Jazz Writer Crouch, 'Considering Genius' of Jazz

Ed Gordon talks to cultural critic Stanley Crouch about his new book Considering Genius, a collection of jazz essays.

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ED GORDON, host:

Stanley Crouch is one of America's best-known cultural critics. He makes it no secret that jazz music is his main passion. His new book, Considering Genius, is a collection of essays about jazz that he's written over the years. In the introduction to the book, Crouch reveals how his love for music was born.

He talks about the handful of recordings that made him come to see the genius of jazz. One of those recordings is John Coltrane's interpretation of the song Afro Blue.

(Soundbite of song Afro Blue)

Mr. STANLEY CROUCH (Author, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz): Well, here we are, Afro Blue. John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. Birdland, 1963. By a (unintelligible) Afro Blue a great deal from when I first heard it probably in 1963 because of the way in which the blues and Latin music were brought together so well, and also African music. That is, in the rhythms that Elvin Jones was playing on the drums. And I found that extraordinarily exciting.

(Soundbite of song Afro Blue)

GORDON: Talk to me about where you developed the love of music and, in particular, jazz.

Mr. CROUCH: Well, in Considering Genius, I talk about my early life in Los Angeles and the fact that my mother had recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller in the house. And I was first attracted to the recordings that she has or had.

And then I went on to discover later the jazz community in Los Angeles. And through them I learned about Sonny Rollins, about Thelonious Monk. Some pill heads behind the house introduced me to John Coltrane and My Favorite Things, which they would only play after they had smoked enough reefer and dropped enough pills to feel that they were ready for this new music because it was too deep for you to appreciate if you weren't high.

So they would - you know, so if you came back there and they hadn't gotten to that point they wanted to get to, they'd say, well, look, little brother, we getting there. We ain't there yet. When we get there, we're going put that My Favorite Things on. Yeah, we're going to play it. So they were like that. But they liked the music.

So in the introduction to Considering Genius I give a lot of detail about those people, about - and meeting of many of the titans of jazz in these little clubs and getting to know them.

GORDON: Yeah, I'm going to get into that in just a minute, Stanley. Because that's very interesting how you paint the portrait, a far truer portrait (unintelligible) of many of these people. And it makes them more complex and more interesting in my mind than most of what we often read.

But one of the things I wanted to get you to talk about is the idea of how personal songs can be. We asked you of some of your favorites. One of the ones you mentioned is a song titled Just Friends by the great Charlie Parker. Talk to me about how this speaks to you and why this is so special to you.

Mr. CROUCH: As I talk about in Considering Genius, Charlie Parker became a hero to me because my father, who had been a drug addict during World War II, told me that once he was in San Francisco and he went to hear Charlie Parker play. There were these two women who sat in the audience and they were so enthralled by Parker's playing that they didn't go to the bathroom. They wet their seats rather than to get up and miss one note that came out of his saxophone.

(Soundbite of song Just Friends)

Mr. CROUCH: So being a kid that entranced me and then I started reading about him. He was a gifted as this kind of superhuman dissipater and this extraordinary genius and great virtuoso.

My father took me over to the home of the guy who had been one of Parker's drug connections in Los Angeles during World War II. And it was a very extraordinary experience to sit there between these guys. And it seemed to me that they would disappear then back through this mist and they would go back to a time that I didn't know.

And so then I bought a record called The Essential Charlie Parker on Verve Records. And when I played Just Friends, just the sheer beauty of his sound on the alto saxophone, I didn't know anybody could play it like that. Charlie Parker, the way he played it on that was, that told me there was something special about him.

(Soundbite of song Just Friends)

GORDON: When you read the essays and the writing, you get a sense of the intricacies of many of these men who played this music. But what is it about jazz, particularly in a certain period, Stanley, that you believe speaks to A) the American heart so well, and B) the complexity of life? It seems to me that it is not just a myth that this music was so complex.

Mr. CROUCH: Well, the first thing is that I think it's perfect for America because most of all the jazz player has to develop an individual sound and style and also has to be able to play with other people and as an improviser, which means that he or she has to be able to make his or her notes fit in with the group. So that means that the improvisation connects it to a democratic way of making music.

But finally, it's about democratic means being used to achieve utopian ends. That is, if this group of people who have been transformed by the groove, they become this utopian entity in which they achieve perfection. And everybody looks for that. That doesn't happen that often, doesn't happen that often, but sometimes it's a lot of fun just to experience people trying hard to get there.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Stanley, you write about Duke Ellington, you write about Miles Davis. You write about some of the other greats, Ahmad Jamal and others. Was there a particular string that touched each one of these men that you found interesting throughout the years?

Mr. CROUCH: Yeah. Well, see, the thing to me was that - see, every great artist is always in a complex, subtle, profoundly powerful, extraordinarily nuanced, dialogue with the past in which the great artist attempts to re-imagine the actual fundamentals of the art.

And I was always intrigued, once I became aware of it, of how the four simple elements that come up in jazz over and over were; 4/4 swing, the romantic or meditative ballad, Latin music, or it's opened even more to include many different influences from the third world, and finally, the blues. So all of these guys - Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker - they all addressed those core values and those core elements and they all re-imagined them and thereby added other possibilities to the art form. And I always find that extremely exciting.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Music critic Stanley Crouch. Crouch's new book of essays is called Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.

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