Why did Stanley Crouch call Miles Davis “the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz”?


Stanley Crouch loathed most post-WW2 popular music, but he regarded jazz as a sort of classical music which was expressive of the dignity of African-Americans.

But he thought that it did so only as long as it sounded a certain way, i.e. like bop or post-bop jazz played on acoustic instruments.

So when Miles Davis got tired of playing to smaller and smaller audiences, and wanted to communicate with younger black audiences who were abandoning jazz for funk and R&B (and also with younger white audiences who liked rock music, and indeed those younger black people who liked rock music), Crouch—years after the fact—was outraged, and declared that Miles had sold his soul.

The funny thing about Crouch’s argument is that his normally acute ear completely deserted him as soon as the music he was listening to was electrified. He was one of those critics who’s very good about the virtues of music he likes, but completely unable to discern any quality at all in music he doesn’t like.

He described Miles’ later music in terms that are incomprehensible to anyone who actually appreciates it—and it’s significant that one of the things he does is stop describing it, preferring to complain instead about Miles’ increasingly flamboyant stage costumes, or statements he made in interviews. About the music itself, he says very little: he just takes it for granted that it’s rubbish.

From the very scattered comments that Crouch actually drops about that music, such as ‘trendy and dismal’, one might think that Miles had turned to making easy-listening funk records with trumpet over the top, like Herb Alpert or someone like that.

But this is so far away from the roiling, dissonant, abrasive stew that is albums like Bitches Brew and Live Evil that it’s impossible to take Crouch seriously.

Crouch would spend much of the later part of his career fighting an increasingly cantankerous battle against the rise of hip-hop, which he regarded as little more than an incomprehensible and offensive blot on the face of African-American culture. I can’t help wondering what he thought of Ron Carter guesting on that Tribe Called Quest album, or the way young jazz musicians in the 2010s have been eagerly fusing jazz with later hip-hop and EDM rhythms. He probably hated the former and was appalled by the latter.

But he did live to publish one of the best books I’ve read on jazz, Kansas City Lightning, the sole product of his heroic effort to write the definitive biography of Charlie Parker.

He faced things I’ve never had to face, so I will never throw away my books by him, and I still reread his essays to remind me that there are always other ways of looking at the subject.

But, sometimes he was just plain cranky.

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