I’ve been doing some reading today of two of my favorite living essayists, Stanley Crouch and Nat Hentoff. They are both intellectuals, cultural observers, literary critics and, primarily, jazz critics. Both have written for the Village Voice. Both are also relatively controversial figures, for different reasons.
Crouch is controversial for many reasons. He is a black intellectual who still uses the term “negro”; he calls afrocentrism a “simple-minded hustle” and Louis Farrakhan “insane”; and he has had a few major run-ins with colleagues, one of which led to his dismissal from the Voice. He has had very public feuds with the jazz critic and black radical Amiri Baraka and with Cornel West, among others. He is very close friends with Wynton Marsalis, the most towering figure in jazz today, and he often writes the liner notes for his recordings (he and Marsalis formed the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, of which Marsalis is artistic director. If you ever have the opportunity to see them perform on their tours around the country, please take it. I’ve seen them 3 times and have walked away thrilled every time). Though he often has criticized prominent black intellectuals and leaders of playing up their victim status, last year he lashed out at the “white jazz establishment” for elevating white jazz musicians whose work did not merit such attention and, as a result, was fired as a critic for JazzTimes, one of the two most influential jazz magazines.
Hentoff is controversial for different reasons. He is a fierce and eloquent civil libertarian who has taken his fellow civil libertarians to task for sometimes allowing their sympathy for minorities and the historically oppressed to overrule their defense of free speech and free thought, particularly with such things as hate speech codes on college campuses. But the real quirk here is that, unlike most civil libertarians, Hentoff is anti-abortion. This is not a religious position, for Hentoff is an agnostic Jew, but it is a position he states and defends with vigor. Like Crouch, he has been in the inner circle of some of the greatest jazz musicians in history. He was particularly close to the legendary Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.
There are two things I primarily like about both men. First, they both have a habit of slaughtering the sacred cows that you might expect them to worship instead. I like that kind of intellectual iconoclasm. Second, they have both eloquently articulated how jazz, with its focus on improvisation within a framework, acts as a metaphor for a free society. Each individual must find their own voice, but within the context of the group and the groove. They are free to express themselves, but each musician also has responsibilities to the rest of the band.
In reading an interview with Crouch in Salon, I came across a couple of passages I wanted to throw out to my readers. Addressing the increasing balkinization of American culture, and particularly the notion of black separatism, Crouch says:
It seems to have seeped into the DNA of the society, this idea that one group cannot be understood by another group, etc., etc. So if you’re not black, you can’t understand the black experience; if you’re not American Indian, you can’t understand that; if you’re not a women, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Now during the civil rights movement, the central issue was to get people free of the limitations that were the result of circumscribed impositions based on their categories. In other words, to get rid of the notion that if you were black, you couldn’t do x, y and z. In other words, it wasn’t who you are, but what you are. That was the target of the civil rights movement, the notion that category precluded essence. In my book, I look at a lot of false divisions that people have created and accepted, and I propose that there’s a lot more that connects us as Americans and that these things are quite evident to other people…
Black nationalism didn’t just derail the civil rights movement; it obliterated it in favor of a tribalism that was based on some kind of black unity and eventually some kind of Third World unity, functioning in opposition to the great devil of all times, the West. One of the problems is that for Negro Americans to embrace these colonial metaphors, they’re not removing blindfolds from their eyes, but putting a blindfold on. The fact is that African-Americans are at the very center of American culture. African-Americans have been here since before most white people got here. African-Americans are central to the American sense of humor, to American music, to American dance. They’ve been fundamental to the expansion of the social contract, the purifying of the Constitution toward the greatest ideals of the society.
I think he makes a profound point. African-American culture IS American culture. In terms of art forms, in many cases what is quintessentially American came out of black experience, particularly in music. Jazz and blues are purely American art forms, but both came out of black America, not white America. And as Crouch points out later, much of the southern food that is so much a part of American cuisine – fried chicken, black eyed peas, red beans and rice, barbecue – were invented by slaves.
An even more important point, I think, is the notion that the early struggle for emancipation from slavery and the later struggle for civil rights for blacks were the primary forces that pushed America to live up to its founding ideals, to move them from rhetoric to reality. Those struggles were the furnace that forged our modern commitment to the cause of freedom and fulfilled the promise that was made in the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King spoke of the Declaration not as the empty words of slaveowners but as a promissory note that needed to be paid. Crouch brings this idea back again in discussing the power of jazz as an art form:
Also, it’s a democratic musical form. It’s based upon the interplay between the individual and the ensemble, which is what our social contract is about. It’s about the individual in the community. Jazz also has an unsentimental vision of life.
We would be better off if we didn’t always sentimentalize everything and everyone. We sentimentalize the great figures of our past, and then we find out that they were human beings who did both things that were exceptional and other things that perhaps weren’t savory at all. Then people want to reject the whole deal. That’s the adolescent morality that you find in rock ‘n’ roll. We have to be able to see both the good and the bad. That’s what being grown-up is all about. We have to strive toward what I call an unsentimental patriotism, one that faces 200 years of slavery, the decimation of the Indians, the second-class citizenship of women, child exploitation and terrible labor conditions, but one that also recognizes that we came through with the unions, that women and minorities moved themselves into the center of the dialogue and therefore took the country closer to being the thing that it was originally conceived as.