“Stanley Crouch, a cultural critic whose contrarian and trenchant writings exploring music, politics, race and literature made him a prominent and often controversial figure in American arts and letters, died Sept. 16 at a New York hospital. He was 74.
Mr. Crouch was an actor, playwright, jazz drummer and college professor — without benefit of a college degree — before he emerged in the late 1970s as one of the country’s most original, contentious and (sometimes literally) combative writers.
He was a bare-knuckled literary provocateur — erudite, fearless, sometimes reckless, in the view of his critics — while reveling in his often truculent takedowns, often of works by other African American artists and intellectuals.
Mr. Crouch was a passionate champion of jazz as perhaps the pinnacle of artistic expression in this country and was just as ardent in denouncing rap music as “either an infantile self-celebration or anarchic glamorization of criminal behavior.”
His bold declarations escalated to a fistfight with another writer at the Village Voice, prompting Mr. Crouch’s firing from the weekly newspaper in 1988, reportedly after similar bullying incidents.
He also wrote for the New York Daily News, the Root, the Daily Beast and the New Republic, among other outlets, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He published a novel and an acclaimed biography of saxophonist Charlie Parker and published learned essays on writers Thomas Mann, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow.
After leading an avant-garde group as a drummer in his earlier years, Mr. Crouch became a jazz classicist over time and was a close friend and intellectual mentor of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, with whom he helped launch Jazz at Lincoln Center, a performance venue and influential jazz repertory group.
Together, Mr. Crouch and Marsalis were the standard-bearers of a 1980s movement that rejected electronic jazz fusion and called for a return to the musical traditions embodied by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and other jazz innovators. Mr. Crouch was a featured commentator in Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary series on jazz in 2000 and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2019.
He praised the beauty of trumpeter Miles Davis’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, but when Davis adopted a rock-influenced style in the 1970s, Mr. Crouch condemned the move as a betrayal of near-apocalyptic dimensions. He called it “perhaps the essential failure of contemporary Negro culture: its mock-democratic idea that the elites, too, should like it down in the gutter.”
“Gone is the elegant and exigent Afro-American authenticity of the likes of Ellington, at ease in the alley as well as the palace,” Mr. Crouch wrote in a memorable 1990 essay in the New Republic, “replaced by a youth culture vulgarity that vandalizes the sweep and substance of Afro-American life.”
He applied his aesthetic views more broadly to social concerns and what he saw as a widespread acceptance of loutish behavior and underachievement.
“The cult of ethnic authenticity often mistakes the lowest common denominator for an ideal,” he wrote in the essay on Davis. “In this climate, obnoxious, vulgar, and anti-social behavior has been confused with black authenticity.”
Mr. Crouch — who preferred the terms Negro, Black American and Afro-American to “African American” — was just as harsh toward other revered Black artists. When Toni Morrison received the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, he did not join in the ovation.
“She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity,” he told The Washington Post. “ ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings.”
In essays and interviews, Mr. Crouch called filmmaker Spike Lee “a middle-class would-be street Negro,” whose films reflected “fantasy” versions of Black communities and “the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist.”
Mr. Crouch believed that the civil rights movement was aspiring to a “complex vision of universal humanism” and cultural understanding before it was “hijacked by radicals.” He called Malcolm X the “chief black heckler of the civil rights movement” and was withering toward Louis Farrakhan, dismissing the Nation of Islam leader as “our most highly respected racist and all-purpose lunatic.”
Even when onetime friends deserted him, Mr. Crouch did not moderate his outspoken views.
“I admire the brother’s candor,” writer and scholar Cornel West told the New Yorker in 1995, “but his abrasive style is so alienating that it tends to reinforce the polarization. The low points, like the attacks on Toni Morrison, gain more attention. His brilliant jazz criticism is overshadowed.”
Others said Mr. Crouch was nothing more than a clever mouthpiece for White conservatives, particularly when he complained of crime-ridden neighborhoods and “a cult of victimization.”
“I’ve been applauded by black bus drivers, subway drivers, mechanics, various people who have come up to me and said, ‘I’m sure glad somebody is saying it,’ ” Mr. Crouch told the New York Times in 1993. “That’s enough for me. I don’t care what some trickle-down Negro Marxist says.”
In the 1960s, when Mr. Crouch came of age, he was part of the emerging Black Arts movement, championed by poet and activist Amiri Baraka. It was a sometimes militant effort to create art, music and political strength within the African American community, separate from the dominant White culture.
Mr. Crouch joined a Los Angeles theatrical group led by Jayne Cortez, a major figure in the Black Arts movement, and wrote defiant poetry and plays. By the early 1970s, he was growing disaffected with the black nationalist movement.
“Race pride is something that I’m not unacquainted with,” he told Newsday in 1990. “But that’s different from racism, and a lot of people in the cultural nationalist movement are hard-core anti-white racists. And to me, racism is antithetical to the Afro-American tradition.”
Mr. Crouch became increasingly drawn to the writings of Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” a landmark novel about African American life, and especially Albert Murray. Murray was a novelist and essayist, and his 1970 book “The Omni-Americans” used jazz to demonstrate how African American achievement is at the heart of American civilization.“