NEW YORK (AP) — Stanley Crouch, a contentious and influential critic, columnist and self-taught Renaissance man who in fiction and nonfiction was inspired by his knowledge and love of blues and jazz and his impulse to step over the line, died Wednesday at age 74.
His wife, Gloria Nixon-Crouch, told The Associated Press that he died at a hospice in New York City. He had been in poor health in recent years after suffering a stroke.
Crouch’s work was ever a blend of high art and street talk, the prose version of what he considered the profound democracy of jazz. In a career dating back the 1960s, Crouch was a columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Daily News, a guest on NPR and Charlie Rose’s show, a jazz drummer, a founder of what became Jazz at Lincoln Center and mentor to Wynton Marsalis, an aficionado of baseball and American folklore and scourge of Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Amira Baraka among others.
He had a knack for turning up anywhere, whether dining with then-Vice President Al Gore, chatting up musicians at the Village Vanguard or making a special appearance at a ceremony for the National Board of Review awards, when he accepted a prize on behalf of Quentin Tarantino, who appreciated Crouch’s praise for “Pulp Fiction.” He was also a favorite of documentary maker Ken Burns, his commentary appearing in “Jazz” and “The Civil War” among other films.
Crouch was deeply immersed in the past and in some ways preferred it — scorning fusion and other more recent incarnations of jazz and identifying with the term “Negro” over African American. A deep-voiced, bulky man who once slapped the face of a reviewer who had panned his novel “Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome,” he was equally emphatic whether rhapsodizing over Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, disparaging gangsta rap (“‘Birth of a Nation’ with a backbeat”) or admiring Barack Obama (“a rhythm and blues guy”).
Warm words from Crouch were savored if only for the ferocity, even extremity, of his scorn. He called Lee a “middle-class would-be street Negro” and Morrison a writer “perforated by ideology,” turning out “bathtub corn liquor.” He and Baraka so despised each other that when New Yorker writer Robert Boynton called Baraka for a story on Crouch in 1995, the poet called Crouch ”a backwards, asinine person” and hung up the phone.
“Crouch has a virtually insatiable appetite for controversy,” Boynton wrote.
Crouch’s criticism was collected into “Notes of a Hanging Judge,” “The All-American Skin Game” and other books. He published the first installment of his Parker biography, “Kansas City Lightning,” in 2007. He had been working on a second volume, but could not complete it because of his health. His honors included a Whiting Award, the Windham-Campbell Prize and being named a Jazz Master in 2019 by the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a visiting professor at Columbia University and president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Crouch is survived by his wife, a daughter and granddaughter.
Crouch was raised in Los Angeles by his mother and from childhood on wanted to learn, reading William Faulkner, Mark Twain and other canonical writers and teaching himself how to drum. He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s who was radicalized by the 1965 Watts riots but later turned against Black nationalism. Crouch became an heir to the intellectual tradition of such fellow Black writers as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, advocating the spontaneity and inclusiveness of jazz as the finest qualities of “this crazy quilt called America.” In a 2011 Daily News column, he savored “those affirmative, good-time American moments capable of transcending one-dimensional materialism.”
“That is the essence of jazz in all its styles and is the continuing essence of Americana when lived to its most potent vitality,” he wrote, “the top and the bottom mixed into a seamless liquidity of many flavors, all recognized for the light of their deeply human sources.”