Remembering Stanley Crouch: Mentor, Jazz Critic and Master Smack Talker

By Naomi Extra Sep 18, 2020

In Stanley Crouch’s brilliant 1972 poetry collection titled “Ain’t No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight,” Crouch wrote that he was “trying to put some sort of frame on a world that will slide out of any frame, that will not be locked down my way or anybody else’s.” 

He sought to realize this dream of a boundless intellectualism during his decades-long career—and his entire life. Stanley Crouch died in New York this Wednesday at age 74, and I remember him as kind and playfully protean. Over the course of his career, he was a poet, fiction writer, cultural critic and jazz drummer. Crouch’s world view was expansive, disruptive and often contested. 

Many of the poems included in “Ain’t No Ambulances”  speak to a desire for an untethered vision and racial justice. Written at a time when the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King was still a fresh taste on the nation’s tongue, the collection voices myriad concerns tied to Black life. In the poem “Too Late Blues,” he described a situation in which police (“the beasts with the badges”) deny care to an injured Black person. “But the beast manning the valiant Watts Station said/Ain’t No Ambulances For No Nigguhs Tonight.” 

Although Crouch’s politics shifted drastically after the early ’70s (after being involved with the Black Arts Movement, he came to strongly oppose it), several themes remain clear throughout his career: jazz, Black people and America.

Crouch’s contributions to the literary world and to jazz are undeniable. Less discussed is how he supported young writers. He mentored dozens of writers, many of them of color and a good deal of them women. On Twitter, writers ranging from Jelani Cobb to Young Jean Lee have shared how not only influential but kind Crouch was. “[He] looked out & helped me get established as a writer. He gave me advice, made intros. I’m indebted to both him and his work,” Cobb tweeted.

I, too, can attest to Crouch’s kindness. He mentored me at a time when I was so new to writing that I could barely muster the courage to use the title. He wrote me emails of encouragement, gave poignant advice and introduced me to some of the best pasta I’ve tasted in New York City. In one email he wrote me shortly after we first met in 2009, he closed with this line: “As Saul Bellow loved to say, we will have great fun ‘exchanging views.’” It is my belief that what some perceive as Crouch’s “combativeness” was rooted in a deep desire for meaningful engagement. Intellectual sparring was his love language.

I like to think of Crouch as a writer who perfected the art of shit talking. He was a literary shade master, perennial doer of the dozens, expert practitioner of all kinds of smack. 

No individual or ideology in Black culture was above the sharp bite of his critique. He notoriously dismissed the work of literary great Toni Morrison, referring to the writer as having "no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity." He found filmmaker Spike Lee irksome (to put it mildly), and he had a long-lasting disdain for pop music. In an interview on ThinkTank, he referred to the styles associated with rap and rock ‘n’ roll as “dumb,” “stupid” and “imbecilic.” A mischievous twinkle flashed across his eyes as the words left his mouth. I often wondered if Crouch believed his own words. Either way, it certainly looked like he was having fun disheveling and discombobulating his listeners. 

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, Crouch’s views on jazz were a prickly nuisance to some scholars within Black studies. He constructed a towering narrative of jazz music based on Black male genius that can be seen in his essay collection titled “Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz. Crouch wrote about “the remarkable men who make jazz.” Not a single woman jazz artist was featured in the collection. Where Crouch fell short, scholars like Farah Jasmine Griffin filled in the gaps. One of Griffin’s many interventions in the early 2000s was a book on Billie Holiday in which she exploded the great Black male genius trope in jazz.

All of this aside, as a writer and jazz lover myself, it’s hard to ignore the gaping hole that Crouch’s passing leaves in the world of jazz criticism. Amiri Baraka (who was one of Crouch’s several nemeses) wrote that the role of the critic is “to uncover the reality of the work, what it actually is and does, illuminating the creator and his conception together as part of a material world.” Crouch was one of the few remaining jazz critics who did this. When he wrote about jazz, he was also unapologetically writing race, culture and politics.

Today, there are few spaces for cultural criticism and even fewer Black jazz critics who occupy those spaces. Last spring when I visited a large bookstore in San Francisco with a handsomely sized jazz section, few books written by Black writers lined the shelves. 

During his lifetime, Crouch was well aware of the narrow space for Black jazz critics on media platforms like “DownBeat” and “JazzTimes.” “‘JazzTimes’ had no real interest in providing space to a voice very different from the collective mind of the jazz establishment,” he wrote. In another essay, 2003’s “Putting the White Man in Charge,” he called out the problematic dominance of white musicians and critics in jazz (and Crouch alleged the piece got him fired from “JazzTimes”).

Music critic Ann Powers articulated the problem that persists with so much jazz writing today another way. “Biographies of musicians tend to be either hagiographic or hyper-factual, either shoring up the myths that celebrity produces or burying insight beneath a pile of mundane details,” she wrote. 

Writers like Stanley Crouch reshaped the flatness of jazz criticism into something vibrant and capacious in its reach and opinions. But now that he has left us, the question looms: What will become of the Black jazz critic? 

Naomi Extra is an award-winning poet, writer and doctoral candidate in American studies at Rutgers University, Newark.