May 25, 2024

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He was a critic, intellectual, lover, snob and contrarian of the Black condition: Video, Photo

If you were a New Yorker out on the town in the late 1970s and 1980s, the sort of person who frequented house parties, bars and clubs on a Tuesday night, odds are fair that you would’ve run into a large, well-dressed, bespectacled man (odds are actually better that he would have run into you) and that at some point during the encounter, this charismatic, dark-skinned cat might have slipped you one of his business cards. Nothing fancy. Vanilla even. A name, Stanley Crouch, a number and this: an embossed pair of boxing gloves.

Crouch was known well as many things — critic, intellectual, keeper of flames, holder of court, friend, opponent, epicure, castigator, acolyte, mentor, lover, crank, snob, contrarian of the Black condition. Boxing, though, animated a good deal of him. The gloves were a shorthand for temperament. Misleading, too, because none of his fights — on the page, at a restaurant, in the offices of The Village Voice where he was the first Black staff member — involved anything as formal or gentlemanly as a glove. In 1988, he socked The Voice’s rap critic, Harry Allen, during a conversation about hip-hop, which Crouch flamboyantly loathed. The fight cost Crouch his job. In 2004, he made the news when he slapped the literary critic and self-described hatchet man Dale Peck at a cozy French restaurant for bludgeoning Crouch’s lone novel four years earlier.

Such were his passions. They ruled him. If Crouch handed you that card, you were accepting an invitation to his intensity, which veered from imposingly pugnacious to relentlessly genial; gangsta, chum. Even his affability could be a lot. “Many of us were subjected to long, rambling drum interludes over the phone that could be quite wearying,” recalled his longtime friend Loren Schoenberg, the saxophonist and jazz scholar. “I loved it,” he told me, laughing. Another friend, the trumpeter Bobby Bradford, recalled his phone ringing, too. “I remember distinctly once where he was doing something that he figured out about the hi-hat,” Bradford said. “That particular thing was good, very clever. But that wouldn’t sustain a drum solo or an evening playing the drums, you know?”

That’s right: One of the country’s pre-eminent jazz critics was also an endearingly tedious player, of drums no less. Crouch knew the music he tried to make was neither as muscular or dexterous as his writing on music. Iconoclasm was his hook — his uppercut. Which beloved text would he asperse? (“Beloved,” for one.) What shibboleth would he undo? Which colossus would he raze? Regular appearances on Charlie Rose’s talk show made Crouch an egghead sort of famous. Once, in 1992, with the pianist Marcus Roberts and Crouch’s good friend Wynton Marsalis seated around Rose’s table, Crouch surmised that “if you had some rappers on here, you wouldn’t get this level of discourse.” Clashing culture was music to him, modernity versus tradition, jazz — a particular, classical era of jazz — against everything else. Miles Davis after 1960 was useless. “Beyond the terrible performances and the terrible recordings,” Crouch wrote in The New Republic in 1990, “Davis has also become the most remarkable licker of monied boots in the music business.”

Criticism was his art. And he could get carried away by it. Whenever Schoenberg and Crouch went to see live music, they had to work out an arrangement, because Crouch liked to talk during the concert — about what was working and what stank. “We kind of sat separate and then talked after the set,” Schoenberg said. Crouch would then take a post-show walk right up to the band and critique the music to the players’ faces. “I don’t think you could name me one of his peers,” Schoenberg said, “who had the authority or the respect of the musicians, that when he went up on the bandstand and gave them his review, right there, and it could be harsh, that they actually, 90 percent of the time, accepted it, even if they might have rolled an eye or two.”

Crouch was hard on female novelists and young rappers, the avant-garde and his heroes. He deplored the woe of certain racial politics. His writing against Black grievance, at least as he understood it, was meant to denounce the separatism, sense of inferiority and pleas for special treatment that he suspected were curdling the way we talked about politics and art, the way we talked to one another. For a boxer, kid gloves are an insult. For a jazz man, a traditionalist no less, any race that could invent that music should never doubt itself. No race that invented that music should ever be anything other than original, freethinking.

That critical shove of Davis down the elevator shaft (“Play the Right Thing” was the title of that essay) lasts for many thousands of words, and the thud still resounds. Crouch abandoned the drums to make that sort of noise, to perform the leaving of his mark. That performance hurt people: the pianist Cecil Taylor, whom Crouch outed as gay in 1982; his formidable mentor and friend Albert Murray, who distanced himself from Crouch after he disparaged Murray’s rigor in a mid-1990s essay.

“Once when I visited him in New York,” Bradford said, “he was getting hate mail by the bundles, while he was working for The Village Voice. And he said to me, ‘Well, that’s how I keep working, man, because this hate mail represents that people are reading what I’m writing.’” Crouch was a sportsman that way. Everything about him was: Don’t try this at home. For here was a man who lived for more than thriving as a critic. He wanted to be criticism itself.

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