Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Crouch Mummifies Coltrane and Davis

Image result for notes of a hanging judgeI came across Stanley Crouch's ten or so years ago when his collection of essays "Notes of a Hanging Judge" came out, and thought he had a wonderful fluidity as a writer. It was something else to see him link a number of subjects together and to extol the virtues of sustaining a black intellectual class, but what I enjoyed was his bomb throwing. He wasn't shy at attacking thug-rap, and certainly not reticent to announce that he thought the caliber of work being done by Cornell West or Henry Louis Gates was the least amount of scholarship for the highest paycheck. Crouch, though, is not Adorno, and soon enough his outrage becomes boilerplate nay saying. You know his remarks on a given subject before he even opens his mouth, and this article on Coltrane is typical of his column work; advance praise for early work, decry the waste, and grumble in depressed terms that the race is going to hell in a handbag because it walks away from its best cultural habits and traditions. Lately, America’s favorite conservative black bomb-thrower has been writing about jazz for Slate, most recently tucking John Coltrane and Miles Davis under his values-pronged umbrella. The problem with assessing Coltrane's career is the fact of his early death; pressed for time, he experimented relentlessly and furiously with his material, attacking it in performance from differing angles. The amount of studio work his band released during his brief life is astounding, and daunting to the novitiate. All told, the saxophonist's headlong dive into freer structures, more open-ended improvisations, more atonal and intense harmonics, would seem natural, and inevitable investigation for a man he was likely aware that he was playing music on borrowed time. It's a mistake to consider this late experimentation as a jump into the "abyss" since Crouch uses it as a way to close his discussion and wax poetic on the days when JC could swing like the rest of them.

I like a good amount of the late work and regard something like A Love Supreme to be on the greatest jazz pieces ever set to tape; it's an emotional blow out that no one has equaled since, and I've no problem placing this with other 20th century music, from Ives through Berg through Zappa and Cage, where stridency was a virtue and another kind of pleasure. So now we ask ourselves the questions we pose as well when considering Parker or Hendrix; what would the musicians have come up with if they'd lived ten or twenty years longer? There's never a satisfying answer, although it would seem to me that Coltrane would have reined in the screams and the skronk and concentrated on composition, finding still newer ways to expand beyond bebop's formalist rigour. My last guess would be that one would have to consider him, had he lived, to have grown beyond the comfortable limits of jazz as a definition and blazed a trail that would lead to a different kind of international music. My principle beef with Crouch is that he speaks of Coltrane's experimentation with free jazz structures and atonality as a total tragedy, and puts the period right there as if his "outside" work were a final, irreversible ruination and doom. I don't suppose I should be surprised at such a confidently Spenglarian view from the Bill Bennett of jazz, but it is goading that he sees the final work as an end, not wondering at all what might have evolved from all this restless experimentation. I think Coltrane would have merged with other musical cultures and gone on to create a new, international musical language. As such, I cherish all of 'Trane's phases and wonder how he might have added to an already crowded legacy of genius.

Crouch's approach to black history and culture has been to invest much of the same narrow argument in the way he talks about black artists--writers, musicians, composers, actors, educators. Like Wynton Marsalis, he will insist that the best of the culture contains the living example of virtues younger generations of blacks can learn from and are at risk of losing sight of. Needless to say, he is not a fan of hip-hop culture nor much else that post-50’s black musicians have done. He and Bennett are monotonous explicators on art and culture; neither seem as though they derive much pleasure from the things they write about, though one may observe that Crouch enjoys eating and Bennett is not above a gentlemanly bet, or many of them, as the moment moves him, Crouch obviously prefers music from an older, done daily, and that's fine, but that is a matter of taste, which he will bring forth as moral righteousness. He will tailor his discussions of Coltrane, Ellington, and Billie Holiday with generous hypotheses as to how the spirit of their work is a high essence of human virtue from which audiences and generations to come can learn civics lessons from. Crouch hangs back on the religiosity, but his agenda is clearly to form an African American canon that adheres to a culturally and politically conservative line, just as Bennett seeks to counteract and remedy, as he sees it, the preponderance of left-tilted discourses that view literature as a form of progressive social criticism. Lost on both of them is the beauty of art; they do not address the core issue as to why we make or are attracted to art; it makes us feel good. 

It's more a matter of a tendency that Crouch shares with Bennett, attempting to demonstrate what is creative, brilliant and influential in black American culture (in itself a worthwhile mission) and using this as evidence of morally conservative, "values-based" tradition that has always been there. It is, of course, foolish to hypothesize that there's a monolithic political consensus among black Americans and that they are no less diverse in views and experience than any other population group, but Crouch's agenda insists that who he writes about be treated as moral philosophers, and not artists, a habit that overlooks far too much. This is the reductionist tendency Crouch shares with Bennett.

I'm less inclined to expect a commentator to be expert in both older and newer forms, only that they are genuinely interested in developments, find something interesting to talk about, and find a convincing, hopefully, compelling way to link past and present trends. Crouch does not do this, by Eric Michael Dyson does rather brilliantly, even though he does tend to accelerate his way through his reference points--bebop, postmodern indeterminacy, hip-hip self-definition, outsider traditions--at speeds that hinder ready comprehension. Robert Christgau finds something to talk about with each new form that comes at him. The task of the critic is one that requires a personality that refuses to stay stuck in a particular area of expertise and regards their knowledge and assertions as views under constant construction. I could do without Christgau's star system and would prefer if he wrote more extended essays, but at least it is an attempt to keep abreast of the bands and artist that come his way. I even borrowed (read stole) the method when I had a record review column in my college paper; it was an efficient way of disposing of ten albums in a single piece, sending off tear-sheets to record promoters so they'd have something to show their higher-ups, and so continue my flow of albums. 

Of course, I sold the albums for beer and burger money, and there's not a record reviewer who was working then or now that doesn't do something similar with their excess swag. What I like about him is that he's been writing reviews since the late sixties for this magazine or that, and wasn't afraid to poke around, investigate and examine the margins of pop and rock music. As is, his discussions are more cogent and, dare I say, perceptive than those of his fellow Pantheon critic Greil Marcus, who approaches music not as humanly formed aesthetic expressions that any number of interested listeners may approach and discuss in useful ways, but rather as sacred texts, scrolls written in a dead language that only he can extract articulate wisdom from. For all his hermeneutic maneuvering, however, Marcus is himself barely coherent, and one is left with such books as "Lipstick Traces", a purported secret history of the 20th century where the efforts of Elvis Presley, Guy Debord, The Sex Pistols, Walter Benjamin and Cabaret Voltaire are all discussed in long born pauses and rolling cadences. Some of the writing Marcus does is beautiful as prose, but the point one awaits is not delivered. Christgau at least makes good on any thesis he advances by at least coming to a point, which makes his kind of wide referenced tastes an interesting methodology. 

I can't fault Stanley Crouch for his assessment of Miles Davis's style and accomplishments during the fifties and early sixties, but this critic rather conveniently avoids the reason for the trumpeter's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was the generation-spanning innovation, experimentation and refusal to look back, all of which influenced music outside and beyond the tidy definitions of jazz Crouch prefers. It's ironic that Crouch continues to write eulogies for great jazz musicians, giving eloquent voice to what he finds beautiful, holding in reserve the boilerplate regret that his artist of the week didn't remain faithful to a perceived moment of true voice. Crouch likes to write as if these artists have personally betrayed him, by either taking on new avenues or dying too young, and this allows him to live in a long-ago country of old men.

Obviously, he sees history as a series of self-contained compartments, each separate from one another with no fluidity between eras, no cross-fertilization of ideas between generations. While Crouch is obsessed with the days when black artists were emerging from the margins and appearing as matinee idols as well as dignified artists, what Miles Davis continued and improved on wasn't the legacy of Charlie Parker nor Clifford Brown, but rather of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, mixing and matching differing cultural approaches to electronics and coming up with sounds that hadn't yet graced the bandstand. Stance and persona matter less than Crouch gives it credit for; music accomplishment is everything, and the directions Davis made music at large, and not just jazz, turn to is a greater legacy than the nostalgically waxed moments Crouch will put forth.

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