Longtime Village Voice contributor Nat Hentoff is one of America's premier writers on jazz, race and the First Amendment. He doesn't suffer fools gladly or dispense praise lightly, and in a new compilation of his writings, The Nat Hentoff Reader, he assesses the work of his colleague Stanley Crouch.
"[Crouch] is blessedly -- and bristlingly -- free of orthodoxies whether he's writing about jazz or race or the politics of both, and everything else," writes Hentoff. "Stanley Crouch, when he was at this paper, was, I thought, the most challenging writer we have ever had. And the challenging didn't stop when the paper went to bed. Stanley used to stand in the newsroom dismantling some barracks of political correctness or a Spike Lee movie. ... To win your point, you'd have to unhorse the large, gravel-throated man riding a steed of relentless reason."
Crouch is a welcome voice in today's pop-culture dominated landscape, a fearless writer with a fearsome intellect grounded in Balzac and Dostoevsky, not Britney and Destiny's Child. In outlets as diverse as New Republic magazine, television's 60 Minutes, and Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, Crouch offers unflinching social and critical commentary that demands engagement.
Unsurprisingly, he's no stranger to controversy. In the wake of Burns' Jazz, Crouch -- along with Wynton Marsalis, whom Crouch has perennially championed -- was vilified by a group of critics who felt the program focused too much on deceased legends, at the expense of avant-garde and post-60s jazz.
"I agree partly with that," says Crouch in a phone interview from his New York office. "I don't agree that too much was paid to the other people. I think that there should have been another two hours, at least, with more of an examination of what happened after Ornette Coleman came in, and what happened after fusion.
"The point I'm trying to get at is, all that time (in the documentary), showing things like the complexities of the Benny Goodman story, and Pops and Miles (Davis), for all of that to go down, and the only thing people want to talk about is what wasn't included? It's like if you and I went to one of the best Japanese restaurants in New York City, and you stood up and said, 'They don't serve gumbo in here.'"
While Crouch's ties to Wynton Marsalis -- he serves as artistic consultant to jazz at Lincoln Center, while Marsalis is artistic director -- are his most notable New Orleans connection, Crouch does keep his ears tuned to New Orleans musicians. "I think you have to be there in New Orleans to really get it, but I'll just say that the people from New Orleans that are playing, like Branford (Marsalis), Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, they're playing something that needs to be listened to. They sound pretty good, if not excellent, and sometimes superb."
Jazz remains one of Crouch's great passions. Some of his best writing -- like his piece-by-piece dismantling of James Lincoln Collier's contemptible 1987 Duke Ellington biography, or the essay On the Corner: the Sellout of Miles Davis, which poignantly skewers Davis' post-1969 output -- reveal a potent combination of scholarship, logic and imagination. His tone turns wistful when asked for his thoughts on the current state of the genre.
"Jazz at the moment is in trouble because New York is in trouble," says Crouch. "Now jazz is of course not just New York, even though Thelonious Monk said jazz is New York, it's in the air. But things are bad in town now because of the dropping off of the tourist trade after the attacks. It just shows how a small group of guys can screw up the economy by doing the wrong thing in the right place."
That hasn't changed Crouch's approach to his craft, which is grounded in his primary inspirations, Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. "Read books well," advises Crouch, "and if possible, write about them as well as you've read them. ... Far too little today is made of the way in which a writer achieves emotional, intellectual and psychological effects, in either fiction or non-fiction. People don't tend to talk that much about the technique of something.
"If you read a review of a book by, say, Philip Roth, there might be an identification of themes, but there's very few books that have themes that are different from other writers'. But a great talent like Roth can continually remake a subject, so that you the reader will feel as though you're entering a new territory, much the way a great chef can make you re-experience a bluefish or a chicken or a salad. You've eaten them before and know how they taste, but a great chef can make them a whole new experience."
- Stanley Crouch's 1995 book The All-American Skin Game, or, the Decoy of Race, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.