Wednesday Book Club: Considering Genius

Wednesday, 13 August 2008 — 1:18am | Book Club, Jazz, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006) by Stanley Crouch.

In brief: Jazz critic Stanley Crouch has a reputation as an abrasive, stodgy curmudgeon of the emperor’s-new-clothes school, beholden to a restrictive aesthetic orthodoxy and unaccepting of experimentation. This anthology of essays from 1982 to 2004 reveals that Crouch’s reputation is well earned, but well defended. In collected form, his controversial views on race—easily misunderstood if read in the context of one piece alone—cohere into an appraisal of America that is at once complex and mature.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Considering Genius, keep reading below.)

I’ll get the “book recommendation” part of the review out of the way now, so we can move on to something more intellectually stimulating. Considering Genius is essential reading for anyone interested in jazz: Crouch combines belligerence and eloquence with enough skill that he finds a way to annoy everybody, with the possible exception of Wynton Marsalis. Nevertheless, a passing familiarity with jazz and its most exalted names is likely a prerequisite. If you don’t have the slightest idea how Louis Armstrong differs from John Coltrane, or how early Miles Davis differs from late Miles Davis, this book will tell you a thing or two—for one thing, that you should stay away from late Miles Davis—but it won’t be a substitute for listening.

I should first disclose that I find most writing about music to be quite dry. Music writers only have so many options, after all. There’s biography, for one, and I have little interest in biography when it comes to any form of art. I gave a lengthier explanation back when I judged David Michaelis’s Schulz by the cover, but the short of it is that reducing a work of art to its socio-historical causes, or the “author” if you will, doesn’t tell me much about the work as a thing-in-itself. Oh, and I’m a raving formalist, too. Fancy that.

Should we even get into the narcissism of gonzo, where the biographical position of the critic is central to the response? No, let’s not.

Then there’s music writing of the descriptive kind, which is not to be confused with critical commentary. Descriptive writing is impaired from birth when its object is a self-describing creation. Let me put it this way: would you rather gaze at a Monet painting, or read about it? The best critics in any medium are the ones who galvanize the written word into telling you something you didn’t know, or wouldn’t be able to see for yourself—and even then, the critic’s writing has trouble standing as something independently meaningful, as it demands some awareness of whatever it is about. (To clarify, I am not speaking of criticism in the sense of the A&E-section consumer advice with which the word critic is so often associated. I refer to the kind of commentary that at least aims to position itself as a source of greater understanding.) Criticism never has a truly independent existence until it advances a positive claim like a model of aesthetics, like the “mathematics” of archetypes and symbols above the empirical corpus of literature that Northrop Frye develops in Anatomy of Criticism.

Crouch muses about criticism as much as he does about jazz, and approaches the challenge of descriptive music writing this way:

Part of my belief in the power of words came through having read about Holiday and the various moods she created when singing. Those descriptions allowed me to know, without a doubt, when I first heard her on the radio, “that must be Billie Holiday.” As the disc jockey announced her name I think I realized then that if a writer was good enough, he could prepare a listener to recognize the sound of an artist on first hearing. That might apply to certain singers but I don’t really believe that is true of instrumentalists. Even so, it always remains a goal.

I would also add that jazz writing possesses a unique character because of jazz music’s nature as an improvised performance art: the process of creation is spontaneous and immediate. Whether there exists such a thing as “jazz music’s nature” is Crouch’s favourite hobbyhorse, and we shall return to it soon enough; for now, let’s take its improvisational character for granted and see where that leads. What I mean to say is that the very act of creating this music isn’t simply a product of the artist’s experience and situation in space-time projected into the external world: the music is the artist’s interaction with the external world as it happens.

So when Stanley Crouch tells stories about how Thelonious Monk once spun a rhythmic figure out of the sound of a passing airplane in the middle of his improvisation, need you have heard the music yourself to get that ineffable sense of wonder that transcends the the irrelevance of man-behind-the-music writing as well as the inadequacy of “the music sounds like this”? Well, you needn’t.

Any jazz writer can praise the masters. A worthwhile essay on the Armstrongs, Parkers and Ellingtons should tell us something new and special—either observe something we might not otherwise hear, or contextualize the music, which, in jazz, is not very distinguishable from contextualizing the persons behind it.

Thankfully, Crouch always has a thesis (or, as his opponents might say, an axe to grind). Admittedly, his essays, when read one after another, betray a certain measure of repetition: Crouch is fond of stressing, on multiple occasions, his essentialist belief that there is a well-defined boundary to jazz constrained along four axes of definition. Monk, writes Crouch, “understood early on that jazz requires each of its artists to develop his own version of four-four swing—fast, medium, slow; his own version of the blues, of ballads, and of the Afro-Hispanic rhythms misnomered as ‘Latin.'” And never mind Duke Ellington’s famous pronouncement that there are only two categories of music (“good music, and the other kind”); in an essay bearing the syntactically curious title “The Jazz Tradition is Not Innovation” (meaning not “it’s not innovative to follow tradition” but “jazz has never primarily been about innovation for its own sake”):

Ellington’s music, whether secular or sacred, almost always addressed the irrefutable jazz fundamentals that have maintained themselves from generation to generation: 4/4 swing, blues, the meditative ballad, and the Spanish tinge. So it should be obvious that when he was attacking the reductive impact of categories, he was actually addressing the problem that anyone had in the arena of artistic respect when described as a jazz musician. […] All the while, he was writing and playing jazz and leading a band of jazz musicians—jazz, and jazz alone.

Crouch’s emphasis on 4/4 time is a bit odd; what, I wonder, would he make of the 3/4 jazz waltz or the 5/4 of Brubeck and Desmond’s “Take Five”? Then again, early on in their experiments with complex time signatures, jazz musicians still played within a recognizable extension of the swinging 4/4 idiom, so my objection is a technical one. The foremost reason that Crouch is not well accepted by much of the jazz community is his steadfast insistence on jazz as it was, and his rejection of vast swaths of what has happened to it over the past forty-odd years. He is not afraid to say that the honking and squeaking of John Coltrane’s late period was just honking and squeaking, or that Miles Davis let himself be “intimidated into mining the fool’s gold of rock ‘n’ roll” and led the illustrious likes of Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock over the cliff like lemmings.

Crouch doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for fusion, or jazz-rock. His stance is not a remitting, “That’s nice, but it’s not jazz,” but an open grievance that jazz musicians of immense talent would sink to that level:

While the mixture of jazz and rock did create something that had not existed before, it also introduced instruments and beats that had nothing to do with swing, the propulsive essence of jazz phrasing. That jazz is a music built on adult emotion while rock is focused on adolescent passion created another problem for jazz musicians who tried fusion. They could never get to that teenage feeling of ardent ineptitude and resentment of sophisticated authority because they were not inept and their music was as sophisticated as any performing art that had evolved in the Western world.

It is not at all surprising that Crouch’s contemporary hero is fellow Jazz at Lincoln Center co-founder Wynton Marsalis, who, like Mingus before him, saw a lot of room for evolutionary progression in traditional, pre-avant-garde ensemble writing à la Ellington. As Crouch sees it, jazz has its own “legacy of melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm” that permits innovation from within, without having to resort to importing the conventions of other traditions or play catch-up with the revolution in European music after Bartók that, in many ways, represented a clean break with established aesthetic conventions.

To dive back into the security of personal taste, my take on Crouch’s position is an ambivalent one. He sure knows how to pick persuasive examples. You know, late Coltrane is a lot of honking and squeaking—and was the Miles Davis who played that glittery but lifeless soft-rock rendering of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” really the same Miles who gave us the preeminent trumpet reading of “My Funny Valentine”? And even the most ardent devotee of small-c classical music as it developed in the twentieth century has to admit that much of it is an acquired taste, not to be understood apart from its place in the intellectual conversation.

As for the claim that jazz can continue to grow out of its own roots, one of Crouch’s best examples is a citation of Roger Pryor Dodge’s Harpsichords and Jazz Trumpets, which predicted Thelonious Monk’s future piano style in 1939 from an extrapolation of the music’s aesthetic elements alone. But let’s suppose for a minute that we accept this idea that jazz can evolve on its own without any cross-pollination, or any code-mixing and code-switching, to borrow the lexicon of linguistics (which, I’ve always felt, applies very well to music of any stripe). Who cares?

It’s impossible to expect that jazz musicians won’t incorporate outside influences somehow, and facile to presume that the appeal of rock to jazz musicians mightn’t have something to do with their aesthetic interests, and not just money. Then again, there’s a world of difference between jazz musicians playing rock, to whom Crouch objects, and jazz musicians who interpret rock songs as they once did the showtunes of Richard Rodgers. When Brad Mehldau plays Soundgarden or Radiohead, there isn’t any question that the swing rhythms of jazz are making the clockwork tick, even though his chord voicings are derived from Brahms.

No matter. The more fascinating undercurrent in Considering Genius is, as I alluded to earlier, Crouch’s treatment of race—which takes as its foundation his primary thesis that jazz has a distinct, essential origin. That origin, as we find out, is distinctly African-American, but emphatically not African.

It would be easy to pick and choose quotations from Stanley Crouch to discredit him as self-contradictory. On one hand, he harps on what he perceives to be the reverse racism of jazz critics who are all too eager to embrace white musicians, or black musicians who “accept an imposed aesthetic of ‘pushing the envelope’ in ways that have nothing to do with blues and swing”, or… well, it’s never really clear, but whoever they are, they’re destroying the Negro aesthetic. On the other, he has nothing but contempt for the likes of Louis Farrakhan and LeRoi Jones (whom Crouch expressly refuses to call Amiri Baraka), and whoever else promulgates a tribalist conception of American culture, whether it takes the form of black nationalism, the back-to-Africa movement, or any of their philosophical offshoots—the self-debasement of rap being the most successful artifact of its cultural output.

Presented in collected form, however, Crouch’s sentiments on racial politics exhibit an astonishing consistency. The fulcrum of the whole discussion is Crouch’s excoriation of LeRoi Jones, “Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form”—his best articulation of the race issue, and arguably the best piece in the book.

Jazz was black by birth, or, to use Crouch’s word for it, Negro: to recognize the Negro component of jazz, he writes, “is not to pander to genetic theories or to the superficial impositions of lightweight political theories; it is to recognize cultural facts too well documented to argue.” Whether it is “black music” now, in terms of its present function, is a wholly juvenile discussion in which Crouch is not the least bit interested. Jazz is an extension of four key formal dimensions, and what it represents socially now is an artificial imposition on the part of demagogues that wish to claim jazz as a centrepiece of their pan-African-American cultural ghetto. (If you’ve ever read any of LeRoi Jones’ poetry from his Amiri Baraka phase, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

The clearest formulation of Crouch’s understanding of jazz and race had me nodding my head and mouthing the word “yes”:

[Jazz] is obviously an Afro-American form, meaning that the irreplaceable force at the center of its identity has been the musical imagination of the Negro. But this fact does not imply that white musicians, listeners, and critics have no place in the making or the evaluation of the idiom. Its Afro-American essence isn’t nullified by whites, anymore than Jessye Norman’s singing of Schubert or Leontyne Price’s renditions of Puccini neutralize the German and Italian origins of those musics. Yet when I once heard Woody Herman say to Edwin Newman that jazz was initially the black man’s music but white musicians made it universal, I wondered what the response would have been had a Negro performer of European concert music claimed that the idiom was originally the white man’s music but black concert artists had made it universal!

The way Crouch sees it, jazz had a distinct and traceable origin, the blood of which remains in the veins of its aesthetic descendants (all of the ones he counts, anyhow). But it is, and has always been, universal. Genotype, meet phenotype.

The flaw in the argument is a foundational one—the claim that any music has an inherent essence inextricably tied to its point of origin—and if you don’t buy the idea that Puccini’s music was Italian music, and that everything derived from Puccini has an Italian element, you won’t buy Stanley Crouch. At its core, the “Negro aesthetic” of jazz may be nothing more than a simple acknowledgment of socio-historical inspiration. One gets the impression that Crouch’s insistence on defining jazz in terms of formal features rather than cultural function is his way of reacting to the likes of LeRoi Jones, who “are obsessed with content over form, claiming that formal attention is some version of Western imperialism dressed in aesthetic armor.” Crouch escapes the trap of biographical criticism, be it the biography of a person or of a historically marginalized stratum of American society, because he understands the difference between where something originated and what makes something what it is.

No wonder he is so keen on drawing a line in the sand between what jazz is, and what jazz is not. But in the end, who cares? Or, as Miles would have put it—so what?

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