Magazine flap rocks jazz circles
The termination of Stanley Crouch’s column in Jazz Times magazine has aroused a tempest in the normally placid waters of the jazz world, as well as a typically no-holds-barred response from the veteran New York-based critic and author
“I think that what they wanted to do was just get rid of me,” he said last week by phone.
Crouch, a highly visible commentator and McArthur Foundation “genius” award-winner whose strong opinions and sometimes blustery manner have frequently provoked controversy, was dismissed after the publication of “Putting the White Man in Charge” in Jazz Times’ April issue.
In the column, he wrote that white critics have elevated white jazz musicians “far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.”
According to Crouch, his termination notice arrived in the form of a brief e-mail from management that said: “Hi, Stanley -- We’ve decided to end your column. You’ve made your point many times about what jazz is and who can play it, and we feel the column has now run its course. It’s time for us to move on.”
Crouch, 57, said he is convinced that “Putting the White Man in Charge” was the direct cause for the termination of the column, even though Maryland-based Jazz Times, the nation’s most widely read jazz publication, with a circulation of more than 100,000, had promoted the essay as Crouch’s “most incendiary column yet.”
Jazz Times publisher Lee Mergner sees the situation differently. “We didn’t discontinue Crouch’s column because of what he wrote in ‘Putting the White Man in Charge,’ ” he said. “In fact, that wasn’t even his last column, which was actually about Eric Reed. We discontinued the column because it had become tedious.
“But I completely agree that African Americans, among others, are underrepresented in jazz journalism, as well as the media at large. Just because it didn’t work out with Crouch doesn’t mean we’ll stop reaching out to find new and underrepresented voices -- African Americans as well as women and Hispanics.”
Crouch -- who writes for the New York Daily News, serves as an artistic consultant at Lincoln Center and is writing a biography of Charlie Parker -- was offended by what he calls “the total unprofessionalism” of his dismissal.
“There was no attempt -- at least so far as I know -- to discuss what I was doing,” he said. “If they think you’re saying something too often, normally an editor tells you, ‘Well, I think you’ve said a lot about that subject. Let’s move on to something else.’ But I just got this e-mail and that was the end of the story. And my feeling was that there was no interest in having a logical conversation.”
Mergner said that Crouch has consistently drawn more reaction than any other writer at the magazine, and in this case the readers’ published responses to the column tended to agree with Mergner, citing what they described as Crouch’s “pseudo-intellectualism,” “long-winded tantrums” and “unfounded, wrongheaded, objectionable comments.” At least one letter offered support, describing Crouch as “one of the few critics who take the art form seriously enough to try and define what jazz is.”
Contentious differences of opinion are not new to the jazz world, but they usually have centered on the emergence of new musical ideas and attitudes, including bebop in the ‘40s, free jazz in the ‘60s and fusion in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
While Crouch’s column seemed aimed at yet another troubling difference, its real point, he feels, was broader, and equally concerned with musical perspective. “I think there was one thing in the column that sent them over the top,” he said. “It was the point that the establishment is not just against black people, it’s against anybody who doesn’t embrace the idea that jazz can mean anything, and that any kind of music can be called jazz.”
Crouch’s view, in effect, is that of a jazz establishment moving in lock-step to support one or another musician -- usually white -- in furtherance of the notion that jazz has no specific identity.
“Look,” he added, “there’s an ideological thing going on, and anybody who reads jazz magazines is well aware of it. And the reason I say there’s a white jazz critical establishment is because there’s no argument about it in the periodicals. In the ‘60s, you had people who loved Ornette [Coleman] and you had people who couldn’t stand him. But today there’s no argument. Nobody debates the elevation of anybody. You don’t ever read an article of the sort that people routinely wrote in the ‘60s criticizing Ornette or [John] Coltrane. And that’s what I’m talking about.”
Mergner is stoic about the situation, pointing out that a variety of writers -- including some as well known as Martin Williams and Ira Gitler -- have been discontinued at various times over the last 13 years, and most continue to contribute to the magazine.