During and after my years as an editor at the American Enterprise magazine, I had the pleasure to work with the great Stanley Crouch, who died last week at 74 but still has much to teach us about how to understand race in America, especially the flaws of radical black separatists now being brought back into vogue by leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Most famous as a music critic and artistic partner of jazz great Wynton Marsalis—Stanley wrote the notes to every album of Marsalis from his debut disk on, and the two men ran Jazz at the Philharmonic for decades—Stanley was also a novelist, a poet, a social critic, a newspaper columnist, and more. He preached that America was a land of mulattoes that improvised life as beautifully as Marsalis or Ellington or Charlie Parker improvised music, and he himself embodied that kind of absolutely individual, never predictable cocktail that encompassed the bitter and the sweet.
That’s why his highest compliment for something was that it was real blues—an art form that is improvised, that never forgets the hard sorrows of life, and yet leaps joyfully into the majesty of triumph over sadness. Always mysterious mixtures, never monochromatic sameness and dullness.
No wonder he had no use for racists on the left or right. Oh, his story was complicated: He graduated from high school the year before the Civil Rights Act passed, and he knew real ugliness from police and others. He even fell into the Black Power movement for a time. He also tried to make it as an avant-garde jazz drummer in his youth.
But as he aged, he turned on both of those influences, insisting that the racial separatism of Black Power and the puerile shrieks of newfangled jazz betrayed the greatness of blacks, jazz, and America. Here’s how he came to look on it, as he told me in a 1997 interview:
One of the things that characterizes people in the arts, particularly jazz, is they’re not really impressed with the adolescents. If they have the choice of hanging around with people that are 15 or 16 and actually hanging with some men, they’re going to be with some men. My father told me one day, “Boy, I been your age. You ain’t been mine.”
So far from being an Uncle Tom, proud Stanley thought jazz was an arena that showed how magnificent black culture could be, and he was fired as a critic at JazzTimes after he wrote a column entitled, “Putting the White Man in Charge,” in which he criticized white critics for trying to make themselves feel better by overrating white performers.
On the other hand, he complained to the New York Times that too many race debates were “simple-minded and overly influenced by the ideas of determinism—if you’re poor, you’re going to act a certain way.” He much preferred his pre–Civil Rights school teachers:
These people were on a mission. They had a perfect philosophy: You will learn this. If you came in there and said, “I’m from a dysfunctional family and a single-parent household,” they would say, “Boy, I’m going to ask you again, What is 8 times 8?”
Though a lover of tradition in jazz and education, Stanley was no down-the-line conservative, much less Republican. He was simply a brilliant, utterly uncowed American original who loved his country and its messy, bluesy traditions. If you are a young person of any race, gender expression, or class, you should listen to him before allowing a racial separatist of any kind to poison your mind.
Take these lines from a 1995 essay he wrote for my magazine. They fit perfectly our situation this afternoon, just as a Louis Armstrong solo of 1935 is just as powerful today. Let these Stanley riffs give you a taste of what his improvisational prose can convey—then read the whole thing:
Absorbing the influences of Europeans, Indians, Negroes, Mexicans, Chinese and others into our national corpus has put everything to a test—our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our local laws and customs. Yet we have succeeded.
But now this hard and endless feat is threatened. For in our shrill, cloudy contemporary era, a polluted and separatist version of pluralism usually referred to as multiculturalism has received our naïve embrace . . . under the guise of “inclusion,” we must suffer through a politics of resentment, one based on ethnic and gender franchises instead of the former goal of “a fair chance.”
Our politics of resentment has much in common with the adolescent passions of popular culture, where all authority is flawed Grand Canyon deep . . . this political vision makes use of very sophisticated technology to reduce all complexity to the blunt and the simple-minded. . . . The purveyor of bitterness and envy draped in political rhetoric calls upon statistics, historical guilt, and elaborate theory to shift the complex realities of human engagement into a melodrama of good versus evil as inaccurate as the lollipop trees drawn by children.
The politics of resentment is based most deeply on a denial of individual responsibility. . . . This posturing amounts to nothing more than frying the rotten fish of self-pity and blame on a griddle made hot by opportunism and greased with scoops from the bottomless Crisco can of white guilt.