Crouch, Stanley 1945—
Stanley Crouch 1945—
Writer, social critic
“I usually write something I think is true,” Stanley Crouch insisted to New York Times contributor Lynda Richardson,” and if in the process it’s provocative, it’s too bad. “Crouch’s capacity to provoke his readers is virtually unparalleled in modern American letters. Yet despite his having pilloried many cherished ideas and figures of black culture—in a manner frequently described as vindictive—Crouch is no neo-conservative black writer cosy-ing up to a right-wing audience. Rather, he has followed his own idiosyncratic muse; to say that he operates with disregard for sacred cows of any kind is to understate the case. Contempt for unquestioned orthodoxies, in fact, is one of the few consistent aspects of his work.
In countless essays, a novel, and numerous other forums, Crouch has applied a jazz fanatic’s exacting standards to popular culture and politics and found them largely wanting. At the core of his work is a desire to break down cultural barriers and make good on the promise of America’s diversity. Nation critic Gene Seymour, reviewing Crouch’s 1990 essay collection Notes of a Hanging Judge* found in its pages “a search for common ground and a reaffirmation of the social contract,” adding that “like any good jazz player, Crouch never repeats himself or does the predictable.”
For Crouch—and this view has earned him some formidable enemies—the civil rights movement of the 1960s gathered its moral impetus from a far-seeing humanism that was betrayed by the black nationalism that replaced it. The goal of the earlier movement was to sweep away racist institutions so that American blacks could contribute their multifaceted talents to their country unhindered, he has noted; black nationalism, meanwhile,” helped send not only black America but this nation itself into an intellectual tailspin on the subjects of race, of culture, of heritage,” reads an essay quoted by Richardson in the New York Times. “Where there was not outright foolishness, there was a mongering of the maudlin and a base opportunism.”
It is this repudiation of black militant politics—which he briefly endorsed during the late 1960s—and its cultural offspring in music and literature that has made Crouch the target of the most vociferous attacks he has weathered.
At a Glance …
Worked for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, c. 1964; member of Watts Repertory Theatre Company, 1965-67; Pitzer College, poet-in-residence, beginning 1968, became member of faculty of Black Studies Center; instructor in English, Pomona College, until 1975; staff writer, Village Voice, New York City, 1975-80; published essay collection Notes of a Hanging judge, 1990; co-coordinator, Jazz at Lincoln Center series; published second essay collection, The American Skin Came, 1995.
Awards : Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, 1990; MacArthur Foundation “genius grant/1991.
Addresses : Home—New York, NY. Agent—Ceorges Borchardt Agency, 136 East 57th St, New York, NY 10022.
To esteemed critic bell hooks, who has herself felt the sting of Crouch’s poisoned pen, he “apes a peculiar hybrid of jungle-bunny masculinity and new-right Fascism. He has seen that it pays off when you kiss the ass of white supremacy.” Crouch’s pugilistic nature extends to his personal comportment, though whether his physical blows smart more than his scathing prose is perhaps worthy of an essay in itself. “I have a wild side to my personality,” he averred to Richardson. “I’m not always the Cub Scout leader I’d like most adults to be, sometimes in ways that are surprising to [me].”
Crouch was born in 1945 in Los Angeles; his father, James, was in jail on a drug charge when Stanley entered the world, according to several sources. Stanley’s mother, Emma Bea, worked an exhausting schedule as a maid to support him and his siblings; when she wasn’t working, she was exposing her children to culture as best she could. Crouch described her to Robert C. Boynton of the New Yorker as “Little Miss Perfect Lower Class,” explaining,” She was an aristocrat in that strange American way that has nothing to do with money.”
Stanley suffered from asthma and was often forced to stay indoors as a result; he turned his confinement to his advantage by reading constantly. Apart from literature—he had familiarized himself with some of the greatest American writers before he finished high school—his other grand passion was jazz. Soon, like any good critic-to-be, he had amassed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of that subject as well.
Crouch spent his first few years after graduating from high school in an unfocused course of study at two junior colleges. His interest in literature broadened to include drama and poetry, and the riots that devastated the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles in 1965 inspired him to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the civil rights movement’sstaunchestorganizations. Bythelate 1960s, however, impatience with the slow pace of progress had contributed to the growth of black militancy.
Crouch, too, was briefly swept up in the fervor. “I was very impressed by the nationalist business for a while,” he reflected to the Wall Street Journal’s Helen Dudar. “It had a certain appeal that stuff always has—it simplified the world. And all the ambiguities of human conduct don’t have to be addressed. If you have two people in a store and one is selling superiority while the other is selling equality, the person selling superiority is going to have a line around the block. That is the appeal of Black Nationalism: it is saying that black people are superior and white people are inferior.”
Around that time Crouch met and became involved with Jayne Cortez, a prominent poet who ran Studio Watts, a theater group that had captured his imagination. Joining the group was pivotal for Crouch, but Cortez’s example was even more so: “I’d never met anyone with that kind of aesthetic commitment,” he noted to New Yorker writer Boynton,” who’d drawn a line in the dirt and said, ‘I am an artist.’”
Crouch’s poetry began to gain some notice, fusing urgent political messages, jazz rhapsodies, and literary allusions. Yet during a poetry workshop he’d helped organize in 1967, he told Boynton, he had an experience that could be called “critical” in more ways than one. Watching a white workshop leader soft-pedal his critique of a black participant’s poem—one that Crouch thought simply aBorninable—was “one of the pivotal moments of my life, because I saw how even a guy with the best intentions could be incredibly paternalistic and encourage third-rate work.” The incident inspired the tactless honesty that has been the hallmark of Crouch’s critical writing ever since.
1968 saw Crouch join the faculty of Pitzer College, part of California’s Claremont College group, as poet-in-residence. He later moved to the faculty of the Black Studies Center, then gained a position in Pomona College’s English department. Though he had not earned a degree himself, Crouch’s prodigious background in all varieties of literature allowed him to campaign among the faculty and impress each one. “I always knew something about the subject at hand that they hadn’t ever heard before,” he related to Boynton. During the 1970s, after making a substantial mark as an instructor and dramatist at Claremont, Crouch decided to move to New York. Thanks to a jazz critic friend, he began working for the Village Voice, one of nation’s premiere counter-cultural publications and a bible of the East Coast arts scene.
Crouch’s tenure at the Voice hardly transformed him into a doctrinaire leftist, however. Indeed, he became, if anything, more unpredictable in his work and often seemed dedicated to puncturing the most revered black figures on the cultural landscape. Though originally focused on jazz—and during the 1980s his stylistic allegiances shifted from avant-garde to traditional practitioners of this music—Crouch was soon firing broadsides at literature, film, and virtually everything else. He seemed to reserve a special venom for black nationalism and its ideological cousins; complaining, in a piece cited by Wall Street Journal contributor Dudar, about “a weak-kneed, crybaby bitching vision of the world in which, if everything is not working perfectly for you all the time, you have been betrayed by society.”
Crouch created a unique body of resentment by trashing or severely criticizing work by novelist Toni Morrison, filmmaker Spike Lee, and others who had received virtually unanimous praise elsewhere. New Yorker contributor Boynton’s article cites a hair-raising litany of Crouchian opinion—the writer took a swipe at martyred activist Malcolm X, called bell hooks a “terrier with attitude,” dubbed Afrocentrism a “hustle,” and called “gangsta” rappers Uncle Toms.
But Crouch’s bellicosity wasn’t restricted to the page; many of his colleagues complained that he baited them and clearly desired confrontation. Most notably, an argument with Voice music critic Harry Allen—a partisan of rap, which Crouch has long publicly disdained— turned into an all-out f istfight. Crouch was subsequently fired from the publication, though he was later re-hired in a free-lance capacity. A former colleague told Boynton that the magazine underwent “a lot of ridiculous hand-wringing, but the fact is that Stanley is just a bully—a mean guy with a violent streak and a dumb schoolyard attitude.”
Others at the Voice felt that the firing was an overreac-tion and that Crouch’s temper was largely manifested in posturing. What’s more, editor Doug Simmons recalled to Boynton, Crouch often wanted people to stand up to him. “His most endearing moment,” Simmons related,” was when he gave me an awful piece—which was unusual—and I told him it sucked. He started to get angry and said ‘What do you mean, it sucks?’ And I said, ‘Look, it’s just no good and we won’t print it.’ He thought for a minute and said, ‘You know, you’re right, it does suck.’ And he rewrote it. He was just happy to have someone engage him.”
Crouch was allegedly devastated and remorseful after his firing, but he later claimed to have been liberated by it. He certainly didn’t fall into inactivity. 1990 saw the publication of a collection of his pieces, Notes of a Hanging Judge; the following year he was given a $30,000 Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award. Among several ongoing projects that have engaged him since are a lengthy and agonizingly well-researched biography of jazz giant Charlie Parker and a novel called First Snow in Kokomo that he has been threatening to publish for several years. At the National Book Awards in 1990 he was able to rub elbows with two of his literary idols, novelists Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. In 1993 Crouch won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” of $296,000.
As a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Crouch has helped authorize the new jazz orthodoxy. To the dismay of avant-garde fans, he lent his approval to the neo-traditionalism of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and other young classicists; to Boynton he remarked,” The real problem with the avant-garde is that many of them simply can’t play.” Nonetheless, it was Crouch who had taken the young Marsalis under his wing and taught him an appreciation not only for jazz pioneers like Duke Ellington but also for maverick figures like saxophonist Omette Coleman.
As a social critic, Crouch has reserved much of his ammunition for those elements of popular culture that engage in what he called “the panting exploitation of our worst inclinations” in a brief essay included in a Time roundtable. Among these he numbered the “slut chic” of singer/actress Madonna, the anti-Semitism and misogyny of much rap music and black nationalist rhetoric, the “shock of gore” of modern action films, and the “calculated” rebellion of rock stars. “I do not believe censorship is the answer,” he concluded. “But I have no doubt good taste and responsibility will not limit the entertainment industry’s ability to provide mature work that attacks our corruption, challenges our paranoia and pulls the covers off the shortcomings that Balkanize [segregate] us.” And it is Crouch’s unceasing assault on this “Balkanization” that redeems much of his work for even leftist critics. Though many of Crouch’s keenest observations are offset by “bilious sneering,” Seymour noted in his Nation review of Hanging Judge that Crouch is “nobody’s kneejerker,” nor is he “a Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”
Still, it is Crouch’s most inflammatory writing that has gained him the most attention, and this seems unlikely to change. “When I see black people going through this shit today about the importance of being African-Americans, I know they’re still lost,” he asserted to Boynton. “They’re constantly talking about what some mysterious ‘they’ are trying to do to some unified ‘us.’” Heedless of the rancor he inspires among many intellectuals—the famed poet Amiri Baraka deemed him “a backward, asinine person” in a very brief phone conversation with Boynton—Crouch claims that ordinary people support him. “I’ve been applauded by black bus drivers, subway drivers, mechanics, various people who have come up to me and said ‘I’m sure glad somebody issayingit,’” he told Richardson. “That’s enough for me. I don’t care what some trickle-down Negro Marxist says. That means nothing to me. And I don’t care what some confused group of what a friend calls ‘lumpen bourgeoisie middle-class black folks who want to be street’ say.” Though he’s unlikely to endear himself to the black or leftist establishments anytime soon, Crouch remains one of the most stubbornly independent critics of our culture working in any medium.
Nation, May 21, 1990, pp. 710-11.
New Yorker, November 6, 1995, pp. 95-115.
New York Times, August 29, 1993, section 4, p. 7.
Time, June 12, 1995, p. 35.
Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1991, p. A5.
December 14, 1945
Critic and essayist Stanley Crouch was born in Los Angeles, where he was raised by his mother, Emma Bea Crouch, a domestic. During his boyhood he became fascinated by jazz music. In 1965, after attending school and junior college in Los Angeles, he was inspired by the Watts riot to become involved in the Black Power and black arts movements, and he joined the Watts Repertory Theatre Company as an actor and writer. In 1968 Crouch was hired by California's Claremont College as an instructor, and he later became the first full-time faculty member of the Black Studies Center.
By 1975 Crouch left Claremont and moved to New York. Disenchanted with black nationalism, he became a disciple of writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who celebrated the centrality of blacks in a pluralistic American culture. He joined the staff of the weekly Village Voice as a jazz and cultural critic, where he remained until 1989. At the Voice Crouch became controversial for his forthright critiques of modern jazz, African-American literature, and other subjects. Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), a collection of his Voice columns, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
During the 1990s Crouch worked as a freelance scholar and essayist and functioned as an advisor to the Lincoln Center Jazz Program. In 1993, Crouch won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $296,000. He joined the New York Daily News as a columnist in 1995. Always In Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, a collection comprised mostly of his Daily News columns, was published in 1998.
Crouch was further honored as the 2002–2003 Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University. His collection The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity was published in 2004.
Crouch, Stanley. Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives. New York: Pantheon, 1998.
Crouch, Stanley. The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004.
Crouch, Stanley, and Playthell Benjamin. Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002.
greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
CROUCH, Stanley. American, b. 1945. Genres: Poetry, Race relations, Essays. Career: Playwright and actor under Jayne Cortez, 1965-67; drummer with pianist Raymond King, 1966; drummer and bandleader with groups including Quartet and Black Music Infinity, 1967-; Claremont College, Claremont, CA, instructor in drama, literature, and jazz history, 1969-75. Columnist for Los Angeles Free Press, The Cricket, and SoHo Weekly News; Village Voice, jazz critic; New Republic, contributing editor, 1990-; writer. Publications: Ain't No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight (poems), 1972; Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989, 1990; The All-American Skin Game, 1995; Always in Pursuit; Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997, 1998; Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing, 2000. Works represented in anthologies. Contributor to periodicals. Composer of musical pieces. Address: c/o Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Jazz Program, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023-6548, U.S.A.
Crouch, Stanley , jazz author, drummer; b. Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 14, 1945. Early in his career, he was associated with David Murray and Arthur Blythe, recording a demo tape with them in 1973 that was never issued. He gave up drums, moved to N.Y, and has since become one of the best-known jazz critics, as well as a provocative commentator on race and politics. He also has been an active mentor to Wynton Marsalis.