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A Fireside Chat with Stanley Crouch

By Published: February 22, 2005

Rebellion is now of convention. Rebellion is sold by Wall Street. It is sold by Madison Avenue. It is sold by Hollywood.

A novelist and civil commentator who has been censured for his strong social scrutiny, Stanley Crouch is a provocative voice. And while his philosophical positions are contested, his significant influence as an important public intellectual is beyond debate.

All About Jazz: You can't judge a book by its cover. However, The Artificial White Man is fairly candid.

Stanley Crouch: The title, The Artificial White Man , is a large part of the book because it addresses the question of artificiality and how in our civil minded conceptions of life in America, breaking down into categories like black and white, we miss all of the cross influences and distinctions that give people their individuality.

AAJ: But America's mainstream is hardly individual and barely original.

SC: Well, the first thing is the conformity is usually an established repetition of something that once upon a time was original. For instance, if you look at The Godfather. If you look at Star Wars. If you look at Alien. Those were three movies that were very original at the time that they arrived. What they have produced is an ongoing series of imitations that created another convention.

Rebellion is now of convention. Rebellion is sold by Wall Street. It is sold by Madison Avenue. It is sold by Hollywood. It is a cosmetic form of rebellion; hats turned backwards, tattoos, nose rings, all of that stuff is cosmetic. It doesn't necessarily mean you're rebelling against anything. You're actually following the crowd. The next step will be to move away from that.

AAJ: An archetype of such cosmetic rebellion exists in modern mainstream jazz. Where jazz music once reflected the period; swing to the '20s, free jazz to the '60s, mainstream jazz is a series of pronounced retrospectives.

SC: The problem is that the conventions of rock and roll, the conventions of rebellion have been projected as the identity of jazz. In other words, people don't know that Duke Ellington and all of those guys were dressing beautifully, speaking perfectly, and playing all of that extraordinary music, that they were rebelling against the minstrel images that now dominate us again in the form of gangsta rap videos. So whenever you see a jazz musician going on the bandstand, no matter what style he or she plays, if that person doesn't look like a minstrel figure, doesn't look like some kind of video hoochie, that person is a rebel. That person is rebelling against the minstrel convention of the moment, which is quite popular by the way. It's not as though these people are dealing with something old. They're dealing with something that is new right now, which is a rebellion against minstrelsy.

AAJ: When you condemn gangsta rap, aren't you fighting city hall? This isn't a subculture any longer. It is the predominate cultural influence.

SC: It is contemporary minstrelsy. You have to remember that minstrelsy was once very big. Minstrelsy was extremely popular when it came out. People didn't imitate the minstrels off stage like they do now, but that was definitely a big industry and created all these products that had all these grinning "coon" figures.

All of that was part of the minstrelsy that dominated American life in terms of its popular culture. That's what we're in the middle of now and it has to be recognized for what it is.

AAJ: People often reference this utopian society without color lines, is that a reasonable expectation?

SC: One of the things that I talk about is that fact that it's not a question of whether people see color or don't see color. The question is whether or not they see your individuality. It is not a question of whether there are certain distinct things that make the styles of ethnic groups different from one another. The question is whether or not his individual strengths or her strengths is visible. That is what people have to seek out.

We've come a long, long way. I was a young man during the Civil Rights era. We've come a long ways past that, but we began in the '60s to accept the idea that there was a separate world of black and white. For example, as I point out in The Artificial White Man , what Francis Ford Coppola was attempting to do in The Godfather created in gangsta rap, the position of Michael Corleone as an icon to be imitated. As did Brian De Palma's Scarface created Tony Montana as an icon. That is not what these men had in mind.

If there wasn't a separation of worlds then these movies could not have had such a powerful impact on these black lower class kids. That proves that the distances between groups in this country is larger than people claim they are. However, for all of our problems, we have enormous reserves. We're capable of rising out of the ditches that we might find ourselves in at this time. We've come in 70 years from a period when people took their children to public lynchings. That is not something that can be dismissed. But the important thing that people should remember is that after September 11, neither the President of the United States nor the people of the United States responded to American Muslims the way that people in the Islamic world would have responded to Americans had a guy like Timothy McVeigh and other parallel lunatics flown three passengers planes into civilian targets in the Islamic world. The Muslims would have torn every American that they could get their hands on to pieces. We know that for a fact. The fact is that in the United States, that kind of mass hysteria did not take place is a sign of how far we've come and how far the world itself can go.

AAJ: Isn't that a mark of civility, that people aren't savages? That really isn't a sign of a utopian society.

SC: Well, do you see it in the world? You don't see it in the Islamic world at all. You saw what happened in Nigeria recently. Somebody wrote something in the newspaper (published book) that the Muslims in northern Nigeria didn't like and they went and burned down churches and attacked anybody on the street who supposedly looked Christian and a couple hundred people were killed before they were able to quiet them down. That's what we're dealing with. It doesn't have anything to do with the religion, but it has to do with a fundamental hysteria that exists in that culture. We can't look down on that hysteria because that kind of hysteria has appeared too many times in our own American past to pretend that we don't know what it is.

AAJ: As co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, what is the social importance of the new $128 million home for JALC in the Time Warner Center?

SC: It is the first time, not only in the United States, but the entire world that a major hall has been built for jazz, built to get the sound of jazz right, and to get past things that all of us have been so discouraged about over the years when we go to these great halls where symphony orchestras sound good, but jazz bands sound terrible because the acoustics of the building are not made to deal with cymbals and the other things that create the sound of jazz. That's one thing. Then there's a club in there, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola that can compete with any club in the United States for sound. There is another smaller room that is equally great. The point is that this is an example that will hopefully be imitated in Chicago, in Philadelphia, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, that we will get these halls that are built for jazz and we will have this serious consideration of the music.

AAJ: There exists a significant amount of discourse involving the perceived elitist programming of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

SC: I say to the critics what I always say, Greg Osby has played up there. Jason Moran has played up there. Dewey Redman has played there. I don't exactly know what they want, but if they want something that's not there, they can get together and rent a hall and present what they think needs to be presented. People have done that in the past. I've been in New York 30 years and I've never seen any group of critics ever go in their pockets and get together and produce any concerts with any of these people they claim are being ignored. I've never seen it. That wasn't true earlier when people like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff came out and put their pennies and nickels and quarters together and rent Town Hall and present Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I would like to see that.

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