duotones!

  • I think yo’re in the wrong room, Pico – this is white jazz musicians. White ass musicians is down the hall, three doors to your right.

  • When listing notable white jazz musicians you guys forgot Kenny G

  • I think part of what’s implied in this issue is how we, as listeners, appreciate music.

    Personally, I prefer (and emotionally respond more to) listening to Ray Charles as opposed to Frank Sinatra. And that’s certainly not a criticism of Sinatra as I recognize and enjoy his music as well. But on a gut level, if I had to choose which of the two I’d rather hear interpreting a song, I’d go with Ray.

    I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be blind, African American, or to even have the talent to play the piano. None of those things factor into how much I love his music, though.


  • Anybody got a meter?



  • there’s no way to prove this…but i’d be willing to be that i’m colorblind about music. go ahead, hook a meter up to me.

  • you have to be careful. Trying so hard not to let race become a factor inevitably can make a race a factor.

    A VERY good point, Bicho, and one that bugged the Hell out of me when I was doing that review of my new best-of-’07. I wanted to make sure I didn’t subtract points just because they were white. In the end, it was just too damn good for me to do so even if I’d wanted to. 🙂

  • MJW, I was referring to the memo from Crouch not you about how whites allegedly feel according to the article you quoted.

    And it is valid to be concerned and curious as to whether race affects your mindset, but you have to be careful. Trying so hard not to let race become a factor inevitably can make a race a factor.

    Although not having the benefit of reading the article, I don’t see that Crouch has made his point. Now if he had written his article in 1953, 1963, even 1983 as rap was coming into the mainstream, I would certainly agree about the elevation of lesser white artists over blacks due to a number of systemic racist factors, but 2003? Sorry, but I don’t see it right now.

  • i agree with bicho here. the whole white/black thing so so overly reductive. there are so many ways to look at things that to pick race is just plain silly. at least right now. i’m not saying that there aren’t still race issues, as there clearly are…but the idea that white critics are giving passes to white musicians is just crap. i don’t care how knowledgeable he is, it’s still crap.

  • Hey, I don’t really know if any of what Crouch says is true. Tom, El Bicho, you may be absolutely right. Crouch may be completely full of shit, and I may be equally so for suggesting he might be worth taking seriously. But it DID seem worthwhile to just stop and examine it. 🙂

  • I do get what you mean, in general, but I think Mark mentioned not knowing that Keith Jarrett wasn’t black until some point long after he’d already been listening to him. His race doesn’t appear to affect his appreciation of him in any way. For me, I don’t really have many images associated with the musicians I listen to, especially the jazz musicians who I don’t typically see pictures of very often. I’m hearing the music and only associate names with it, if that, not faces, because I generally don’t have any faces with which to associate it. Maybe I’m weird, I don’t know. Well, I do know – I’m weird, but I mean in this particular case. 🙂

  • No memo. I’m not expressing discomfort or alienation. Just wondering whether I should be.

  • “Isn’t it possible that white critics hearing jazz as filtered through their white experiences are thereby able to relate more to white players”

    Sorry, but I don’t buy it. I’ll give you that as a white man (although I am not sure why my German/Italian heritage doesn’t get counted into my identity because it’s different from someone who is French/English) I may not being able to fully comprehend the essence of Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” but I don’t see race impeding my ability to appreciate Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.” I can’t tell someone’s race, creed, or gender by the sounds they make on an instrument, and my opinion of their work doesn’t change when I see the artist’s picture.

    And what are “white experiences” or “black experiences”? Sounds like a form of stereotype shorthand. If you grow up poor and without a father in the city what color is that compared to growing up affluent with a father who is a dentist and living on a Midwest ranch? In the ’70s when Miles was making a lot of money, living in a townhouse in NY, traveling the world, was he still living the “black experience,” the same one as a young black kid growing up in the housing projects of Chicago?

    By the way, when did the memo go out that I am supposed to be uncomfortable about evaluating jazz and that I am supposed to feel substantially alienated from it? It appears I have been wasting a lot of time.

  • Musically, however, can anyone seriously listen to Susie Ibarra’s playing and discount her simply because she’s a woman? I highly doubt it, just like I seriously doubt anyone (who is not racist) discounts the playing of a musician just because of his or her race.

    I don’t think we CONSCIOUSLY do it, and I don’t think we discount their playing, per se; but I do wonder if on some subconscious level we register it as “different.” (That’s not to say we absolutely do it – I have no idea if we do – I’m just conceding that it’s possible and so I’m not willing to say that I absolutely DON’T do it.) Most people aren’t racist…but NOBODY, I don’t care who you are, is colorblind. We notice race, and I would not be surprised to learn that it affects our perceptions on a subconscious level, if only because it’s “different” rather than superior or inferior or what-have-you.

  • Tom,

    Crouch was presenting the Improviser of the Year award at the first annual Jazz Awards. He was reading the nominees, and when he got to Douglas’s name, he paused – looked up – sneered, and said, “Huh! That’s an interesting choice.” Then, the final nominee was Matthew Shipp; Crouch read his name and the name of his label, Hat Art Records, then added, “Well! I guess you have to record whoever you can get!”

    It wasn’t so much what he said, as that he picked a terrifically inappropriate time and place to say them. Presenting an award is not a free soapbox to take cracks at the award’s nominees.

  • it cracks me up that Crouch appeared (as drummer) on a David Murray record.

    still, this cracks me up even more (from allmusic.com):

    “On drums, it is Stanley Crouch, who is simply crummy. His decision to quit playing drums is offered up as proof that he has done at least one good thing for the jazz community.”

  • Forgive my ignorance, but what is is that Stanley Crouch actually said about Matthew Shipp and Dave Douglas? I looked it up but could only find references to it, but no mention of what actually occured other than he said something derogatory about them when announcing them among the other nominees, and then a fight ensued afterward. Inquiring minds want to know.

    Also, while a fascinating read, I can’t say I agree – I listen to listen. White guys, black guys, or women*, whatever. It really doesn’t matter. I think there are some points at which guys like Crouch are thinking way too deeply about how the race issue works in something that is as essentially faceless as jazz is to most people. There’s no way to prove any of this, obviously, but this all seems to function on the level of “butterfly effect” thinking to me.

    *Interesting, isn’t it, that the issue of women doesn’t come up like it does about race? Where’s Crouch’s stance on that? There should be an equally large problem between sexes as races, and, really, it kind of should be larger because we certainly see on an every day basis just how big the gap is between men and women. Musically, however, can anyone seriously listen to Susie Ibarra’s playing and discount her simply because she’s a woman? I highly doubt it, just like I seriously doubt anyone (who is not racist) discounts the playing of a musician just because of his or her race.

  • ..hah! made you look!!


  • Candy Dulpher

  • Leslie Bohn

    Brian Blade, Vincent Herring, Seamus Blake, Avishai Cohen…

  • Eric Alexander!

  • Fair enough, Jon. I guess what I really should have said was that we can’t possibly say that it’s no longer an African American idiom.

  • Wallace Roney, Geri Allen, Jacky Terrasson, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Charles Tolliver, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Roy Hargrove, Josh Redman, Nnenna Freelon, Sean Jones, Kenny Garrett, Don Byron, Billy Kilson, Cassandra Wilson, Andy Bey, William Parker, Sunny Murray, Hamid Drake, Nicholas Payton, Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware, Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter, Christian McBride, Antonio Hart, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Javon Jackson…

  • Mike, it’s true my “sampling” is purely anecdotal, and I’m downtown much more than uptown. What I was really fixing on was your term “maintain.” It’s pretty safe to say that the blues tradition is maintained, these days, by white musicians at least as much as black ones, and based on my anecdotal experience, the same is true of jazz. However, if you are really talking about the most innovative musicians in jazz still being primarily African American, I wouldn’t argue that because I don’t know enough to say one way or the other.

  • Tim Berne, John Zorn, Chris Speed, Jim Black, Mike Stern, John Lurie, Erik Friedlander….


  • There’s an awful lot of determining factors there, though, Jon. Where you’re seeing the musicians, in what capacity you’re working with them, etc.

  • #11 – Yes, in NYC. I’m not talking about the big expensive clubs where the big national acts play to sardine-packed tourists – I’m talking about the day-to-day non-famous working musicians who I see and work with all the time. Plenty of whites and blacks, but more of the former.

  • All right then! 🙂

    “Important” meaning the musicians who are most responsible for the direction of jazz in the present and future. The groundbreakers, the flamekeepers, and the mentors.

    Wynton, for example. His influence as a musician has been in decline for a while now, but as a mentor, he’s the Art Blakey of our day. Not to mention the face of jazz to the non-jazz world.

    On the other hand, Blanchard’s influence as a musician is on the rise this decade, probably because of the soundtrack work. And Robin Eubanks is THE big groundbreaker of the moment.

    Of the old guard, Ornette, Sonny, and David Murray are still leading lights.

    Of the up-and-comers: Robert Glasper is God, first of all. Then there’s Lionel Loueke, Kendrick Scott, and Marcus & E.J. Strickland.

    There are white players in there too, assuredly; Dave Douglas, Mehldau, Frisell, Anat Cohen.

  • c’mon, define ‘important’.

    let’s have some fun!

  • Jon,

    In NYC?????????????

    Trust me – it’s still a largely African American form, and certainly the most important players are African American, and always have been.

  • Excellent article, really thought-provoking.

    I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that jazz is “(for the most part) maintained” by African American artists. I’m no jazz expert, nor am I a musician with serious jazz chops, but I see live jazz often enough, and I play with jazz musicians frequently in many different settings, and there seem to be a lot more white jazz musicians around than black, especially in the younger set.

  • Yeah, I never knew it was possible to talk too much about Louis Armstrong. Although, most of those mentions really WERE relevant…

  • crouch manages to be both knowledgeable and ignorant.

    i also hold him directly responsible for making sure that they mentioned Louis Armstrong in every freaking episode of that ken burns series.

  • Nice article, paleface ;&)

  • Mark:

    I confess. When I mentioned Crouch’s “sometimes rather silly-sounding opinions,” I was specifically referring to most of his liner notes for Wynton’s albums.

    Believe you me, Mr. Crouch and I are at loggerheads over “out” jazz. (Though I’m not sure I’d be at loggerheads to his face, since he has a tendency to punch people he disagrees with.) I think he’s an extremist in that regard, hence my calling him a “nativist.” I’m going to have to deal with that in one of these columns, huh?

    It did seem fair, though, to point out he’s a tremendously learned critic. So even if I disagree with him vehemently (and I often do), his authority is enough to make me think seriously about what I’m disagreeing with.

    Well, except for his public insult of Matthew Shipp. That was just uncalled for.

  • Glen, Donald: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

    Nat: Thank you very much as well. And no, you’re not naive – the very thing that makes music, literature, and art great is that it’s got enough in it that everyone who appreciates it can make it their own. I think so, anyway.

  • i dunno, i have a hard time with Crouch, mostly because of his dismissal of most/all “out” jazz.

    that, and his liner notes (mostly for Wynton) contain some of the most turgid prose ever written.

    the race thing: for many years, i thought that Keith Jarrett was black. i have no idea what that means.

  • Nat le Gros Monstre

    Amazing article. Music, like everything else, and how we experience it is inevitable affected by race, gender, financial situation, education, geography etc… But then I’ve always also believed that truly great music, literature, art etc. should mean something different to everyone. But perhaps that is a naive opinion.

  • I think, as music critics, it’s often difficult to discern the context from the content of what we’re listening to. And in many cases, it’s the context that enriches and informs people’s appreciation for music.

    For instance, I enjoy the music of Miles Davis on a visceral level. Yet I certainly wouldn’t claim to understand why he played what he did, when he did, or how he did. So that’s a limit I have to acknowledge in my appreciation of his art. I can listen to, enjoy, and even write about the aesthetics of Kind of Blue. However, I couldn’t write, with genuine knowledge or authority, about the factors that inspired him to create the album.

    I enjoyed your article very much.


  • This is outstanding Micheal. One of the most well written and perfectly stated articles on music criticism, and all that colors it, that I’ve read in a long, long time. You nailed it, brother…and somewhere I suspect that Mr. Crouch is smiling.