That the Constitution of the United States is a “blues document” is, one suspects, a point not commonly made in civics classrooms across America. It is, furthermore, an observation likely to please neither those white racists hip enough to recognize and honest enough to acknowledge the black origin of the blues nor those black nationalists determined to locate the Constitution among the instruments of white oppression. Yet making points not commonly made and giving offense across racial lines, especially to those resolved to define themselves in racial terms, are precisely the kinds of provocation readers have come to expect from Stanley Crouch, who voices this particular provocation in The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race: The Long and Short of It, 1990-1994.
Earlier in his career, Crouch was identified primarily as a respected jazz critic; he is, with Wynton Marsalis, a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he has been at work for some time on a biography of Charlie Parker. The present book confirms that Crouch remains a formidably perceptive and articulate jazz critic. His essays on music and musicians, including pieces on Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, are among the delights of the collection. Yet the Crouch who, as columnist for the New York Daily News and contributing editor of The New Republic, has established himself as an incisive, controversial cultural critic is even more in evidence here.
As his observations on the Constitution attest, the two Crouches cannot after all be separated. The African American musical tradition remains for Crouch a crucial cultural reference. In this tradition, he discovers what is for him a central truth of the African American experience and a basis for placing that truth at the center of the American experience at large.
What is entailed by the claim that the Constitution is a blues document? The Constitution, says Crouch, is a metaphor, and at the heart of that metaphor one finds a tragic optimism, comparable to the tragic optimism at the heart of the blues. The Constitution functions like the blues, and like jazz founded on the blues. Both the blues and the Constitution assume human frailty and infidelity—that is the tragedy—and affirm the possibility of transcendence beyond, not denial of, those sobering realities—that is the optimism. People play the blues to rid themselves of the blues. Through the amendment process, individuals use government to rid themselves of the blues of government. The constitutional spirit values innovation, reinterpretation. Both blues and Constitution reject sentimentality while asserting the possibility of redemption.
Jazz itself represents for Crouch the highest level of artistic achievement American culture has so far reached and the art form that most fully encapsulates the spirit of American democracy. In his account, jazz consists of actions whose artistic truth inspires reactions, generating the interplay of musician and musician; thus its music is created in performance, not merely rendered as in the European tradition, and the coherence of the whole is achieved through the fullest realization of the individual powers of each player. The description, he insists, parallels closely the dynamics of a healthy democracy, like that to which the American system aspires.
As an African American—or, as he seems currently to prefer, an American Negro—Crouch celebrates the African American achievement in art and indeed places the central truths of African American art at the center of American democratic culture. Although Crouch went through a nationalist phase in the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, he has since come to view that ideology as a combination of foolishness, sentimentality (for him one of the harshest of criticisms), and opportunism. Any attempt to separate African American culture from American culture at large is in his view either uninformed or dishonest.
Implicit in Crouch’s conviction of the significance of African American culture for all Americans is an equally firm commitment to the belief that African Americans may claim as their own the cultural heritage that belongs to all Americans. That much of this heritage derives from European sources is for Crouch no stumbling block. There is, he asserts, no more destructive lie than the claim that black people, especially black children, are capable of being inspired only by members of their own race and sex. In affirming their humanity in the face of racist denial, black people have drawn consistently on concepts of a transcendent humanity originating in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are, Crouch argues, no comparable African sources. In fact, he says, “Everything truly important to me is the result of American democracy and the European ideas that were expanded and refined in order to adjust to the intricacies of human experience, action, conflict, and ambition within...
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