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Sunday, December 20, 2020

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Not a wonderful world: why Louis Armstrong was hated by so many

Not a wonderful world: why Louis Armstrong was hated by so many

The reality is far more complicated ... Louis Armstrong.
The reality is far more complicated ... Louis Armstrong. Photograph: Eliot Elisofon/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

"Casual listeners think of him as a gentle giant of jazz, but critics and African Americans often saw him as a sell out or ‘Uncle Tom’. A new book aims to show how radical ‘Pops’ really was

Ed Prideaux

Last modified on Fri 18 Dec 2020 06.15 EST

“I cannot think of another American artist who so failed his own talent. What went wrong?” asked one biographer of Louis Armstrong. “The sheer weight of his success and its attendant commercial pressures,” answered another.

The popular opinion of the trumpeter and gravel-voiced singer of What a Wonderful World is as a genial, foundational voice in jazz. But the jazz establishment – and many African Americans – reviled him as a sellout or an “Uncle Tom”. When he died in 1971, he was seen as having peaked in the 1920s with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, a series of inventive small-band recordings, and been in decline ever since. A new book, Ricky Riccardi’s Heart Full of Rhythm: the Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, charts this apparent fall from grace, but shows the reality to be far more complicated.

After signing with Decca in the mid-1930s, Armstrong began working with Joe Kapp, a svengali producer who boasted of keeping a “pulse on the multitude”. The singer switched from respected Dixieland jazz to populist fare: Bing Crosby collaborations, Hawaiian instrumentals, syrupy romances, Iberian mariachis, and B-list comedy movies. At record speed, Armstrong would become America’s first black multimedia star, and was often hated for it: Gunther Schuller, the noted American jazz critic, remarked that “creepy tentacles of commercialism” had laid bare a “wasteland” in Armstrong’s career for more than 40 years.

“The band behind him are positively abominable. Nothing could possibly do more harm to such a great artist. It’s absolutely murderous,” one critic wrote in Metronome magazine. “Armstrong no longer is a vital force in hot jazz … [and] has chosen to play exclusively for the box-office,” published Music and Rhythm.

On the set of A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, the earliest surviving footage of Armstrong on film.
On the set of A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, the earliest surviving footage of Armstrong on film.Photograph: Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

African Americans found Armstrong more troubling still. The handkerchief-holding persona – cheerful, fond of silly jokes – he’d perfected had echoes of an “Uncle Tom”, a black person who happily does the bidding of a white master.

Bob O’Meally, the head of jazz studies at Columbia University in New York, remains divided. While lauding Armstrong as “one of the greatest people of the 20th century”, he was “offended by his presentations … At the time of the rise of Malcolm X, the authority of Martin Luther King, examples in the popular media like Muhammad Ali and others, there was Armstrong – a kind of throwback from another era, with this borderline minstrelsy role that he played. I cringed as a black American.”

Armstrong’s reputation has improved since, but there’s still much room to recover – and not least in elite circles. Riccardi, a director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, recalls that his master’s at Rutgers University in jazz history devoted just two hours to Armstrong in the whole programme. “I go into universities now, and everybody knows every Charlie Parker solo in every key. I say, ‘OK, how many of you have ever checked out Louis Armstrong?’ Blank faces.”

Riccardi’s book spans 1929 to 1947, when Armstrong became the world’s biggest pop star. But going against the usual complaints of critics – who portray the period in almost-Faustian terms – Riccardi sees Armstrong’s escape from jazz royalty as the man’s true making.

For one, crossing over (or “selling out”) as an African American in the 1930s was hardly a ticket to gold and glamour. Just as he got started, Armstrong was jailed and kicked out of California for smoking cannabis; he was later chased from Chicago by gun-toting gangsters and forced to travel with permanent armed protection. On tour in the deep south, Armstrong was turned away constantly from lodgings, struggled getting gigs from racist promoters and was harassed by police. He was sent to jail again while on a pit stop in Memphis, after onlookers grew suspicious about the band’s nice suits, “fancy-looking cigarette holders”, and that the manager’s white wife was sitting on the bus.

His times in Europe were no less challenging. On his first night in London in 1932, Armstrong couldn’t get to bed until 5am because hotels wouldn’t admit black guests. Reviewers wrote of “rhythmical jungle noises”, his “hippopotamus physiognomy”, “gravelly gorilla roar”, and “wild Negro African ancestor’s primitive cries”.

Yet as Riccardi emphasises, meeting culture in the middle meant Armstrong could change things from within. The list of firsts he oversaw is staggering. Knockin’ a Jug, which featured black and white musicians, was one of the US’s first integrated recordings. That same year, he cut the first integrated vocal duet, Rockin’ Chair, with white singer Hoagy Carmichael. Black and Blue, a 1929 B-side on Okeh Records’ “popular music” listings (a label that had previously marketed him for “race records”), has been called American music’s first bona fide protest song against racial inequality.

Lobby card for the now-lost movie Ex-Flame filmed in California in 1930, and featuring Armstrong alongside trombonist Lawrence Brown, pianist Henry Prince, saxophonist Les Hite and 22-year-old drummer Lionel Hampton.
Lobby card for the now-lost movie Ex-Flame filmed in California in 1930, and featuring Armstrong alongside trombonist Lawrence Brown, pianist Henry Prince, saxophonist Les Hite and 22-year-old drummer Lionel Hampton. Photograph: The Jack Bradley Collection, Louis Armstrong House Museum

On tour in New Orleans, his home town, Armstrong handed out cash in the street, bought a radio set for the orphanage where he grew up, and was the first African American to do his own announcing on city radio. In a first for black musicians, he published an autobiography, Swing That Music, in 1936. The following year, he was the first African American to host a national radio show, and get featured billing in a Hollywood film. For O’Meally, the Columbia jazzer who grew up sceptical, Armstrong’s importance for the cause of racial equality is simply “incalculable.”

At the same time, working the culture from within could raise difficult questions. His stage persona – later problematised by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s – seemed to fit the cloying stereotypes manufactured by a cynical white media. “He made a lot of black people uncomfortable”, the African American critic Gerald Early said, and Miles Davis, still fond of Armstrong, resented his penchant for “clowning”.

His film appearances in the 1930s posed a particular challenge. In Pennies from Heaven, a launchpad for Armstrong’s multimedia success, he played a mentally challenged farmer that couldn’t count. He was draped in a Tarzan cape in a movie soon after, and was even directly named Uncle Tom in another.

Riccardi offers a subtler take. The tide had certainly turned against him by the 1960s, he concedes, but African Americans were once overwhelmingly supportive of Armstrong. “The black press, they constantly praised his personality” while he rose to fame, he says. “They love the showmanship. They love everything. And I think that’s what always rankled Armstrong [with the Uncle Tom allegations, because] that persona, the smile, the humour, the jokes, the comedy, all the non-musical aspects of his stage persona, were perfected in front of black audiences.”

“I wouldn’t judge Armstrong”, O’Meally says. “The delicacy of the balancing act meant that at times he did fall, he did falter, and contradicted what Martin Luther King and others were trying to do.”

Testing the demarcation lines of jazz would always touch on race, too. “Jazz is an extension of the black voice, of black style, of moving”, O’Meally says. And even as Armstrong moved away from jazz and apparently pandered to white audiences, O’Meally still detects an immutable black essence in his music: “a sense of an audience around the corner”, one away from the white wings, to whom he was really performing.

How Armstrong affected jazz music itself is equally contestable. Catherine Russell is a jazz singer and the daughter of Luis Russell, who worked as Armstrong’s bandleader, including on Song of the Islands, a 1930 Hawaiian muzak single some considered “the beginning of the end”. Jazz has always been a mixture of “high art” and “folk art”, she says, and Armstrong never affected a particular loyalty to either.

His best work, she says – especially the Hot Five recordings of the 1920s – are hardly classical fineries. Big Butter and Egg Man, Irish Black Bottom, Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa: the Hot Five were dealing in the everyday crudities of blues, putting New Orleans street humour to song. Things would change in the 1940s. Led by Dizzy Gillespie and Parker in New York, the new bebop sound paid little mind to the demands of easy listening. It was harsher, more cerebral, heavily improvised, and conceived as a direct challenge to what Gillespie termed Armstrong’s “Uncle Tom sound”.

Armstrong saw danger in bebop. Its “weird notes” and “Chinese music” was made only for other musicians, he feared, and the consequences would soon come to bear. You could plausibly trace the bebop germ to the 1960s, when it flowered in the dissonant avant garde of free jazz: a sound so harsh and abrasive, the story goes, that black audiences were driven to more accessible alternatives in other genres. If musicians had kept a closer eye on Armstrong’s open-ended approach, Riccardi asks, one wonders where jazz may have headed, and how popular it’d be today.

From left to right: Dizzy Gillespie, unidentified, Louis Armstrong, Arvell Shaw and Big Sid Catlett at a nightclub in the late 1940s.
From left to right: Dizzy Gillespie, unidentified, Louis Armstrong, Arvell Shaw and Big Sid Catlett at a nightclub in the late 1940s. Photograph: Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Yet mixing genres, as Armstrong did, could dilute jazz’s musical core. Crucially, the closer jazz gets to the pop and institutional mainstream, critic Gary Giddins feared in Visions of Jazz, the more a dependence on “big money”, corporate donations and government grants may gnaw at its inner authenticity: the energy that enabled “its glorious eruptions” last century. But playing the field is often the thing keeping jazz alive, and prompts innovation in its own way: think of Davis’s experiments with funk, the growth of jazz fusion in the 1970s, or how most jazz musicians today make their money from playing in other genres. It was called selling out then; it’s collaboration now.

“I don’t see Armstrong turning against the revolution. He had fomented it in the first place and then stepped aside from it and kept going,” O’Meally says. And no matter how rapacious or all-encroaching the music business gets, nothing can ever kill jazz, he claims. Its musical identity – chordal experimentation, the blues undercurrent, playing with notions of time – remains as influential as ever. Even hip-hop is “one of the extensions of the world of Louis Armstrong”, O’Meally says, pointing to Biggie Smalls’ reputed schooling in jazz.

All in all, maybe Armstrong did “sell out”. But in doing so he secured his place in history. Roy Eldridge, “Hot Lips” Page, Henry “Red” Allen, Rex Stewart: the 20th century had plenty of trumpet gods, but they’re sadly forgotten to most.

Armstrong took a different path. “When the world is ready to define what we mean by modernism, we will realise that the shift away from 19th-century forms of music, vocal and instrumental, was something achieved by African Americans,” O’Meally concludes. “Armstrong led the band.”

• Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong by Ricky Riccardi is out now, published by Oxford University Press."

Not a wonderful world: why Louis Armstrong was hated by so many

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom | Official Trailer | Netflix

'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom' and the Liberating Power of Music

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Liberating Power of Music

Netflix’s new adaptation of August Wilson’s play understands the singular magic of the blues.

As Ma Rainey, Viola Davis moves with calculated swagger and delivers her monologues with rawness and precision.David Lee / Netflix

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins with what seems at first like a harrowing journey. Netflix’s new adaptation of the late August Wilson’s play opens with a foreboding shot of the woods; the only noises are of crickets chirping, dogs barking, and young Black men gasping for air as they sprint through the trees. But then, we hear the music. As soon as the men detect Ma Rainey’s thunderous voice spilling out from a tent where the famed blueswoman is singing, we know they’re safe. Cradled by sweet sounds and the chatter of the crowd, they’ve made it home.

Released yesterday on streaming, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the story of a fictionalized Ma (played by Viola Davis) gathering with her backing band to record new songs in a Chicago studio in 1927. The members of the band—Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role), and Toledo (Glynn Turman)—clash with one another and with the white managers producing Ma’s album. But like Wilson’s play, the George C. Wolfe–directed film isn’t just about a brilliant singer, or about the entertainment industry. The story concerns itself chiefly with the role of music in documenting and, in some cases, defusing the unspeakable pains that birthed the blues. Even when no songs are playing, Ma Rainey is a reminder of Wilson’s reverence for the genre. Just as the film takes care to depict its lead’s formidable presence, it pays attention to the larger forces threatening Ma’s artistry—and the lives of all the singers in the room with her.

Read: The 10 best films of 2020

Though some of the disagreements among the band members stem from prosaic matters, much of the conflict in the studio is rooted in the racism of the era. Even when the musicians criticize one another’s style, musically or otherwise, they are really wrestling with their place in the country as Black men. When Toledo mocks Levee’s ostentatious sartorial choices, he scoffs that “more niggas have got killed trying to have a good time than God got ways to count.” Meanwhile, the white record-label managers treat Ma carelessly, seeing her only as a vehicle for their own profit. They botch her recordings, ignore her requests, and interrupt the band’s studio time. Ma knows that the executives, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), don’t actually value her as a person. “They wanna take your voice and trap it in all them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials, and then too cheap to buy you a Coca-Cola,” Ma tells Cutler at one point. “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.”

Along with showcasing her vocal prowess, Wilson’s play imbues the Georgia-born singer with the rebellious spirit that many observed in real life. As the blues scholar Steven C. Tracy wrote in his 1987 essay “A Reconsideration: Hearing Ma Rainey,” “Ma’s southern-drenched voice, echoing the field hollers and folk songs of 16-hour days among turn rows worked so unrelentingly that the laborers could see them in their dreams, had a depth of feeling matched by few other blues singers of her time.” Fittingly, Rainey is played by a southern woman and one of the greatest modern actors: Davis (who won an Oscar for her role in Fences, another Wilson adaptation).

From Ma Rainey’s opening musical performance in the woods, Davis throws all of her artistic gravitas into the portrayal. She moves with calculated swagger and delivers her monologues with rawness and precision. In real life, Rainey was sometimes mocked by northerners for her “country” mannerisms. But as Davis told Vanity Fair, Wilson displayed a deep respect for the speech patterns that came most naturally to southerners such as Rainey and herself. Plus, Davis said, Wilson “lets [Black characters] talk. A lot of times I don’t get to talk. And then sometimes even when I do talk, I’m like, that’s not what I would say.”

The original play premiered as the second in Wilson’s The American Century Cycle, a series of 10 works that each dramatized one decade of Black life in the 20th century. After the concert in the woods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only American Century play set in Chicago) doesn’t have any more scenes in Georgia. But for Wilson, exploring the resistance baked into mundane parts of Black life meant emphasizing the southern sensibilities that Black people held onto even after leaving the region. The Netflix adaptation’s screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, sought to preserve Wilson’s interest in conveying the “nobility and courage” of his characters. “Their values, their integrity, the way they do things, their recipes, and the way they worship and courted—I had to keep all that intact,” Santiago-Hudson, a longtime collaborator of Wilson’s and a playwright himself, told me. “The music of August Wilson is his writing. And his writing is exactly what he heard from the people.”

Other writers might have portrayed Ma, a queer, dark-skinned woman born in 1886, as a wholly tragic character; Wilson’s play and Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation resist that narrow vision in part by focusing on the power of her music. Brash though she may be, Ma speaks with a defiance honed by years of working in an industry that first discarded her. To witness her singing is to feel that vulnerability and triumph, if only you know how to listen. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stresses how integral music is to keeping its protagonist, and all Black people, alive. “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the film. Wilson’s writing underscores the legacy of suffering that created the blues—and the comfort the music provides. “You don’t sing to feel better,” Ma explains in one scene. “You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone.”

In his final role before his death, Chadwick Boseman inhabits Levee, a zealous and temperamental trumpet player, with characteristic grace. (David Lee / Netflix)

Wilson once called the blues “the bedrock of everything I do.” As he told The Believer in 2004, a year before his death, “all the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues.” Like Wilson, Santiago-Hudson embraces the literary virtue of the blues. Both men have marveled at the genre’s ability to tell the story of Black America, whose history in this country has largely been distorted by official accountings. “There’s no clearer documentation of our journey than the blues,” Santiago-Hudson said. “The blues’ll tell you when the boll-weevil crop wiped out all the cotton. The blues’ll tell you when Martin Luther King [Jr.] got killed.” The genre gave Wilson the name of one Pittsburghplay and provided the thematic foundation of many others. And it has brought Black artists together and had a seismic influence on the cultural landscape of America.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t suggest that making music is a panacea for Black people. The characters wrestle with the failure of white power brokers to grasp the depth of Black art; at the same time, the musicians grapple with racism’s hold on other areas of their lives. Some of the movie’s most affecting scenes feature Levee, a zealous and temperamental trumpet player, whom Boseman inhabits with characteristic grace. Levee alternates between deference to a label manager and confrontation with Toledo, who chastises the younger musician for pandering to an indifferent white executive. Boseman’s Levee is a hothead, to be sure, but he’s also a wounded man whose craft eases the grief of losing his father to racist violence. “Me and this horn, we’s tight. If my daddy had-a knowed I was gon’ turn out like this, he woulda named me Gabriel,” he jokes early on. “I know how to play real music, not this old jug-band shit. I got style.”

Read: Chadwick Boseman gave us something we had not had before

Through casual conversations such as these, Ma Rainey lays bare the effects of 1920s racism, and the frustration of seeing Black art filtered through white arbiters’ visions of commercial success. In real life, Rainey was said to have reserved her best singing not for the technologically shaky records that her label produced, but for live concerts in front of Black audiences, who responded to her with wonder and genuine appreciation. In the film, the ecstatic opening performance is a visceral illustration of what Bonnie Raitt called “the fire and gusto” of her voice at Rainey’s 1990 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The most famous blues artists of the early 20th century challenged white entertainment institutions, whether record labels or performance venues. These musicians demanded more ethical treatment than such institutions were accustomed to giving Black people, especially women. Billie Holiday, whose complicated legacy gets a thoughtful investigation in a recently released documentaryrejected the societal expectations placed on her. Like Rainey, she resented the gatekeepers who held her career in their hands even as the talent was all her own.

No matter how varied the arc of their stories, these women, like so many of their fellow musicians throughout history, found ways to keep the best of themselves for the people who most understood the traumas sublimated into their songs. With their music, they charted a path toward collective understanding, if not also healing. They did what Santiago-Hudson noted that Black artists such as Rainey—and Davis and Boseman—do best: “With a free hand, we express things that we protect and cherish inside.”

'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom' and the Liberating Power of Music

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

The pathbreaking musician reveals the health issues that make it unlikely he will ever again perform in public.

Daniela Yohannes/ECM Records

The last time Keith Jarrett performed in public, his relationship with the piano was the least of his concerns. This was at Carnegie Hall in 2017, several weeks into the administration of a divisive new American president.

Mr. Jarrett — one of the most heralded pianists alive, a galvanizing jazz artist who has also recorded a wealth of classical music — opened with an indignant speech on the political situation, and unspooled a relentless commentary throughout the concert. He ended by thanking the audience for bringing him to tears.

He had been scheduled to return to Carnegie the following March for another of the solo recitals that have done the most to create his legend — like the one captured on the recording “Budapest Concert,” to be released on Oct. 30. But that Carnegie performance was abruptly canceled, along with the rest of his concert calendar. At the time, Mr. Jarrett’s longtime record label, ECM, cited unspecified health issues. There has been no official update in the two years since.

But this month Mr. Jarrett, 75, broke the silence, plainly stating what happened to him: a stroke in late February 2018, followed by another one that May. It is unlikely he will ever perform in public again.

“I was paralyzed,” he told The New York Times, speaking by phone from his home in northwest New Jersey. “My left side is still partially paralyzed. I’m able to try to walk with a cane, but it took a long time for that, took a year or more. And I’m not getting around this house at all, really.”

Mr. Jarrett didn’t initially realize how serious his first stroke had been. “It definitely snuck up on me,” he said. But after more symptoms emerged, he was taken to a hospital, where he gradually recovered enough to be discharged. His second stroke happened at home, and he was admitted to a nursing facility.

During his time there, from July 2018 until this past May, he made sporadic use of its piano room, playing some right-handed counterpoint. “I was trying to pretend that I was Bach with one hand,” he said. “But that was just toying with something.” When he tried to play some familiar bebop tunes in his home studio recently, he discovered he had forgotten them.

Mr. Jarrett’s voice is softer and thinner now. But over two roughly hourlong conversations, he was lucid and legible, aside from occasional lapses in memory. He often punctuated a heavy or awkward statement with a laugh like a faint rhythmic exhalation: Ah-ha-ha-ha.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Raised in the Christian Science faith, which espouses an avoidance of medical treatment, Mr. Jarrett has returned to those spiritual moorings — up to a point. “I don’t do the ‘why me’ thing very often,” he said. “Because as a Christian Scientist, I would be expected to say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ And I was doing that somewhat when I was in the facility. I don’t know if I succeeded, though, because here I am.”

“I don’t know what my future is supposed to be,” he added. “I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”

After a pause, he reconsidered. “But when I hear two-handed piano music, it’s very frustrating, in a physical way. If I even hear Schubert, or something played softly, that’s enough for me. Because I know that I couldn’t do that. And I’m not expected to recover that. The most I’m expected to recover in my left hand is possibly the ability to hold a cup in it. So it’s not a ‘shoot the piano player’ thing. It’s: I already got shot. Ah-ha-ha-ha.”

IF THE PROSPECT of a Keith Jarrett who no longer considers himself a pianist is dumbfounding, it might be because there has scarcely been a time he didn’t. Growing up in Allentown, Pa., he was a prodigy. According to family lore, he was 3 when an aunt indicated a nearby stream and told him to turn its burbling into music — his first piano improvisation.

Broad public awareness caught up with him in the late 1960s, when he was in a zeitgeist-capturing group led by Charles Lloyd, a saxophonist and flutist. The brilliant drummer in that quartet, Jack DeJohnette, then helped Miles Davis push into rock and funk. Mr. Jarrett followed suit, joining an incandescent edition of Davis’s band; in live recordings, his interludes on electric piano cast a spell.

Roberto Polillo/CTSIMAGES

Mr. Jarrett soon hit on something analogous in his own concerts, allowing improvised passages to become the main event. He was a few years into this approach in 1975, when he performed what would become “The Köln Concert” — a sonorous, mesmerizing landmark that still stands as one of the best-selling solo piano albums ever made. It has also been hailed as an object lesson in triumph over adversity, including Mr. Jarrett’s physical pain and exhaustion at the time, and his frustration over an inferior piano.

That sense of overcoming intransigent obstacles is an enduring feature of Mr. Jarrett’s myth. At times over the years, it could even seem that he set up his own roadblocks: turning concerts into trials of herculean intensity, and famously interrupting them to admonish his audience for taking pictures, or for excessive coughing. A New York Times Magazine profile in 1997 bore a wry headline: “The Jazz Martyr.” The following year, Mr. Jarrett announced that he’d been struggling with the consuming and mysterious ailment known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Binde/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

While regaining strength, he recorded a series of songbook ballads in his home studio (later released as the touching, exquisite album “The Melody at Night, With You”). Then he reconvened his longtime trio, a magically cohesive unit with Mr. DeJohnette and the virtuoso bassist Gary Peacock.

Their first comeback concert, in 1998, recently surfaced on record, joining a voluminous discography. It captures a spirit of joyous reunion not only for Mr. Jarrett and his trio partners but also between a performing artist and his public. He titled that album “After the Fall”; ECM released it in March 2018, unwittingly around the time of his first stroke.

Loss has shrouded Mr. Jarrett’s musical circle of late. Mr. Peacock died last month, at 85. Jon Christensen, the drummer in Mr. Jarrett’s influential European quartet of the 1970s, died earlier this year. Mr. Jarrett also led a groundbreaking American quartet in the ’70s, and its other members — the saxophonist Dewey Redman, the bassist Charlie Haden, the drummer Paul Motian, all major figures in modern jazz — have passed on, too.

Faced with these and other difficult truths, Mr. Jarrett hasn’t exactly found solace in music, as he once would have. But he derives satisfaction from some recordings of his final European solo tour. He directed ECM to release the tour’s closing concert last year, as “Munich 2016.” He’s even more enthusiastic about the tour opener, “Budapest Concert,” which he briefly considered calling “The Gold Standard.”

AS HE BEGINS to come to terms with his body of work as a settled fact, Mr. Jarrett doesn’t hesitate to plant a flag.

“I feel like I’m the John Coltrane of piano players,” he said, citing the saxophonist who transformed the language and spirit of jazz in the 1960s. “Everybody that played the horn after he did was showing how much they owed to him. But it wasn’t their music. It was just an imitative thing.”

Of course, imitation — even of oneself — is anathema to the pure, blank-slate invention Mr. Jarrett still claims as his method. “I don’t have an idea of what I’m going to play, any time before a concert,” he said. “If I have a musical idea, I say no to it.” (Describing this process, he still favors the present tense.)

Beyond his own creative resources, the conditions of every concert are unique: the characteristics of the piano, the sound in the hall, the mood of the audience, even the feel of a city. Mr. Jarrett had performed in Budapest four times before his 2016 concert at the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, feeling an affinity he ascribes to personal factors: His maternal grandmother was Hungarian, and he played Bartok’s music from an early age.

“I felt like I had some reason to be close to the culture,” he said.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The embrace of folkloric music by Bartok and other Hungarian composers further nudged Mr. Jarrett toward a dark quality — “a kind of existential sadness, let’s say, a deepness” — powerfully present in the concert’s first half. The second half, as admirers of “The Köln Concert” will appreciate, features a few of Mr. Jarrett’s most ravishing on-the-spot compositions. Those ballads, like “Part V” and “Part VII,” spark against briskly atonal or boppish pieces, gradually building the case for a mature expression that might not have been possible earlier in his career.

Part of that evolution has to do with the structure of Mr. Jarrett’s solo concerts, which used to unfold in long, unbroken arcs but now involve a collection of discrete pieces, with breaks for applause. Often the overarching form of these more recent concerts is only apparent after the fact. But Budapest was an exception.

“I saw this one while I was in it, which is why I chose that as the best concert on that entire tour,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I mean, I knew it. I knew something was happening.”

The crucial factor, he acknowledged, was an uncommonly receptive audience. “Some audiences seem to applaud more when there’s something crazy going on,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I wasn’t looking at that in Budapest.”

Given that Mr. Jarrett has made all but a small portion of his recorded output in front of an audience, his cantankerous reputation might best be understood as the turbulent side of a codependent relationship. He put the matter most succinctly during a Carnegie Hall solo concert in 2015, when he announced, “Here’s the big deal that nobody seems to realize: I could not do it without you.”

Norman Seeff

As he renegotiates his bond with the piano, Mr. Jarrett faces the likelihood of that other relationship — the one with the public — coming to an end.

“Right now, I can’t even talk about this,” he said when the issue came up, and laughed his deflective laugh. “That’s what I feel about it.”

And while the magnificent achievement of “Budapest Concert” is a source of pride, it’s not hard to see how it could also register as a cosmic taunt.

“I can only play with my right hand, and it’s not convincing me anymore,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I even have dreams where I am as messed up as I really am — so I’ve found myself trying to play in my dreams, but it’s just like real life.”

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Stanley Crouch, combative writer, intellectual and authority on jazz, dies at 74

Stanley Crouch, combative writer, intellectual and authority on jazz, dies at 74

Stanley Crouch in 2013.
Stanley Crouch in 2013. (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

“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.“