Arts Remembrance: Critic Stanley Crouch — Jazz as a Metaphor for Democracy
By Harvey Blume
“I’m trying to get people to be at ease with the incredible amount of variety in the United States.”
One of the pleasures of doing interviews is that of being educated by interviewees. I recall how much I learned prepping for and talking to Stanley Crouch. He introduced me to a vein of African American thought I’d skirted, one originating in the writings of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. This was in marked opposition to the black nationalism expressed in various ways by the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and made a persuasive argument that blacks weren’t opposed to American identity as nationalists maintained; in fact they were a unique and defining element of it. Crouch based much of this view on jazz, which he saw and wrote about as a democratic, even utopian, art form. But his ideas extended beyond music; he had an unusually wide ranging mind.
I’m sorry Stanley Crouch has passed away.
Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review
“. . . the charismatic relationship Afro-Americans have to this society can be as irresponsibly decadent as it can be high-minded, joyous, soberly critical, and cautionary. We have as much responsibility for the health of our democracy as anyone else.”
The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race, The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994
Arts Fuse: You use jazz as a metaphor for democracy in The Skin Game.
Stanley Crouch: It seems to me to be an aesthetic realization of the checks and balances system, and the idea of individual contribution to mass reality. In a jazz band, you’ll often have the same thing happen that happens when a person wants to convince other people that his or her policy idea should be embraced. The great bassist Ron Carter said that in a band whoever is playing the strongest idea will convince everybody else to come his way. In a sense it reflects the democratic process.
The constitutional structure is based on periodically reinterpreting the relationship that the people have to the government, to the laws, to the business sector. In a jazz band, we know the songs — “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella by Starlight,” etc. — but they are remade by improvisations. Improvisation allows you to reconsider the way you’ve approached something before, to see it over and over.
AF: In a traditional African drum ensemble, one person solos. The jazz band is different, in that the solo moves from player to player, from instrument to instrument.
Crouch: Everybody is improvising in a jazz band. You’re playing the saxophone, I’m playing the piano. I’ll play something. You’ll respond. The bass player who hears that will play a certain kind of thing, the drummer something else. What makes a band really sound good is what I think of as the fundamental aspect of democratic freedom, which I call empathetic individuality.
AF: You write, “There is a very close relationship between classic American films and jazz,” and that “the improvised slapstick comedies of Sennet, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were visually akin to the extemporized melodies, the new tonal colors, the building heat, and the incantational surprises central to the fusion of primitive vitality and sophistication that defines jazz.”
Generally we talk about jazz as the unique contribution of African Americans. You’re suggesting there was a change of sensibility sweeping the whole culture, and jazz was a part of that change in feeling.
Crouch: The sense of comic disorder that’s so central to the world of Max Sennett goes back to the conventions of the minstrel show. If you read descriptions of minstrel shows, you find a lot of them started with people running in different directions, some tumbling, some playing banjos, some shouting, some clapping, so you get this riot of activity.
Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up is an extraordinarily important book because it goes into the complexity of the minstrel shows.
AF: Who were the participants?
Crouch: They were white performers. Most of the time when we say minstrel shows, people just think of white guys putting on black face and making black Americans seem like nothing more than buffoons of one sort or another.
Crouch: But it’s much more than that
AF: It sounds like white people were using black identity to arrive at what they thought was a sort of larger arena of expression.
Crouch: I don’t think they even thought about it like that. I think what they were looking for was something that sounded American. The grand irony of race prejudice is that the Negro is pure Americana.
AF: An aspect of America that made us distinctly non-European.
Crouch: Exactly. The minstrel shows arrive at a time when there was increasing hostility toward European artistic conventions. The Virginia minstrels opened up in New York City, I think, in 1834. There were already riots against English actors for saying Americans had no appreciation of subtle dramatic expression. All these guys from the Bowery came up to Astor Place outraged that they had been insulted by the British performers and started a riot in which over one hundred people were killed in order to prove that they appreciated subtlety as much as anybody else.
AF: The riot must have removed all doubt.
Crouch: Oh, boy is that American. The point is that the chaotic stuff, the sense of the romantic ballads, the bad guy-good guy played out in a certain kind of way, the syncopations, the percussive rhythms — those things are traceable back to the minstrel shows. That way of doing things had become so American that D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were drawing on something you didn’t even have to think about at that point.
AF: You say that someone like Thomas Edison opens the way for something like Black Studies.
Crouch: People bringing unconventional ideas into the discussion, arriving from previously disreputable or varied perspectives, is not something new in America. And if you didn’t have that tradition, you couldn’t have black studies. Thomas Edison is as much a reason for black studies as anybody. Edison never crosses people’s minds when they think about black Americans because they don’t think of black Americans in terms of America’s history. They think, well, there’s America and then there’s these black folks.
I’m trying to get people to be at ease with the incredible amount of variety in the United States.
AF: Sometimes it seems like you want it both ways. You want to say blacks are completely integral to American identity. You write you don’t need to look beyond slavery to define yourself; you’re opposed to Afro-centrism. But where, then, do the distinctive contributions come from?
Crouch: What I’m arguing against is a romantic idea about Africa. All that stuff about African kingdoms, and we came from Egypt — who cares? I was just out on the road where I’d say to the audience, how many of you know where in Europe Thomas Edison’s family came from? Do you have any idea why you don’t know? It’s because once you invent the electric light, nobody cares. Most people don’t care where Henry Ford’s people came from, where the Wright brothers came from. The Wright brothers come from a German family, but you have to dig to find that out because Kitty Hawk is enough. Now obviously if Louis Armstrong had been born in Africa, he wouldn’t have played the trumpet. Nor would Scott Joplin have invented ragtime, nor Charlie Parker played the saxophone nor Duke Ellington led a dance band nor Bessie Smith sung the blues. What I’m talking about is the new mixes that result from various people and various elements coming together within the context of the United States.
Everybody in the world recognizes our American commonalty. If you were a black guy, and both of us put on African robes and changed our names and flew to Accra today, within five minutes the Ghanaians would say, ah, two Americans. If the most Negro-hating South Boston red-neck with an excessively sentimental attachment to Ireland flies to Dublin today, the Irish will say, ah, an American. If you put Rudolph Guliani and John Giotti and a plane across the aisle from each other, sneering, all the way to Sicily, when they get there, the Sicilians will say, ah, two Americans. That’s how that really goes. That’s often missed in these discussions.
AF: You are optimistic about that mix. You think that mix exists, however imperfectly, for everyone in this country. There are a lot of black spokesmen who feel that mix does not or should not include them.
Crouch: The whole separatist impulse is a joke. It’s as big a joke as the Black Panther Party talking about overthrowing the United States. All people have to do is read Hugh Pearson’s book, “The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America.” Malcolm X started that imbecilic idea of being a man, masculinity, and all that: “If they put their hands on you, we say send ’em to the graveyard.” Buffoons like Malcolm X were creating very unrealistic sets of ideas about the man in the street versus the police. I’m not going to pretend a guy is brilliant who, as I’ve pointed out many times, and will until they wheel me to the burial ground, also taught people every day that white people were a race of devils invented by a mad scientist six thousand years ago.
One thing I learned from Lyndon Johnson is that if you’re interested in serious American issues you may have to be ready to turn in your card of guaranteed categories. When Lyndon Johnson decided to deal with extending American democracy in reasonable directions, he had to turn in his card as a redneck. He was rejected by white Southerners.
I’m not interested in exacerbating some form of self-pity on the parts of black students, playing into what I call the sadomasochist relationship that white administrations and black students have on campus after campus. I am interested in clarifying a fact that is left out of the discussion over and over, and that is that there are two American traditions, and one is irresponsible if one does not acknowledge the both of them. There is, in fact, an ignoble American tradition. It includes drug-dealing, selling small-pox blankets to the Indians, polluting the land, exploiting children, selling bad products and all of that.
But if you talk about slavery and you fail to talk about abolition, then you’re not serious. There was no abolition movement in Africa. There was no abolition movement in China; the Chinese were never concerned about slaves. There was no abolition movement in India. That’s a hard fact.
AF: You talk about black separatism. What about white separatism?
Crouch: But look, we started out with that. But now you have a generation of white people who, for four years at hundreds of universities across the United States, have extraordinarily hostile encounters with black students that they didn’t engender, in which they were called names, bullied, told they couldn’t get into organizations, told we don’t like you, we don’t like America, you’re all racists. That kind of stuff has been going in institutions of higher learning from sea to shining sea.
White people don’t treat black people as equals in this respect.
If you’re dealing with me, or any black person, and you let me do things to you or say things to you that you wouldn’t accept from a white guy, and you go off and say, well, his people were brought over here as slaves, you’re not treating that person as an equal. Over and over and over in this country, that happens. But the thing is it doesn’t work out in the interests of the so-called black masses. It works out in the interest of is a group of people who have developed a race hustle that intensifies white contempt for black people.
AF: The other side — glorifying Western civilization for its enlightenment ideals while forgetting the horrors, such as slavery and the Holocaust — is no less partial, or widespread, a view.
Crouch: The basic thing is this: Western civilization is superior to all other civilizations in the history of humankind. It’s not that it’s superior because white people are superior. It’s a superior vision of humanity, and everybody knows it when they came in contact with it. The slaughter of the Jews in Europe creates a humbling attitude toward civilization itself. It lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that literacy, a great intellectual tradition, Christianity, great painters, writers etc. — none of those things automatically will save you from sinking all the way down into absolute barbarism and xenophobia.
What’s so great about the Old Testament is its lack of overconfidence about the power of education, even of illumination. Thomas Mann, for instance, could hardly believe the grand German tradition was being flushed down a toilet in favor of a barbaric xenophobe, Adolph Hitler. But the Old Testament tells you over and over, even if God talks to this guy, that doesn’t mean that two days later, two years later, he might not do something really arrogant, stupid, and brutal.
If you maintain that understanding about human beings, you don’t become smug about your ethnic group, your anything.
AF: There are no saints in the Hebrew Bible, no perfect human being. Knowing God doesn’t stop you from being human. Adam is made by God, talks to him daily and still screws up.
Crouch: It’s like the denial in the Garden in of Gethsemane. Christ says, “Before the cock crows thrice, you will betray me.” And the apostles say, “Oh, no, I ain’t gonna.” And the guys appear with those swords and they say, well, I don’t know him.
That’s the central reason why the Christian tale has had such a compelling effect on people the world over; of all tales it’s the one that tells us the most about the difficulty of death. There’s only one person in the Bible who without doubt knows he’s going to heaven, and that’s Jesus. Everybody else hopes to get there. Jesus knows he’s going. But when it gets close, when he’s on the cross, he says, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me.”
AF: You call it the greatest blues line ever.
Crouch: Because it tells you more about what death is. Death is something that terrifies even the gods if they choose to take on human form.
It’s an ongoing mess. That’s what dealing with human beings is; that’s what it means. But this is a cynicism of engagement not a cynicism of defeat. We’re not going to go back to slavery in the United States. We’re not going back to women not having the vote or to sending children down into the mines. What I wanted to do in the book was to increase what I call democratic morale, the morale necessary to deal with the periodic and inevitable arrival of difficulties.
AF: The forces of xenophobia and racism are so powerful that it’s hard to to know what is stronger, those forces or universalism.
Crouch: Hands down xenophobia is the strongest. Because it’s the oldest, and it’s more natural to be paranoid about some living thing you don’t know, than to say, yeah, come on in. That’s how Odysseus assesses whether he is in a civilized situation. When, as a vulnerable stranger, he comes in contact with people and they say, oh, sit down and have some food, you’re a guest until proven otherwise, he knows those people are civilized. Of course, when he meets the Cyclops, and the Cyclops puts him on the menu, as far as he is concerned, that’s a barbarian.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.