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Duking It Out


When jazz and social critic Stanley Crouch's pen starts flowing, the blisters of indignation start rising. Consider some of his more piquant comments, which start at the top and go up from there: "Malcolm X . . . is the Elvis Presley of race politics, a pop black-power icon mistaken for a serious thinker." Crouch calls Miles Davis "the most remarkable licker of monied boots in the music business, willing now to pimp himself as he once pimped women when he was a drug addict." And he regards rap music as "a very provincial thing" that promotes "a kind of hedonistic hoochism."

Crouch's opinions rarely come softened, and they won't be nuanced away. But while one may vehemently disagree with them, they're well-argued and hard to dismiss. The self-proclaimed "radical pragmatist" will be talking about one of his favorite subjects--Duke Ellington, whom he considers foremost among jazzers--on Sunday at the East Cleveland Public Library. Of Ellington, the vitriolic Crouch has only good things to say.

"Ellington's music is extremely powerful, deeply sensual, and very romantic," he says. "His stuff goes all the way from the gutbucket backwoods blues joint all the way to the highest skyscraper. It embraces the sweep, depth, and complexity of the culture." Contrary to the party line, Crouch contends that Ellington's greatest period might well have been from 1956 to 1970--the time of recordings like Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Sacred Concerts, and Latin American Suite--when he extended himself into other genres and had mature players who could bring greater depth to the music than ever before.

Crouch, who currently writes for New Republic and is an artistic consultant to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, wasn't always a neo-conservative upstart. The man, who never graduated from college, began his career in the 1960s, writing diatribes in the Amiri Baraka style of militant black thought: "I wrote in that anti-Western, anti-white style," he says. "The same kind of sentimental elevation of anything black over anything white." But before long, he discovered black intellectuals and critics like Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, and words of praise for Western democracy crept into his writing.

The controversial Crouch may not put in an appearance at Tuesday's reading, but the Crouch of trenchant thought most certainly will.

--Aaron Steinberg

Jazz critic Stanley Crouch lectures on "Ellington's Modern America" at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 28, at the East Cleveland Public Library, 14101 Euclid Ave., East Cleveland, 216-541-4128. Admission is free.

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