Shatz, Adam, The Nation
Writing may be fighting, as Ishmael Reed famously opined, but most writers know the difference. There are, of course, some who blur the line. Take, for instance, Stanley Crouch, one of the great pugilists of American cultural criticism. More than a decade ago, Crouch lost his job at The Village Voice after knocking out a young writer half his size who had the nerve to suggest that rap was better than Coltrane. During another writerly brawl, he punched a jazz critic whom even pacifists considered a deserving target.
At 57, Crouch prefers to settle his differences peaceably, but his work shows no signs of mellowing. Writing in the April issue of JazzTimes under the headline "Putting the White Man in Charge," he accused white jazz critics of promoting white musicians over superior black ones, in order to "make themselves feel more comfortable about evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated." A provocative cocktail of gruff insight and rhetorical overkill, the column was 100-proof Crouch. His white editors apparently agreed, advertising the column as his "most incendiary yet."
As it turned out, it was too incendiary even for them: A few weeks later, the magazine sent Crouch a brief e-mail terminating his contract. Not that the decision had anything to do with The Column. As the magazine's editor, Christopher Porter, explained to the Voice, Crouch's contributions had grown "tedious, generally alternating betweeen vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies." It's nice to hear that standards are being upheld at JazzTimes, but don't expect them to be applied across the board--if they were, the magazine would have to suspend publication immediately.
Whether or not white jazz critics have a race problem, the ones at JazzTimes evidently do. The fact that Crouch is at the center of this farce--a tragedy it is not--contains delicious ironies. A black nationalist in his youth, he traded in his dashikis for a suit in the late 1970s, and made his career lambasting the excesses of Afrocentrism. He called Spike Lee a "fascist" (the two recently made up, thanks to Crouch's puff piece on Bamboozled) and excoriated Toni Morrison for writing "maudlin ideological commercials." If there was any black writer he defined himself against, it was Amiri Baraka, whom he still refers to sneeringly as LeRoi Jones, the name on his birth certificate. Indeed, Crouch's celebration of jazz as the anthemic expression of American democracy is in large measure an attack on Baraka's view of jazz as a coded form of racial protest. Yet Crouch's recent diatribe carried surprising echoes of Baraka's forty-year-old Downbeat essay "Jazz and the White Critic," down to the rhetorical use of the singular "White Man. …