Not often does a jazz critic earn the designation "firebrand." But Stanley Crouch isn't your father's jazz critic. A close friend of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and a member of his Jazz @ Lincoln Center cadre, Crouch is outspoken about what jazz is (it must swing and be based in the blues) and who can't play (trumpeter Dave Douglas, mainly). But in addition to a notoriously hot temper, he brings one of the subtlest and best voices to the field. He spoke with recess' David Graham ahead of his lecture on Thelonious Monk's 1959 Town Hall Concert Friday.
What was your introduction to Monk?
There were these guys who lived behind me when I was living in so-called South Central L.A. and they were always playing records. When I was 10, 12, 13, you know, I went over there one day, and they were listening to Coltrane's My Favorite Things, which had just come out, and no one had heard anything that sounded like that before. So I started going back there, and they told me about the music.
Eventually, one day they put on Thelonious in Action, which was recorded in 1958 at the Five Spot in New York City. So they talked about Monk and who he was and how way out he was supposed to be and how one day that record we were listening to would be a classic. I didn't know what he was doing then and I don't know what he was doing now. There's always something that an artist creates that's music. Hemingway once said that all great writing has in common that aspect that resists analysis.
What do you as a critic have to say about Monk as opposed to the musicians?
[The] thing about Monk is that he played in a way that actually allowed you, the listener, to feel that you were working out the problem with him. No matter what style you play, you have the same problem that everyone else has. You still have to figure out the note, the rhythm, the phrasing that has the most musical quality to it. He played with a lot of space and he allows you to hear the phrase. When one starts listening to him, he's a lot easier to follow than other players.
What is the significance of the Town Hall concert you're lecturing on?
One tune: "Little Rootie Tootie," because that was a transcription of Monk's original piano improvisation from about 10 years earlier. To hear that played by the band was so exciting and so startling, 'cause no one had ever heard anything like that, because no one had written anything like that. When you heard it, it was so staggering. Everyone I know who was playing that record was playing that track. I think Monk's Town Hall concert was equally significant to what a lot of writers attribute to the combination of Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
You wrote in your essay "At the Five Spot" that European technique was simply irrelevant to what Monk was doing, and at Town Hall we have him collaborating with a Julliard composer [Hall Overton]. How does it all fit?
Monk had perfect pitch, so if he didn't like the stuff, he would have said, 'No no no, that's wrong, or that note isn't right.' One thing we know is that the notes used were the right notes. Secondarily, the thing about European technique usually means velocity technique, that those musicians can play in tune and get all the notes.
Monk had velocity technique, which he didn't necessarily use too much of that often. He was focused on developing a style that the audience could hear, so he never bought into the racehorse tempos of the bebop era. He had some fast tunes. Bip-de-bip-da-da-no, he didn't play that. He was more influenced by the Count Basie tempos. Secondarily, I think he was affected by the Basie tempos on one hand and I think he was also struck by the extraordinary clarity of playing that one heard in Louis Armstrong. Armstrong could do as much if not more with one note than anybody. There are some great Monk solos when he plays just one phrase, and then he'll hit one different note and it's like the roof falls in. 'Damn! He played another note!' He was also looking for a tone on the instrument that paralleled that of a horn.
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