Stanley Crouch, 1992 (photo by Martine Bisagni)
The late cultural critic Stanley Crouch was an irascible provocateur known as much for his intellectual jousting and contrariness as for the elegance and verbal horsepower of his written voice.
A longtime proponent of jazz, who entered the musical terrain behind a drum kit, Crouch, a Los Angeles native, often expressed high regard for the foundational sounds of Kansas City. He recognized that the distinctive rhythms and blues-oriented shapes defining the best of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and ’30s were genuine and lasting contributions to the art. “In all of the Kansas City music,” he once wrote, “one will notice the percussive snap of the riffs and the fluidity of the phrasing.”
Crouch’s devoted listening led him to a long project to corral the story of Kansas City’s most important but troubled genius, the saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Parker, as we know, was born in 1920 (in Kansas City, Kansas), and died a mere 35 years later, succumbing to his outsized appetites, including drink and drugs. He was — and still is — mourned for the terrible loss of the supersonic gifts of his musicianship, his lyricism, and his boundless need and uncanny ability to go further. The motto “Bird lives” was much more than a hollow cliché.
When Crouch’s inspired and energized biography of Parker, “Kansas City Lightning,” appeared in 2013, it was understood to be the first of a planned two volumes. The book ended in about 1939, around the time of Parker’s first known recording — solo renditions of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul,” which aficionados group together as “Honey and Body”— and his imminent migration from Kansas City to the essential cauldron of New York’s Harlem. At the time, Crouch writes, Parker had vowed to figure out “how to unlock the genie that was somewhere in his soul.”
Crouch, unfortunately, never finished volume two before he died at 74 in September 2020. But now we know he wrote at least one more chapter about Parker in New York, and that piece has just been published in a vibrant new book of Crouch’s previously uncollected work. “The Street” spans barely a dozen pages of “Victory Is Assured” (from Liveright), but it offers some sizzling scenes of Bird in the famous nightclubs of New York’s 52nd Street, where the races more easily mixed than elsewhere, “making it a circumscribed vision of democracy after dark.” There’s a hilarious anecdote of Parker showing the drummer Max Roach how to play four different rhythms with his limbs, which even Roach couldn’t reproduce. And there’s the descent into alcohol and drugs that harmed Bird’s reputation and, paradoxically, after he stumbled onto the stage, did not always throw his astounding sax solos off course.
This collection’s editor, Glenn Mott, happens to be a native of St. Joseph and a frequent visitor to Kansas City and its jazz dens. From Crouch’s archives Mott selected a variety of essays, literary book reviews and occasional fare intending to put the writer’s formidable range on display. There are a handful of other pieces about Kansas City jazz, including one about Bird that predates and seems to summarize the biography he’d eventually publish. But the book also venerates Crouch’s uber-hero Duke Ellington and other jazz notables, ventures into film noir and his fascination with Hollywood, and reflects his sharp-edged arguments about race and politics with the likes of Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka (also known as Leroi Jones).
“Victory Is Assured” has many moments to remind us of the vigor and urgency of Crouch’s vision.
In 1991, local favorites Jay McShann and Claude Williams headlined a concert, “Kansas City Swing and Shout,” at Lincoln Center in New York. Crouch supplied the program notes and did not hold back on his estimation of what occurred here: “A good number of our myths are as porous as Swiss cheese,” he began, “but there is no more deservedly mythic city in the jazz story than Kansas City, Missouri.” Crouch was an “omnivorous humanist,” Mott writes, and in these essays Crouch frequently shores up his observations with a long view of history and context. For the Kansas City story, that includes background on 19th-century minstrelsy and the development of Black show business.
One thing I was hoping the collection would answer is a mystery I encountered while researching my biography of Evan S. Connell. In the mid-1980s, Crouch supposedly was writing an ever-lengthening review-essay of Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star” for “The Village Voice,” his principal outlet at the time. My hunt for that went nowhere, though Crouch did spend a few lines in one of his books lauding Connell’s historical narrative as a great American book in the tradition of Melville. Mott, alas, told me he never encountered Crouch’s Connell review though maybe someday it could turn up.
Still, “Victory Is Assured” has many moments to remind us of the vigor and urgency of Crouch’s vision. You might find yourself wondering how he might have updated his 2004 essay on race and democracy, “Goose-Loose Blues for the Melting Pot,” given what the nation has experienced in the last few years. And some may want to argue with his superlative pronouncements: “There has never been anything more American than jazz,” or: “No living American writer is more skilled at showing the human heart in conflict with itself than Joyce Carol Oates.” (The latter is not so surprising given their shared interest in boxing and writing.) But, in a sense, that was the point of Crouch’s practice — to keep readers on their toes, angling for enlightenment or bruising for a fight.