Saturday, September 19, 2020

Dignity Is Something You TAKE!!! NOT Something You Whine And Beg For...,

NPR  |  In the mid-'80s, just as his career as a writer was reaching its first ascent, Stanley Crouch presided over an attempted, unexpected, coup d'etat. Crouch wanted to return to a time when the serious Black practitioners participated in the gatekeeping. (The title of a 2000 Crouch piece in the New York Times says it all: "Don't Ask the Critics. Ask Wallace Roney's Peers.") That was all to the good, but another, more reactionary and perhaps even more commercial aspect of his proposed revolution proved impossible to implement: defining jazz as a fixed object made up of conventional swing, blues, romantic ballads, a Latin tinge... and not too much else. While executing this maneuver, Crouch rejected — by some lights, betrayed — his original peer group of Murray, Blythe and Newton, and instead embraced the latest musicians intrigued by a comparatively straight-ahead approach. (Newton complained, "A stylistically dominant agenda in jazz is like bringing Coca-Cola to a five-star dinner!")

It was an artificial conceit to begin with, and Crouch was too contrarian and combative to lead a movement. However, he did have one important acolyte: Wynton Marsalis, the man anointed as the biggest new jazz star of the era. Marsalis studied the texts of Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray the way he did the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. In what may have been an unprecedented event, a major jazz artist actually read critics, and let those critics inform his music. (Crouch also contributed liner notes to the first run of excellent Marsalis LPs.)

Between them, Marsalis and Crouch kicked off the jazz wars of the '80s and '90s, an argument about tradition versus innovation, a tempest in a teacup that played out in all the major jazz magazines, in many mainstream publications, in bars and clubs everywhere – and in the end did very little good to anybody. (The day Keith Jarrett angrily invited Wynton Marsalis to a "blues duel" in the New York Times was a notable low point.) The 2001 Ken Burns documentary Jazz, which featured Marsalis and Crouch as both off-screen advisors and on-screen commentators, was the climactic battleground. People who love post-1959 styles connected to funk, fusion and the avant-garde are still very upset about Ken Burns' Jazz

Still. When he started assembling the repertory institution Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987, Wynton Marsalis was advocating for the primacy of the Black aesthetic at a time when the white, Stan Kenton-to-Gary Burton lineage dominated major organizations like the Berklee College of Music and the International Association of Jazz Educators. The music of Kenton and Burton has tremendous value, but their vast institutional sway and undue influence in jazz education is part of this discussion. We needed less North Texas State (Kenton's first pedagogical initiative) and more Duke Ellington in the mix, and Marsalis almost single-handedly corrected our course – although Marsalis himself would give Crouch a lot of the credit. Indeed, Crouch's long-running internal mandate to get Ellington seen as "Artist of the Century" had finally paid off on a macro level, and the free high school program "Essentially Ellington" is one of JALC's most noble achievements.

Crouch and Marsalis also strove to bury the once-prevalent idea that Louis Armstrong was an Uncle Tom, and encouraged the Black working class to reclaim the jazz greats as crucial to their heritage. (Those ready to hate on Ken Burns's Jazz should keep that perspective in mind.)

There was some bad, a lot of good, and plenty to argue about. What can be said for sure: JALC never quite pulled off Crouch's proposed coup. All these years later, JALC remains merely a part of what makes jazz interesting today. Younger practitioners and listeners comfortably see the music as a continuum that can contain anything from the avant-garde harp musings of Alice Coltrane to the electric fusion of John McLaughlin to hip-hop stylings of Robert Glasper. Crouch's definition of jazz does not dominate the conversation the way he intended, perhaps paradoxically proving the original point that jazz musicians and critics don't really have much to do with each other.


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