Interview with Stanley Crouch

(Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted Febraury 2007.)

Context:  Richard Boynton's 1995 New Yorker profile,  David Adler's review of Considering Genius.

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EI:  I'm going to begin by giving you a copy of this Barry Harris record you said you didn't have, Magnificent! It's from 1969 with Ron Carter and Leroy Williams... let's listen to a song together.

SC:  Ok; great. Perfect. 

EI:  Try track two, Barry's own tune, "You Sweet and Fancy Lady."

[Music plays. Here's an excerpt that runs from the bridge of the melody through about the first 16 bars of soloing.]

You Sweet and Fancy Lady

[After we're done listening to the whole track, the interview commences.]

SC:  Wow!

EI:  Not bad, huh?

SC:  Not at all! What fascinates me there is how Leroy Williams' tuning (and the sound he gets from his brushes and sticks and from each of his drums) is perfect for bebop… he really understands how the drums are supposed to sound in that kind of music. 

EI:  I think it was Williams' first record date.

SC:  The other thing I'm thinking about is Ron Carter. Whenever I hear him in this kind of situation, he reminds me of Ray Brown. 

EI:  Mm-hmm…?

SC:  The attack, the way he uses triplets… now, Ron is supposed to be coming from Paul Chambers, which he is, but there is something about Ray Brown that gets left out of the discussion in terms of the lineage of the bass. 

EI:  You know, I wouldn't have thought of that myself, but I hear what you mean, especially in terms of trio playing – like Ron here is closer to Ray's records with Oscar Peterson than P.C.'s with Wynton Kelly.

SC:  I was talking with Ralph Lalama one night about how Ray Brown plays a phrase on Sonny Rollins' record, Way Out West, that people think is a Ron Carter phrase, but is actually a Ray Brown phrase. Of course, if we could put it on Ray now, he would probably tell us he got it from some other earlier guy!

I didn't understand why the bass evolved into the jazz band to replace the tuba until I heard a concert at Carnegie Hall many years ago where they were playing the music of James Reese Europe. I had read in Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans about how Europe would have these "banjo choirs" with many banjos etc… I always thought "for WHAT? Why all those banjos?" But when I heard it in person, I could see that he had all of those banjos because he wanted the chords to move… he wanted a string instrument to deliver the chords in a percussive way. He had violins too, playing pizzicato rhythm. The tuba can do a lot of things, but it can't do that – but the string bass can. When the bass comes into the band is when jazz musicians realized there was a way to have a real relationship between harmonic motion and percussion beyond the piano. It appears first in the banjo, and moves downward into the bass. The bass always delivers the harmony with that percussive sound. One of the great things about Ron Carter was that he sustained that relationship with all the fresh things he brought to bass. He was never tempted to give up the low end of the bass and the power it could bring to a band… always giving us that percussive feeling. 

EI:  This makes me think of Jimmy with Elvin, of course.

SC: No doubt. I think that John Coltrane heard that sound that he wanted with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones for the first time on that Sonny Rollins record with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Coltrane wasn't able to get there for a number of years, but Coltrane always got there in the end. 

EI:  Of course, Coltrane played with Wilbur with Monk. He even talks about that in an interview. The way that Wilbur related to the ensemble, and then the way Jimmy related to the ensemble – there is an important thread there, for sure. 

SC:  As we know, Monk would leave Coltrane out there with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware for a long time so that Coltrane could find that out. That may have been the first time that Coltrane learned how much could be achieved with no more than bass and drum accompaniment, though I don’t know if he always filled up that area of sound as well as Sonny Rollins did…

I know Ron Carter admires Paul Chambers above all other players. What Chambers does with Miles Davis at the Blackhawk is one of the supreme examples of melodic counterpoint while delivering the chords and swinging the time. Chambers is also extraordinary on the Stockholm concert with Davis and Coltrane – like on "So What." Amazing.

EI:  There is no doubt that Ron comes from P.C., and on that Blackhawk record there are moments, like on that uptempo version of "Walkin'," where P.C. and Jimmy Cobb sound quite a bit like how Ron and Tony Williams would sound a year or two later.

Well, Stanley, this is great. I thought I would play you a song that I thought was good jazz and start talking with you to learn a few things, and that is exactly what has happened. It's very telling that I played a piano trio record and that all we have done is spent ten minutes on the drums and bass. Most people would have spent that time on Barry Harris, and would get to Leroy Williams some rainy day… maybe! Instead, your first reaction was about Leroy, and then to talk about the lineage of Ron Carter. 

That is something I have always responded to in your writing, from your first pieces (I'm thinking of your liner notes to Old and New Dreams from 1976) to now:  you always give each member of the ensemble a hearing. That is true throughout this collection of essays, Considering Genius. I like it that you not only praise the famous sidemen, but get critical if there is something not happening, like when you admire Ben Webster for swinging so hard late in life with lame-duck European rhythm sections or call out that mediocre studio drummer on the soundtrack to the movie Bird. If there is one thing I could say to the history of jazz criticism, it would be this:  there is always some inherent democracy on the bandstand, and that all the energies are important. Pay attention to everybody, please!

SC:  Yeah! Well, the thing is, everybody is up there to play, and everybody has to make the right decisions. What I consider "the groove" is when everybody makes the right decision. 

I first came into this music with Duke Ellington of the era that they now call "The Blanton-Webster band." There has been an awful lot of writing about this period of Duke (the early nineteen-forties), usually with the claim that it is his greatest band. That's garbage to me. That was one of the greatest bands of all time, but I daresay the band of Such Sweet Thunder was superior to that one. The band of "The Queens Suite" is also superior. And the band of Anatomy of a Murder – forget it!

EI:  Right, the later bands were even more swinging, no doubt. 

SC:  One of the things I am proudest of in Considering Genius is the long essay on Duke, which tries to straighten out a lot of misconceptions about the range and complexity of Duke Ellington’s work. One thing I point out is that someone who plays the same thing in 1960 that he played in 1940 is going to know how to play it that much better – if he has maintained his health and has no physical problems that limit his facility. This is true of almost every player in jazz. That's what bothers me about jazz criticism, that it doesn't acknowledge that type of maturation, which is a given in all of the other arts (except something like ballet where youth is so important to the quality of execution). Jazz often suffers from the car-dealership mentality, which is:  "Well, we've got the new model this year! We've got to sell this one." That works ok for cars, but it doesn't work as well for the arts. It may even pressure the artist to try to keep coming up with new models. If you are an artist with the kind of imagination that requires you to constantly transform yourself, that's one thing. That's fine. But if the artist feels pressure from the critical community or a record label to change, then that is an unnecessary intrusion. 

Mingus was one of the guys who needed to constantly reinvent himself – or at least develop an approach that allowed him to play all of jazz as he had come to know it from the range of bandstands on which he worked, which included Armstrong, Hampton, Ellington, Parker, Powell, and Monk. I am still fascinated by all the different ways he and Dannie Richmond came up with to play time. I had never heard before – and have rarely heard since – a bassist and a drummer who could so dramatically affect the direction and intensity of the music. 

Intensity isn't always volume, either. Billy Higgins showed me that. He would almost always play at the same volume, but when the band would get louder, he would just start swinging harder. I realized this at the Vanguard one night. I called him in L.A. the next week to tell him I had figured this out, and he said, "You're exactly right! Swing IS energy. If you can swing harder, that's all you have to do to raise the intensity. You don't have to hit anything harder, just dig into that groove deeper."

EI:  One of the great things about your writing on jazz is exactly what you are doing now:  quoting the musicians extensively. I don't think there is an essay in this book about a major figure that isn't peppered with quotes by their peers. It's very much to your credit that even if you are building a detailed edifice of critical thought on say, Dizzy Gillespie, you stop to quote Jimmy Heath or whoever. 

SC:  As you very well know, Ethan, the community of the practitioners should have a big part in defining the importance of a given player. 

I've learned a tremendous amount about the music by listening to musicians talk about it. I also think that it is important to bring into the arena the interplay between musicians off the bandstand... their philosophical attitudes… and to make it clear to the reader how seriously musicians take interest in what other musicians are doing. They may not want to play like that, but they listen to it in a serious way. 

You learn about someone like Max Roach not just from the listening to the records but from the many, many stories musicians tell about him. The stories about the major figures of the music indicate three things:  their personality, their imagination, and their physical ability (just their body, not as a player). Like Charlie Parker:  he came from a mysterious part of the gene pool that meant he could do almost anything that called for physical precision – he could pitch, he could throw, his first wife says he was a great dancer, and even late in his life when he was overweight he could assume very difficult yoga positions! Symphony Sid told me that he talked to guys who said that Bird could have been a world-class golfer. When Sid saw Bird with golf clubs, he assumed that Bird had stolen them to sell for dope. But then he saw three guys at the club that night who said they had played golf that day with Bird in New Jersey, and that Bird was an absolute natural.

EI:  Bird played golf?

SC:  Yeah. 

EI:  Well, that must be in the second volume of your Charlie Parker biography, because you let me preview the first volume and there wasn't anything about golf.

SC:  That's right, it will be in the second volume. 

EI:  Well, the first volume – which comes out in the fall, right? – is remarkable. The amount of oral history you preserve in there is wonderful. All that information from people like Rebecca Parker, Gene Ramey, and Jay McShann – no one but you could have gotten these people to open up like that, Stanley, I am sure of it. It reminds me of Notes and Tones by Art Taylor, which is one of the few other examples of a brother interviewing black jazz musicians. I think the fact that you are a black writer really means something in the jazz environment – or at least for an older generation, it was really important.

SC:  Yeah, it was. But that is primarily because black academics, including so many of the neon ethnics of black studies, have never shown any serious interest in jazz. In Considering Genius, I go on to say that if they had been serious about it, we would have an extensive circuit through American colleges that would be an alternative to the European circuit that so many musicians depend on to make a living.

EI:  A large group of talented black academics taking on jazz! Good lord – the history of this music would be written differently, for sure. But at least we have you and a couple of others. Taylor gets incredible stuff out of Art Blakey, Betty Carter, or Dizzy in Notes and Tones – stuff that some white critic would never have gotten, period. The same applies to you, especially in the Charlie Parker book with people like Gene Ramey, but also in Considering Genius.

One thing that your more vociferous critics don't realize is how much respect you get from the older players, both black and white. Paul Motian digs you, for example, and I've seen Al Foster treat you like royalty. I was really blown away the night we saw Bobby Hutcherson leading a quartet. The band was sounding only ok, but then you went up and said hi to Hutcherson during a piano solo. I must admit, that is not my style:  when you went up to the stand I was thinking, "What the fuck is Stanley doing going up to the bandstand while they are playing? That is rude!" But I bit my tongue when Bobby was clearly so pleased to see you, and then started playing like he really meant it: his next solo was easily the most inspired of the set. Obviously, since he knew Stanley Crouch was in the house, he realized he had better start playing!

There's no doubt that you have hung with the real cats for a long time, and that they respect you for trying to parse the music. They know how dedicated you are, that you would lay down your life for jazz.

SC:  [laughs] Well, that's true, I would.

You remind me of a story Reggie Workman told at the Jazz Museum in Harlem about playing with Art Blakey. This was after he left John Coltrane. Blakey had more of a show than Coltrane, and it was largely the same every night, with Blakey playing the same breaks and so on. So Reggie got to point where he thought he knew was it was, that he could sleepwalk through the gig. But one night, Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie came in, and Art Blakey saw them. Blakey then commenced playing on a level Reggie had no idea Blakey was capable of. Actually, when Reggie was telling this story, he started crying, since the memory of this thrilling experience – of Blakey's relationship to the music and to those two other men – was so moving. 

(McCoy Tyner also told me of a night playing with Blakey, where Blakey did something behind the drums that shook the whole stage. And McCoy had already played with Coltrane and Elvin, but only Blakey – somehow – shook the whole stage.)

I like that bit in that interview with Billy Hart you did where Hart keeps asking Higgins how he got it together and Higgins keeps insisting he got it all from Blackwell. You should have heard the night Ed Blackwell came into Bradley's and sat behind Billy Higgins while he was playing with Hank Jones and Ray Drummond. We all know that Higgins could play more stuff than he usually did, but that night – wow!

I've seen so many musicians play so great on so many nights. I know the difference between the sound of someone in person and the recorded sound of an engineer. Coltrane's tone was much darker and thicker than the sound on those Impulse! records engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. But maybe Van Gelder chose that sound because he could hear that Coltrane was an alto player first before switching to tenor. I think the sound Coltrane was looking for came from the one you hear Charlie Parker using on "What's New," which was recorded in performance at a dance and released on Bird at Saint Nick's.

In Considering Genius, it's always an attempt to deliver the player to the reader, so that the reader realizes that this is a special person. One way I learned to do it was from studying Whitney Balliett and LeRoi Jones, each of whom invented a style that was celebratory in its very eloquence. 

EI:  Let me quote from the prologue:

Part of my belief in the power of words came through having read about Holiday and the various moods she created when singing. Those descriptions allowed me to know, without a doubt, when I first heard her on the radio, "that must be Billie Holiday." As the disc jockey announced her name I think I realized then that if a writer was good enough, he could prepare a listener to recognize the sound of an artist on first hearing. That might apply to certain singers but I don't really believe that is true of instrumentalists. Even so, it always remains a goal. 

That's a classic Crouch paragraph.

You take this mission seriously, and there are many passages in your articles on Duke, Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, and others – like that extremely influential Village Voice article on Louis Armstrong – where you give a novice reader a sense of what the musicians are like to listen to, and the experienced listener a sense of what the musicians themselves were thinking about.

Most of Considering Genius I have read before, in your other collections or scattered about in magazines, but there's some new stuff, too. I got very excited about the long prologue, "Jazz Me Blues." It is your "autobiography with jazz," which began when you were born in Los Angeles in 1945.

SC:  Right. I wanted to lay out my intellectual development and tell how I came to love jazz. There was so much excitement and so much disappointment, but there was always the possibility of discovery. What makes me different from a lot of the guys who write about jazz or who teach in the academy is that I have known many different kinds of people, from semi-literate poor people all the way over to supremely sophisticated men like Ralph Ellison, Charles Johnson, and Saul Bellow. I have been around the block, I have been down in the basement, I have looked out on the world from the parapets of penthouses, and every place that I have been and have come to know is far more often dominated by the moods and wishes of people than by stereotypes. My experience has led me to distrust academics and to feel equal contempt for lames who try to present themselves as hip because they believe that they are up to date with the latest European take on the arts. They need to get out there into life and see what it will do to their ideas. They need to discover what Ornette Coleman calls “the human reason.” But at the same time, as I point out in "Jazz Me Blues," the survival of jazz has resulted because so many white people, hip or lame, have supported the music, which points up, once again – as I go on to say – the ongoing failure of black studies when it comes to the arts, which is a conclusion no else has ever made about black studies and jazz. Being out here for a while will teach you all you need to know. 

EI:  You've changed your mind on things over the years, and sometimes it has been confusing. There were things I didn't understand about your development until reading "Jazz Me Blues." For example, I knew of your dislike for LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. However, your aggressive dismissal of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka always struck me as something like if I were to aggressively dismiss Paul Bley – my true forebear! Jones was a big influence on you.

SC:  Yes, he was, and I go into that in the book. 

EI:  Exactly, and then you explain step by step how that relationship soured. It was quite revelatory.

SC:  Well, I think he lost his mind when he became super-black nationalist, anti-white, and so forth. He has really been a detrimental influence, so much so that if you make any criticism of something done by white people for what are apparently white reasons, most white people seem to think you must be taking the LeRoi Jones line. There's a lot of resentment – or hand-me-down resentment – in both races about that period of black nationalism. 

EI:  Well, as a flabby white intellectual liberal, I will always be willing to give an angry black man a hearing. And while I really learned some things reading your personal history with Baraka, nothing you or anybody could say would change my mind that Black Music is one of the most significant books on jazz ever written.

SC:  Well, it is. 

EI:  Those interviews with Wayne Shorter and Roy Haynes are great. And when he talks about Albert Ayler – I know you aren't that interested in Ayler now, but you were at one point – when he talks about Albert Ayler he really hits high gear. I like what Gerald Early (who I wouldn't know about if you hadn't written about him) said in Tuxedo Junction:

Baraka… has done more than any other writer to popularize black avant-garde music... he certainly adored it. And adoration is a very useful kind of currency in a society of cash and carry emotions. 

There may have been negative consequences from some of the later essays in Black Music, but that feeling I got as a teenager reading Jones about a trio concert of Don Cherry, Wilbur Ware, and Billy Higgins –

SC:  Whew!

EI:  – that feeling is immortal.

SC:  This was a very talented man. And when he went first into Black nationalism, then Super-Black racism, then Marxism – he shredded his talent in front of all of us. 

The overall problem with his writing in the last third of Black Music is that he never arrives at anything of substance to say about anyone he likes. You get no idea of HOW Albert Ayler or Sunny Murray played, just a lot of celebratory adjectives or phrases intended as barbs to exclude white readers.

EI:  And recently, his poem about Israel being behind 9/11 –

SC:  He's lost his mind. He's a nut now. He was a superb and original writer up until about 1965 or '66, maybe '67.

When I was a younger guy, I would read his essays in Black Music over and over, and became intrigued with many of people he talked about. In fact, the essay in Considering Genius about Thelonious Monk, "At the Five Spot," is in direct response to the essay "Recent Monk" in Black Music. I was determined to outdo him, since he has HIS foot so firmly on the gas in that one. Wow! I thought the highest performance level (that I had seen) of  "writing an essay about Thelonious Monk" had been achieved by LeRoi Jones. He made you feel like you were at the club. 

As far as explicating the technical side of Monk, I thought that Martin Williams and Gunther Schuller had closed the door. It's important to remember that back then, Gunther was the only guy with concert credentials who could defend the aesthetics of jazz to other classical musicians, since Gunther could actually write down what the men actually played.

EI:  It's not that accurate, unfortunately.

SC:  Well, one time Wynton Marsalis told me that he was playing a thorny Ralph Shapey orchestral score with Gunther conducting. There was a big dissonant cluster:  blat! You couldn't hear anything in there, and Wynton played a note a half-step off on purpose, just to see if Gunther could hear it. Gunther stopped the orchestra and said, "Wynton? Do you have an A or A-flat in your part?" "Oh – uh – it's an A." "Then why are you playing A-flat?"

EI:  Oh, Gunther's ears are legendary:  the pitches are always right. But I don't think any of the musicians Gunther talks about in Early Jazz or The Swing Era would recognize their music-making in Gunther's technical descriptions. And his early 60's transcriptions of Ornette Coleman are an abomination, with "Un Muy Bonita" being notated in 15/8 for chrissake – do you think Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins have ever played in 15/8 in their whole lives?

SC:  Well, I don't put anything beyond Gunther's talent except, of course, swing.

[extensive laughter]

EI:  Ok, I'm going in. 

SC:  Ask anything you want. 

EI:  Well, I can't really understand why you take it to a certain place you take it. Ok:  your first book is called Notes from a Hanging Judge. So from book one, we know that Stanley Crouch is going to give us unapologetic fire-and-brimstone judgments on his fellow humans.

SC:  Right. 

EI:  But, man! You really go for it. This is a passage from a speech from your spectacular takedown of Baraka from 1985 called "Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form," reprinted in Considering Genius:

…a rail-tailed Negro named Michael Jackson sold more copies of a single album than any singer or instrumentalist in recorded history… a blind Negro named Stevie Wonder has earned more dollars than the most popular composers and instrumentalists in both jazz and European concert music… a horse-faced Negro from the South named Lionel Ritchie pulls down millions for songs that contain so little melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic character that even the most imaginative jazz musicians haven't tried to use them as bridges to a larger audience in the way they could when the best of Tin Pan Alley was in flower. 

I suspect I'm not the first person to bring up this sentence to you. What does "rail-tailed" mean? Does that mean he has a small ass?

SC:  No, just a skinny guy. It's slang we used growing up. 

EI:  Ok. Here's the thing: I can understand you saying this in front of an audience in 1985 – this was a speech, and I'm sure you got a big laugh.

SC:  Yeah, I did. 

EI:  I'm a performer; I certainly can understand that. But why reprint it twenty years later? Why not soften it, or just edit it out?

SC:  Whenever you collect some pieces, you have to decide:  am I going to revise them for the way I think now, or am I going to lay out what it was?

EI:  Clearly, this is the "what it was" collection.

SC:  This is "what it was!" AND, what I'm talking about there is a point that still gets left out of the discussion of music when you talk about race like LeRoi Jones does:  all three of those men made far more money than Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or anyone else in classical music – even more than Leonard Bernstein, who had West Side Story. You can't always be arguing that the white man takes all the money and the black man doesn't get all the money, etc. 

The next point is that Betty Carter always complained to me that she always was searching for a pop tune to put in her band. (She believed in the classical jazz tradition of using pop tunes to connect with the audience.) But there wasn't anything in the music of those three guys – or anyone else in big money pop music – that she could use on a gig. There wasn't enough harmony or melody.

EI:  Um, there's a certain irony that you are talking to a member of The Bad Plus right now.

SC:  Of course. But it's not really that ironic, because you and Reid and Dave go so far from the original tune that you aren't playing on the form of the song. 

EI:  Well, you're right:  we don't play jazz harmony or jazz solos on the tunes the way Betty Carter would have needed.

SC:  But you also don't play anything after the head that anybody would call pop music. Your first phrase, after the melody, is always totally "out." I find it really interesting how your audience is shocked and exhilarated by the conclusions you come to with a melody they already know.

To me, the conception of The Bad Plus is actually derived from the way Coltrane and his band played "My Favorite Things," which is really far from hearing Julie Andrews sing it. What Coltrane – what everybody in his band – was playing on it is like… [shrugs] "What are they playing?" – "'My Favorite Things.'" – "Where is 'My Favorite Things' here? I don't get it." That's The Bad Plus, too. 

EI:  You are on the money with this comparison, Stanley. I have actually brought up Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" to interviewers myself.

SC:  Well, there you go. Right. 

EI:  And even The Bad Plus isn't going to do a Lionel Ritchie song… but back to this quote about Ritchie, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Because this is something that gets you a lot of heat: the aggressive put-downs you write are a real barrier for people.

SC:  I know it. 

EI:  I imagine you do – so, is there something you want to say, to explain why you use these insults?

SC:  I don't write things to shock people, necessarily, but sometimes, when making an argument…

Let me put it this way:  Some people go out into a field of wheat and they'll pick something – just one thing that they like. However, other people will drive a thresher through there. 

Sometimes, if I have a choice, I'll just drive the thresher through. 

[extensive laughter]

Sometimes I think that's what's called for. Style and form are what I'm thinking about, you know. Sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph there is an attempt to personalize everything I learned from Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones, Martin Williams, and Whitney Balliett. Then, in something like “Body and Soul,” I get to a symphonic version of essay form that I am very proud of. Form is always my concern and is what I am always experimenting with, even when I am driving the wheat thresher.

EI:  Well… there are friends of mine that you have driven the thresher through, and I know that it doesn't feel good.

But I understand that there is an argument for being over the top, just putting it out there, and seeing the dust settle. I'm sure we will still be looking at this book long after history has forgotten those who never came down on one side or another.

SC:  I believe in taking off the gloves and getting to it. Sometimes you just have to say, "this is how is goes, fellas, like it or not." It might be a personality flaw, true. I'm glad you're asking about this.

Being acceptable is not a primary concern. If I wanted to be acceptable, I would join those dolts who think they will get young people to listen to them if they praise rap.

EI:  Certainly, back in the day, a lot more threshers were in use than now. Cats like George Bernard Shaw, Virgil Thomson, and Harold Schoenberg delighted in dropping the heavy, often worse than you!

Should we talk in more detail about the most controversial piece in Considering Genius, which is "Putting the White Man in Charge"?

SC:  Ok.

EI:  I don't know too much about Tom Piazza or Francis Davis, who are your topics in the first two pages, but I do know something about Dave Douglas, who you get to at the end. Here's the paragraph:

There is nothing wrong with Douglas, who can play what he can play and should continue to do whatever he wants to do, but there is something pernicious about [Francis] Davis and all of those other white guys who want so badly to put white men – American and European – in charge and put Negroes in the background. Douglas… is far from being a bad musician, but he also knows that he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton, to name but three, any one of whom on any kind of material – chordal, nonchordal, modal, free, whatever – would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand. Unlike the great white players of the past, such as Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz – or now, Joe Lovano – Douglas will never be seen standing up next to the black masters of the idiom. The white critical establishment couldn't help him then. 

Well, all I can say is, if Roney, Payton, or Blanchard tried to play Dave's harder music, they would not find it easy – and they could never play it as well as he can. They would have trouble playing even a few bars of it unless they studied it in detail. There are authentic systems in Douglas's music that contribute to his unique voice.

SC:  Whether or not there are authentic systems in Douglas’s music is not even close to the point. To me, the question is:  What is jazz music? What I really don't like is how the avant-garde, which is more like contemporary European music, is treated as the solution to jazz to the exclusion of real jazz. I realized the problem years ago when Roland Kirk complained to Cecil Taylor in Downbeat that Cecil wouldn't let him sit in with his band. Cecil said they had arrangements, and that's why he didn't let Kirk sit in, but that's not a good reason. That's what holds the music back. It is a real problem that there is no agreed-upon place for avant-garde musicians and the musicians who play real jazz to play together. Because if the avant-garde musicians stay away from the jazz musicians, their music gets to the point where it has less and less to do with jazz. I don't like that. Some people do; I really don't!

I do know this:  if Douglas got up on to the bandstand with Wallace, Payton, or Blanchard to play some blues, he would be in trouble.

EI:  I'm not so sure, Stanley… but here, let me put this on me, not Dave. We are going downstairs to hear Eric Reed play in a little bit, and I wouldn't dare get up and play a straight-ahead blues solo after he did. He (or Cyrus Chestnut or Marcus Roberts) could cut me into little pieces. But I don't think any of them could play in The Bad Plus. You have got to make music based out of your life experience.

SC:  Yeah, well, I think if you are playing jazz, you really need to be able to play some blues. Ornette is the perfect example:  he always sounds like a blues musician, no matter how far out he gets. And this is why Duke Ellington could make a record – a supremely great record – with John Coltrane, with both men just playing their individual personalities but making music together. In fact, Elvin Jones told me how nervous he, Jimmy Garrison, and Coltrane were until Ellington got to the studio and cooled everyone out. Listen to the solo Ellington plays on Coltrane’s tune called "Big Nick." It's two perfect uncliched choruses that could be transcribed and made into a song. 

You see, when we hear Duke Ellington playing with Coltrane, we realize that the music is a certain tradition, based in blues and swing. Those elements provide bridges between schools and styles. George Wein told me that Charlie Parker played two choruses on "Royal Garden Blues" with so much authority one afternoon in Boston that he startled Vic Dickenson and some other swing era musicians up on that bandstand who only knew him at a distance. But of course Bird could play swing and earlier jazz, and his own advanced style was a re-imagining of those basic elements. 

EI:  In the post-modern era I think there are more options. I have always believed that you had to play your own way, no matter what – even at the expense of jazz. My own voice is not pure jazz, for precisely this reason, since I have always been determined to be distinctive.

I appreciate your point, though, and do worry about it sometimes, since the best jazz has always been connected to a certain kind of community that I could never have access to. I consider myself lucky to have Reid and Dave – at least we are a little white Midwestern community.

SC:  Community is important because music is made by bands, but as I say in Considering Genius and go into great detail to make clear:  Sensibility is the imperishable element. Background can never be an excuse for not sounding good. That only comes into the conversation when white musicians try to duck the difficulty of learning to play by saying that their backgrounds did not provide them with fundamental exposure to blues, swing, or the black church. But that doesn’t work for Leontyne Price or Kathleen Battle:  neither of them could say that because she was from Mississippi or Ohio that you couldn't expect a good performance of Puccini. The music is there for whoever can play it, and it is hard to do no matter what background a player has.  How many blues clubs and black churches were in Czechoslovakia when George Mraz was growing up?

EI:  Right, and he was the favorite bass player of both Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.

SC:  Then there is the impossibly great Francesco Cafiso, the young Italian alto player I discuss in Considering Genius. Nothing will stop a pure musician, not color, not culture, not geography. All they need is what Billy Higgins always told young musicians when they asked him for advice:  "Get to a bandstand as soon as you can."

There comes a time, in the personality of a guy who's a jazz musician, that no matter how experimental he was as a young guy, he becomes a jazz musician. From that point on he doesn't need to leave out what he knows about experimentation. I predict that one of these nights in The Bad Plus, one of you is actually going to set up a true jazz groove, and the other two are going to jump on it, and from then on the future will be different. You will still play what you play, but you will be expressing your love of jazz!

EI:  H'mm…!

SC:  You could actually teach your audience about swing, which is the great American innovation. 

EI:  You are always convincing, Stanley! I dare anyone to have this conversation with you and not leave determined to start swinging.

Obviously, though, since the 60's, a lot of musicians, both black and white, have wanted to do something more than swing. Let's talk about the avant-garde. I know something about Ornette Coleman, and so do you. Most people don't realize how much you do know about him. In fact, I have a confession to make:  I have never really enjoyed the Coleman trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett, since my allegiance has always been to the Coleman music with Charlie Haden. But then I read your 2002 essay, "Ornette Coleman: Blues for the Space Age," where you say:

The astonishing sweep of liberated form and emotion in his music is made obvious in his remarkably symphonic improvisation on "The Ark," from his 1962 Town Hall concert with bassist Izenzon and drummer Moffett, both of whom brilliantly respond to and inspire Coleman's creation of movements based on the theme rather than choruses. In the process, they make his trio perhaps the most spontaneously flexible we have ever heard. 

I had almost all of Ornette's records but that one, and after reading that, I had to go out and get that one, too. Of course you were right:  "The Ark" is amazing, and has become my favorite performance by that trio. Stanley Crouch, of all people, teaching ME something about Ornette Coleman – Jesus – can I even print this?

SC:  People think I am against contemporary European concert music. I'm not – why would I be against it? But I do think they don't need jazz musicians to do it. And jazz doesn't need European music – or Balkan music, or Indian, or whatever non-American music – to improve itself. Ornette didn't. This is from Considering Genius:

Technically, the most important thing about Coleman is that he proved how much jazz could do with its own tradition in order to "advance." It did not have to use academic methods borrowed from the European avant-garde as the basic foundation with which to marginalize the jazz idiom and the distinctive emotion of the music. It also did not need the exotica of India or African music or the pretensions that too often attend the rhetoric of those devoted to something "Non-Western." Jazz could build on its Negro-American roots while maintaining its universality… As Coleman said once in the early 1960's, "Many people don't realize it, but there is a real American folklore in jazz. It's neither black nor white. It's the mixture of the races, and the folklore has come from it." That realization is what anchors his achievement. 

Bobby Bradford told me about how messed up Gunther Schuller and those cats were by how Ornette got to someplace next door to them – without going through what they knew! He got there through Bird and jazz tunes. I said to Coleman one time, "I have figured out one thing about your development." He said, "What's that?" I said, "You were fascinated with the bridges of tunes, weren't you? A melody would go on for sixteen bars, and then change. That really got to you, didn't it?" And he said, "Yeah, that's right."

EI:  I had almost exactly the same conversation with him. Ornette's bridges were the beginning of free jazz.

SC:  Right!

EI:  We have all heard bad interpretations and imitations of modern classical music by mediocre jazz players. But! If I hear a group of musicians who do know something about jazz playing together with talent and commitment, and their playing is informed by the European avant-garde, minimalism, rock, world-music – whatever non-jazz source – I, as a dedicated jazz lover, will be nurtured by their performance – perhaps more than I would be by the original. There would still be a spark that I think of as jazz.

Let me give you a specific example:  we heard Masabumi Kikuchi and Paul Motian play free the other night. Now, very little of their musical content stemmed from the blues or jazz folklore. But since they were improvising, and do have some relationship to jazz (especially Paul, of course), I enjoyed it far more than if a composer had written it out – a composer who could have made the music superficially much better by taking the time to make it structurally impeccable, time that an improviser doesn't have. 

SC:  I know that Anthony Braxton agrees with you about this, although, again, that approach is not for me.

I was talking to Braxton one night, and I said to him:  "You are really what Gunther and John Lewis meant when they were talking about 'Third Stream,' and you have never been recognized for being that in the right way." He said, "Look, all of us were listening to European music, but when Black Power came in, a lot of us pretended to have gotten the ideas from Africa or someplace non-white. I became the odd man out, because I refused to deny what my real interests were. If it was Stockhausen, it was Stockhausen! I wouldn't pretend that it came out of the south side of Chicago or whatever."

In that respect, I thought the worst offender was Cecil Taylor, whose whole style comes from European music – especially Messiaen – with a few dribs and drabs of Ellington, Monk, and Bud. I played Catalogue d'oiseaux for both Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille, and they were astonished. "What record is that? I've heard that many times!" Jimmy almost fainted. They didn't know modern classical music, and had just taken Cecil's word on his own originality.

The reason I really respect Braxton now (although I went through many years of being hostile to him) is that he has always been an honest guy! He stood by what he was doing without ever renouncing his deep commitment to European music. 

I wish you had been there the night Cecil and I had it out at Bradley's. We really went at it. I thought I won, but maybe he thinks he did. Anyway, I said it came down to one thing:  "All that stuff about Africa that you say – Africa this, Africa that – well, if you went and played in Africa, a new record would be set for someone emptying a hall! However big the concert hall was, you would clear it in five minutes!"

[laughter]

EI:  Look, I just have to say, in Cecil's defense, that regardless of whatever Andrew Cyrille said, Cecil's harmonic language is not that of any major European composer, including Oliver Messiaen. I know Messiaen's language, and those of Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen and others; I've looked at all those scores, played the notes, etc., and Cecil is different – I mean, apart from the obvious fact that he is improvising, and that his piano sonority is massive and distinctive, his actual pitches are different. 

SC:  Braxton told me that, too. Look, Cecil Taylor is far too intelligent a guy to totally copy anybody. He's not just an intelligent guy, he's some kind of genius, who has many original thoughts about many, many things. BUT, the sound of his music is not jazz – it is something else, based in European music. I don't think he has influenced any real jazz today, either. That’s why he and all of those other guys used to call what they do “black music.” They KNEW it wasn’t jazz, although that rhetoric has changed over the years. 

EI:  Yeah, they gave up that phrase "black music" awhile back, but it is interesting to remember that there was that rhetoric for at least a decade. I don’t think Cecil says "Africa" too much any more, either, which is just as well, since any record of the whitest British rock has more to do with Africa than any Cecil Taylor record of the last 40 years.

[UPDATE, 2012 -- That last comment has haunted me since first posting. I shouldn't have said that Cecil Taylor is disconnected with Africa; Cecil's the apotheosis of a certain kind of magical and suggestive art that only comes out of the African diaspora. To make my point, I could have said that, for me, John Bonham is more African than Sunny Murray.]

Stanley, you raise very interesting points about jazz and a definition of jazz in your book, and if the reader is willing to go in and wrestle with you on your terms they will come out learning something. 

The older I have gotten, I have noticed myself doing two things:  on the one hand, I have gotten more and more willing to stick up for anybody who has a valid song to sing, regardless of style. On the other hand, I have felt increasing tension and resentment when reading (or just being around) people who act like they know something about jazz when they really don't. 

I don't think you can have the word "jazz," Stanley – you would make too many people upset if you took it away from them. And if you asked me point blank whether Cecil was jazz, I would say, "yes." However, if you come up with another term that meant the kind of music which you describe on every page of Considering Genius, it's very probable that I (and the rest of The Bad Plus) would give you our support for this new word, because we do believe in some sort of absolute value of that tradition of real jazz, although we haven't made the choice to inhabit it ourselves.

At any rate, I firmly believe that it is high time to put this issue – which has fragmented the jazz world terribly – onto the table and look at it in a serious way.

SC:  Ethan, I am always impressed by your enthusiasm. 

---

CODA

The interview proper about Considering Genius ends there… however, we kept talking with the tape rolling, and here are a few more excerpts from our discussion. It's interesting to get Stanley's insights on some of the music that he has been around but many people don't realize he knows (once, when I told Stanley that my favorite Cecil Taylor song was "Bulbs," he instantly and accurately sang it back to me).

SC:  Free Jazz is to me Ornette's supreme achievement with his ensemble concept. You know, the great Whitney Balliett just died… I remember being amazed at how well Balliett heard that record when it was released. 

EI:  I don’t care for that record – I much prefer the ensemble stuff from the sessions for Science Fiction. I don't appreciate Free Jazz.

SC:  Yeah, well, you will someday. Ornette responds to each musician on that one… totally unlike the way Albert Ayler tries to out-loud every other player on New York Eye and Ear Control.

EI:  Well, I love Ayler. But he probably shouldn't have made those early standards records – he doesn't sound good there.

SC:  No… but Jimmy Lyons told me that one time he heard Albert sit in at a straight-ahead jam session in Europe. Before playing, Albert told him, "I guess I need to do my Charlie Rouse bag." And Jimmy said he sounded like that – really good – and Jimmy himself could play the fuck out of bop. 

EI:  As much as I am a defender of Ayler, I also feel like I don't need every record – it gets monochromatic after awhile. 

SC:  No, you only need two or three. My favorite is Witches and Devils with Norman Howard. That's sensational – the sound that Ayler and Howard get together is a sound we have never heard before or since. Towards the end of one of Ayler's solos on that record, Sunny Murray plays an interpretation of the ride cymbal that sounds like time, but spread out. I like that record a lot. 

EI:  I remember reading a poem of yours somewhere, in praise of Albert.

SC:  I liked him… but see (and Earle Henderson was the first one to show me this), John Coltrane was really the cat. In his last records like Expression, Coltrane shows that he peeped Ayler, thought it was interesting, and took it much further musically. I can't stand Coltrane's last band, but when everybody's out of the way but him and Rashied Ali, like on Interstellar Space, that's some rough stuff!

EI:  Yeah, really rough – just amazing. But even with the band, the level of horn Coltrane is playing is just astronomical.

SC:  No doubt there. Some people like the last band. My problem is simply this: having heard Elvin, McCoy, and Jimmy so many times playing so well, I just couldn't swallow that last band. 

EI:  Even if they didn't agree with you, anyone could understand your perspective… unless that person was extremely obtuse.

---

EI:  You mention Henry Threadgill's Sextett in the book, and how good they sounded when you booked them into the Tin Palace. That band was an underrated, too-little known moment in the history of the music. [I wrote about them here.]

SC:  Definitely!

I'm one of those sentimental people who likes to think that there is some unlettered black person who should be the final arbiter of value, because they have absorbed the truth through their nostrils or something when eating collard greens and cornbread when growing up poor in the South. Blah, blah, blah – it's bullshit, of course. 

EI:  You mean the kind of character Morgan Freeman gets hired to play sometimes in the movies.

SC:  Right! BUT… I will say, not in Henry Threadgill's defense, but in his celebration, that one night at the Tin Palace, this black guy – an uptown [Harlem] guy – happened to be on the Bowery and came in the club as Threadgill started to play. He stayed for all three sets, and I talked to him a bit. He didn't know this band, but he was really moved and loved the music – thought they were really playing. There was something that Threadgill had with that band that could make this "unlettered soulful black arbiter of value" say it was the real deal. It was communicating to both people looking for the avant-garde and people who didn't even know there was an avant-garde.

If Threadgill had kept that band together – two drummers, trumpet, trombone, cello, Fred Hopkins and himself – then that band could have been right next to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But I think there is something in Threadgill's personality that prevented him from keeping that band together – something like "when people start liking what he's doing, he's got to figure out something they don't like."

EI:  Ornette can be a little like that, too.

SC:  Kind of, yeah.

Threadgill did keep Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall together for a while, and really turned out New York with that trio. The records don't do them justice. 

EI:  I dig Hopkins. I admit I don't really like it when Air played the Jelly Roll Morton or ragtime, but I really dig a record of all abstract music on Nessa called Air Time.

SC:  Man, they killed when they played the Jelly Roll live. Fred Hopkins was deep – I loved him, man. Do you have the Sextett albums What Was That? and Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket? Olu Dara sounds smoking on that one.

But for saxophone playing, when Arthur Blythe showed up, Threadgill felt the pressure. I remember that well, because Blythe had such a rich sound, and Threadgill didn't really have that. 

---

EI:  Julius Hemphill is someone I would have loved to have gotten to know.

SC:  Did he ever die too young! He's another cat who really had the blues in his playing, no matter how far out he got. 

EI:  You must have known Phillip Wilson. 

SC:  He was rough, man, a great drummer. But of those cats, it was Don Moye who impressed me the most. I heard the Art Ensemble almost every night at the Five Spot in 1976. They were playing! Wow!

EI:  Back then you were playing the drums yourself.

SC:  Not well, but not that bad, either, in that free-form style. Check it out:

[Stanley plays a tune recorded live in Amsterdam with David Murray, Butch Morris, Don Pullen, and Fred Hopkins. It's a long waltz with extended solos by each member – Pullen sounds the best on it. The drumming for the swinging waltz is a sloppy slow groove, quite behind the beat, and broken up by free fusillades.]

EI:  I dig it! Why did you quit?

SC:  Well, when I was in California, I thought I was really good. But then I moved to New York and kept hearing Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, and all the other truly great drummers. That was a level I had no hope of achieving. In my own style, Don Moye was the guy who closed the door.

EI:  I guess you had a different destiny anyway.

SC:  Yeah… that's certainly true.

06/10/2010