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Book Reviews

Considering Genius: Writings On Jazz

By Published: January 26, 2007
Considering Genius: Writings On Jazz
Stanley Crouch
Hardcover; 339 pages
ISBN: 9780465015177
Perseus Books Group
2006

Stanley Crouch's Considering Genius is a collection of essays on jazz that spans the writer's thirty-year career as social critic, arbiter of jazz aesthetics, and antagonist to the jazz establishment. Covering a wide swath of musical and cultural territory, the collection includes essays on some of the great jazz musicians, the roots of neo-conservative jazz aesthetics, and the notorious Jazz Times columns that knocked a self-satisfied jazz establishment back on its heels. Also featured are ample doses of Crouch's scathing criticism on the politics of racial victimization and the over emphasis in jazz on innovation at the expense of authenticity.

While Crouch can be outspoken, arcane, and at times downright caustic, his knowledge of the music is unassailable. In Considering Genius, he combines musical expertise with a keen ability to articulate universal themes of expression in jazz, making it a valuable and highly informative collection.

In his prologue, Crouch offers an up close and personal look at the musical and cultural influences that shaped his perspective while growing up in Los Angeles during the 1960s. He discusses the impact of the Watts riot, the growing influence of Black Nationalism, and how Ralph Ellison's concepts of personal meaning and cultural synthesis led him to reject the "rhetorical wind-up toys of the black separatist movement.

Crouch cultivated his early jazz roots with the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, but he cites John Lewis and the MJQ as an example of a "Negro version of cool jazz that blossomed forward in a blue heat that was decidedly unique and not at all cool. Also pivotal in Crouch's perspective is the work of Charles Murray—author of Stomping The Blues—who articulated the idea of blues music as a vehicle for poetic and universal artistic expression with roots in the African-American experience.

While Ellison and Murray form the basis for Crouch's intellectual perspective, it is Duke Ellington's music that embodies what he calls the "Negro aesthetic in jazz. Ellington's mastery of blues expression and his personal poise and integrity seem to capture Ellison's ideal of cultural synthesis and Murray's concept of the blues as a fine art. Much to the chagrin of some jazz progressives, Crouch cites Ellington as a touchstone for the "irrefutable elements in jazz: 4/4 time, blues, ballads, swing feeling, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. While some take issue with this definition as restrictive and self serving, Crouch demonstrates convincingly that his jazz aesthetic is based on a tough-minded optimism borne of African-American experience, and one that requires its practitioners to meet the demands of the music rather than side step them.

In his essays on musicians, Crouch explores one of his favorite topics, that mastery of the essential elements of the jazz tradition is a prerequisite for innovation. Crouch explains that Charles Mingus' deep experience with many of the jazz masters enabled him to fuse disparate elements of the tradition and reinterpret the jazz rhythm section. Miles Davis, we are told, learned the "epistemology of the blues from Charlie Parker, and followed the example of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Billie Holiday in whittling down the jazz language to its basic elements. In "Rooster Ben: King Of Romance Crouch shows us that Ben Webster was a master of nuance and expression who offered an alternative to the European standard of instrumental virtuosity. Sometimes you get the feeling that Crouch is reaching just a little too far to make some of these connections, but more often than not he offers compelling insight into the underlying continuity in jazz.

Aside from his more controversial pronouncements about jazz, there is no doubt that Crouch communicates unabashed joy for the possibilities in the music. In discussing the drummer, Billy Higgins, he writes, "Higgins was the freest of anyone I have ever heard. If you liked to play on the front of the beat that was fine with him, if you played in the middle he could get with that, and if you liked to lag in the caboose he could get to that car and hang all the way back there with you. Crouch can make you mad, and he can make you laugh out loud, but he will definitely make you think. This is excellent and insightful writing on jazz.



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