Archive for the ‘Stanley Crouch and Canonisation’ Category

Stanley Crouch and Canonisation

February 9, 2009

As part of my course, I’m required to give a lecture recital on  a musical topic of my choice. I’ve decided to explore some of the similarities between Thelonius Monk and Tim Berne. It’s been really fascinating doing this. As well as getting to listen to lots of music by two artists I really love, I’ve found reading around the subject very enlightening. This has included parts of Stanley Crouch’s ‘Considering Genius’, a collection of articles and lectures he’s written about jazz and its role in American life. An aspect of his thought that I’ve found particularly relevant to the Monk/Berne area is his notion of a jazz ‘Canon’. This is a fairly specific group of artists (including Monk) whose work Crouch feels to be the best and truest of jazz. Lack of sufficient engagement with the work of these artists is the substance of his attack on the downtown New York  Avant-Garde (which must include Tim Berne). I’m not going to re-run my entire argument here (I’d be had up for double submission) but here is a little response to Crouch’s notion of a jazz canon.


By and large, jazz has never quite got over itself. So titanic can seem the achievements of the music’s past greats, that the only thing for many younger musicians is to mimic the style of an older player as best they can. The best compliment one can give or receive is how similar you sounded to Charlie Parker/Coltrane etc…Know your history and pay your dues, because in jazz there is no time like the past.

A logical conclusion (or logical beginning) to this state of affairs is the creation of a canon of great jazz musicians, the work of whom it is essential to be conversant with should the young jazz musician wish to be a true carrier of the jazz flame. This is very much the view that came to be taken by Wynton Marsalis (and his representative on earth Stanley Crouch) in the 1980’s, with Crouch giving quite a specific list in his writings. Lack of engagement with their jazz forbears was the main thrust of the pair’s attack on the contemporary jazz avant-garde.

However, if one looks at the musicians included in Crouch’s putative canon, one is struck by one overriding feature these musicians all share. That is, the degree to which they were willing to depart with or at least radically rework jazz norms current to their time. Every single one of these musicians was considered a radical innovator, often in a pejorative sense (Monk, Ornette Coleman, some Coltrane). We are left with a rather bizarre relationship between jazz fathers and sons where past radicalism is adduced in support of a brand of contemporary cultural conservatism, begging the question of how well jazz’s legacy is being served by such canonisation. Here it looks like imitation may be the insincerest form of flattery.

The young jazz musican, just like the child in the Freudian family, has to work out what to do with his parents (Charles Mingus, bassist and great jazz composer who said he didn’t write jazz, loved Freud’s work). From Freud’s point of view, the child who never leaves the parents has rather missed  the(ir) point and this is arguably what is going on in too slavish an adherence to the jazz canon. Charlie Parker said that improvising was about learning the changes and then forgetting them, so if the art of parenting is to eventually do yourself out of a job, then the art of becoming a jazz musician is to be able to both learn and forget what your fathers told you. Is the imitative musician who simply plays in the style of one of the canonised doing his jazz parents a service, or is he doing something else?

Clearly, knowledge of the music’s past is a vital element in becoming a creative jazz musician – it is rare for a musician to make a significant contribution to the music without really knowing what preceded them. It just seems that canonisation is rather a step too far. In particular, the specific date which marks the end of Crouch’s canon (1965-6 when Coltrane dissolved his classic quartet and free jazz broke with functional harmony and stated time) leaves the young curious jazz musician in search of their voice with a narrower musical past than he or she might need to define themselves. Every member of Crouch’s canon was a radical innovator and most innovative jazz musicians since the time of the Crouch/Marsalis hegemony have been seriously involved with music outside (as well as inside) the canon they created. The irony is of course that contemporary musicians being curious about other areas of music is a continuance of exactly the spirit of iconoclasm that marked the music’s past greats. Real innovation needs both respect for and dissatisfaction with the past. Mere preservation of the past is arguably a real threat to the music’s future.