THE INTELLECTUAL VITALITY and democratic vibrancy of the United States’s mainstream corporate culture were in danger long before the dawn of the digital age. The late Stanley Crouch, a renaissance man of letters who could swing from jazz criticism to literary theory and infuse it all with political analysis, had cautioned his country for decades about the risks of ruin if it did not awaken and demand more imagination from its voters and leaders. Now that Crouch has died, the country moves — in a blues-inflected irony he would appreciate — another small step closer to self-pity, emotive mediocrity, and, in all things, cowardice.
In the introduction to his brilliant collection of essays The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race (1995), Crouch identified himself as a “radical pragmatist.” The contradiction of the label is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons why it appealed to Crouch, but his explanation demonstrates the deft and lyrical touch that made his prose such a joy to read. It also can convince even the most rigid adherent to ideology:
I affirm whatever I think has the best chance of working, of being both inspirational and unsentimental, of resonating across the categories of false division and beyond the decoy of race. That is: I don’t care who conceives a better strategy for dealing with the polluting cynicism of mass market rebellion in our popular culture, with public education, with improving the quality of our competition in the world arena, with crime, and with the central issue of our time, which is maintaining democratic morale. It doesn’t matter to me if the cow comes from the left, the middle, or the right side of the pasture; I’m concerned with whether or not the milk is sour.
Crouch, like the jazz musicians he so admired, was a virtuoso of his instrument — employing an eclectic vocabulary full of eccentric but effective phrasing to elevate a melody or stretch out a solo. He loved Los Angeles and New York but often cited his mother’s stories of Black heartland culture as fundamental to his understanding of and appreciation for the wild ride that is the American experience. His metaphors, from the noirish lingo of the street corner or smoky blues club to the pastoral tones of the farm, evinced a large mind and big heart — multitudes in the school of Walt Whitman.
His writing on jazz is illuminative, and he made it clear whenever he had the opportunity that he despised fusion. Miles Davis, according to Crouch, embarrassed himself when he incorporated elements of funk and rock ’n’ roll into his music. Herbie Hancock’s sound on his 1973 album Head Hunters, he once told an audience, “didn’t go anywhere.”
Having only met Crouch once, I hope he would not object to my assertion that, in his own art and explication, Crouch was a fusion performer — pulling together seemingly disparate dialects into one coherent, often challenging, but also graceful articulation. Take a look at the buoying passage at the conclusion of his 1998 essay collection Always in Pursuit for another example of particular relevance in our age of fear, diminished expectations, and converging crises:
Our society has been the dark horse and it has been the Triple Crown winner. Perhaps that is how we have to see ourselves, as democratic jockeys moving in and out of the light with our mounts, winning, losing, improvising, learning, making great jumps, taking horrible falls, but always refusing to give an ear to anything less than the tragic optimism of the blues to be redefined.
Crouch’s two great loves, at least in his work, were democracy and jazz. Like many, he connected these two great inventions, viewing the improvisational musical form as a metaphor for experiments in self-governance. Similar to a constitutional democracy, there is a structure (a melody) that is supportive of individual creativity (the improvised solos). Jazz is the best style of music to showcase individual voice, particularly when that individual works within a cooperative collective (the band). Democracy is the same. The Bill of Rights and our shared understanding of democratic norms and principles give amplification to millions of multicultural, multireligious, politically opposed voices talking at, with, and against each other.
“The maintaining of democratic morale” might not have seemed like the “central issue of our time” in the 1990s when Crouch declared it to be so, but the past 25 years have, unfortunately, proven him prescient. The corporate homogeneity of culture (what he called “mass marketed rebellion”), the social media assault on dialogue and attention span, the erosion of literary culture, and the right-wing imbecility and violence of Donald Trump and his cult of personality have democracy laboring in the dirt like a horse with a fractured limb. Vindicating the worries of Crouch, the essential question of 2020 is if sadists will shoot the horse, or if healing is possible.
The challenge of democratic preservation in the United States is particularly daunting, given the amount of difference that exists within the country. Greedy and self-serving parties of political and financial power have thrived throughout American history by creating, enhancing, and exploiting “oppositions” — racial, ethnic, religious, sexual — that, for the civilized, should forever remain superficial. It seemed to simultaneously fascinate and frustrate Crouch that a large percentage of the American public could not overcome, or at least set aside, their differences in the fulfillment of the great promise of their country’s ideals.
Writing about the battle between Michael Jackson and his record company, Crouch concluded that “the denigration of black people is far from over.” He was prescient when observing the mad-dog hatred of the Republican Party, along with their anti-intellectual tendency that by now has morphed into full-blown stupidity, once telling Charlie Rose that “you cannot assemble a group of lunatics” without soon having to join or follow the lunatics yourself.
It was not merely the far right that Crouch believed was failing to understand and exercise the potential of democracy. It was also entertainers and intellectuals suffering a deficit of imagination. He was famously derisive toward hip-hop, arguing that rap wasn’t a “very complex art form” but rather a “vulgar” recitation of “nursery rhymes.” It was also, according to Crouch, a modern minstrel show, helping to link “authenticity” — a term and concept that Crouch spent an entire book exploring — to the most primitive and least refined modes of expression. While he never denied the persistence of racism in American life and law, he was also unimpressed with Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, and other artists he saw as “doing the race thing.”
On the latter point, Crouch drew inspiration from Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two giants of American letters who argued for the prominence of individuality over category and, as best articulated in Murray’s 1970 book The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, that what is “Black” is hardly outside the American mainstream. It does not struggle to influence American culture — it is the dominant thrust of American culture. Everyone and everything in the United States, even if the law or politics does not acknowledge it, is an amalgamation. What Murray discarded as the “social science paradigm” reduces the capacity of Americans to imagine and undermines the potential for synthesis. The human spirit is larger than any demographic checkbox. Political oppression and economic exclusion do not lead to “cultural deprivation.”
As Crouch put it with characteristic eloquence and sharp-fanged phrasing, “Our country is some kind of a mongrel that is spiritually a chameleon but always remains a bastard.”
Those who suffer from a narrow, obstructed view might read Crouch’s description of America as disrespectful. It is difficult to imagine members of the mob at Trump rallies, for example, wearing hats that say, “Make America a Bastard Again!” To Crouch, however, it was the highest compliment, and to readers like me, it is the essence of patriotism. It is a patriotism that posits the ultimate contradiction of salvific potential — that unity is possible through individuality. “Across our democratic vista, for all of its tragic tales,” Crouch wrote,
we have seen that the ultimate truth of humanity is fairly simple: no qualities of any sort that have to do with intelligence or will or spirit can be assumed on the basis of our favorite lines of demarcation. Color, sex, religion, class, and point of geographic origin are just more blanks that, even at close range, don’t leave powder burns on the target board of Americana.
It is hard to imagine writing that is smarter or more beautiful about the United States, but Crouch did not feel that the best of his mind and talent were on display in his essays. When I met him, he proclaimed that his best work was the first volume of his now forever unfinished biography of Charlie Parker, Kansas City Lightning (2007), and his only book-length work of fiction, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing (2000). During our brief conversation, he immodestly compared his novel to Theodore Dreiser’s masterpiece, Sister Carrie.
In 2004, Crouch confessed that he had the “segregated fiction blues,” accusing most American writers of “punking out”:
Hiding under the bed. Walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear. Like all forms of cowardice in our moment, there is a self-serving psychological process tailor-made for this particular variation. The lack of aesthetic gumption is remade into a smugness that eventually grants itself a pedigree in narcissism. As life in America becomes an ever more intriguing mix of styles, relationships, alliances, and even combinations of cuisine, things have gotten so mucked up and segregated in the world of literature that one does not expect American writers to tell us about anything other than themselves, their mono-ethnic neighborhoods, their own backgrounds, the narrowest definitions of the classes from which they come, their erotic plumbing and its meaning, how much or how little melanin is in their skin, and so forth.
Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome was Crouch’s antidote to the segregated fiction blues. The novel tells the story of Carla, a white jazz singer from South Dakota, who moves to New York with ambition to join the ranks of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and the other brilliant vocalists of her genre. She falls in love with Maxwell, a Black saxophonist from Texas. Theirs is a quintessential courtship of American opposites — rural and urban, Southern and Northern, white and Black, Baptist and button-down Protestant. The novel is a tribute to romantic love and jazz, but also to the bastard spirit and character of America — that delightful and dangerous mixture. Carla has fair skin, blonde hair, and a largely proportioned backside that makes her “an anatomical anomaly” among white women. We learn that she reflects on her own inability to see beyond sociological assumptions about personality. While listening to the cacophony of languages and accents in a grocery store, she finds the same inspiration accessible in a Coltrane solo or Ella Fitzgerald performance:
They talked about nothing, absolutely nothing — the weather, what had been on television the night before, what movies they intended to see, how their cars were running, and whatever else — but somewhere beneath the surface of the words, even when the mutilated immigrant English was far the other side of easy comprehension, somewhere in the rhythm of the speech and the way the voices swooped up and down the registers, there was a connection that had a luminosity, one that made the trivia of the conversation sort of a code behind which there was substantial fraternity, compassion, affection. […] It would be frightening to think that all of those people whom she had found so boring over the years weren’t truly boring at all, just types whose ways of communicating had gotten by her and who resided in a land of far greater meaning than her own gleeful smugness could comprehend. Yeah, right.
The world that Crouch sketches as surrounding Charlie Parker in his biography is similar. Despite the terror and trauma of Jim Crow, there is an electric current of possibility surging through the atmosphere, providing energy for anyone with the imagination and courage to dream of a life that, like the diverse flux of voices in the grocery store, evades category.
Evasion of category was one of the virtues Crouch most often celebrated. It is only fitting that he evaded it himself. One would struggle to pin any ideological label on this versatile writer. His opinions were often as spread out as his subject matter, which included everything from mainstream Hollywood films to Argentinian novelists, from American politics to professional athletics. In his celebration and exercise of diversity, Crouch made an essential contribution to the appreciation of an America currently under assault. For all their jingoistic and macho posturing, the right-wing nativists who would despise the multicultural and multilingual milieu of the grocery store that so excited Carla are anti-American cowards.
The death of Stanley Crouch leaves the United States’s intellectual culture less interesting, less imaginative, less ambitious, and maybe, above all else, less artful. Compounding the loss is that our intellectual culture was already rather hollow. Social media popularity counts for more than scholarship and analytical originality, and few intellectuals operate outside the increasingly narrow confines of ideological category. Crouch’s sentences were unpredictable because his prose was creative and his ideas were varied. Who on America’s op-ed pages today writes sentences that their readers cannot finish for them? The rarity — and endangerment — of countercultural writing is one of the many factors dragging down our democratic morale.
For a brief period, there was a ridiculous amount of hype surrounding the mediocre pundits of the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a collection of self-congratulatory dispensers of infotainment who, if not overtly right-wing (Ben Shapiro), are merely cynics who claim they are liberal while saying conservative things (Sam Harris, Glenn Loury). Stanley Crouch was what the “Intellectual Dark Web” pretends to be but is not. He did not strike a contrarian pose for the sake of looking edgy. He was investigating the full meaning of the human experience, and its particular dimensions within American life.
When I interviewed David Jemilo, the owner of The Green Mill, Chicago’s oldest and best jazz club, he kept using the word “cool.” I asked if he could define it. He answered, “All I can say is that if you are trying to be cool, you ain’t it.” Crouch was cool. He was the real deal. As much as he would have protested that the word no longer has any value or substance in a culture of poseurs and a marketplace of packaged rebellion, one could even say he was “authentic.”
David Masciotra is the author of five books, including I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (I.B. Tauris, 2020). He is a political columnist with Salon and has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.