Stanley Crouch and Teachout's Cat

by Brendan Wolfe

I was being unfair, Albert, in asking you to provide some context regarding Crouch's views, when I have that context at hand myself. My point was that without that context -- which wasn't provided by you or, in the excerpt you posted, by Sandke -- talk of agendas and political correctness is just that: talk.

So here's an excerpt from my book-in-progress from the first of two chapters that tackles the always thorny issue of Bix and race.

Writes Stanley Crouch: "Beiderbecke ceases to be a great musician and becomes a pawn in the ongoing attempt to deny the blues its primary identity as Negro-developed, introspective music, which is about coming to understand oneself and the world through contemplation. To recognize that would be to recognize the possibility of the Negro having a mind and one that could conceive an aesthetic overview that distinguished the music as a whole. Troublesome person, that Negro -- especially one with an aesthetic."

"Thats the big problem with Stanley Crouch," [Terry] Teachout responded. "My cat knows more about music than he does. So Stanley exudes these clouds of rhetoric which sometimes are evocative, although he really needs better editing, but he does not know anything about the stuff of music."

Crouch's quotation comes from "The Negro Aesthetic of Jazz," an essay collected in Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006), page 212. Crouch was reacting to this, from the same essay: "Martin Williams, the late, great jazz critic and himself a white Southerner, told me [Crouch] once that there used to be a group of white jazz musicians who would say, when there were only white guys around, 'Louis Armstrong and those people had a nice little primitive thing going, but we really didn't have what we now call jazz until Jack Teagarden, Bix, Trumbauer, and their gang gave it some sophistication'" (212).

In this instance, I think Crouch's point is driven primarily by his political and social agenda. Which is fine by me. There are perfectly valid points to be made about Bix Beiderbecke in the context of politics and social studies. However, a criticism of his art is not particularly well served under those circumstance. Crouch has every right to dislike Bix's music, or at least not rate it as highly as Louis Armstrong's, but we should be skeptical when he dislikes it for reasons that aren't strictly musical. By the same token, I encourage his skepticism in response to those who would categorize the music of "those people" as merely "primitive" next to white "sophistication."

I sometimes think that this talk of "agendas" and "political correctness" is a symptom of our tendency to too quickly paint ourselves as victims in these discussions. And I think it helps to look closely at that original Crouch quotation above -- he wasn't talking about Bix's music at all; rather, he was talking about the way we use Bix as a pawn. That much, I think, is true.

Posted on Mar 31, 2010, 2:29 PM

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