In Conversation with Ben Ratliff



Ben Ratliff
Photo by Jack Vartoogian

Although he grew up in a suburban household self-described as “not very musical,” Ben Ratliff, at a youthful 34, has become a respected voice in jazz and pop music criticism since he joined The New York Times staff in 1996. His love affair with recordings began at the age of 10, when he came across a Louis Armstrong record that inspired him to learn how to play along. Less than a decade later, recordings took on an added significance to his career as he became a DJ for Columbia‘s beloved WKCR college radio station. It was also during his college years, after moving from the suburbs into New York City proper, talking to musicians on air and after gigs, that he began to understand that recordings can only represent a fraction of what jazz is about.

And while Ratliff readily expounds that jazz is a live medium, he also realizes that many people in America have no choice but to learn about jazz via recordings, which has in many ways defined how this music is perceived. Making the process even more difficult, Ratliff notes that most recordings being put out by jazz musicians today serve primarily as documentation, a calling card to help get gigs. According to Ratliff, the quality of production in jazz is light years behind other genres like rock and hip-hop, yet more and more recordings are being produced. With the market flooded with mediocre recordings and less and less live performance opportunities in second and third-tier American cities, his book The New York Times Essential Guide: Jazz helps both the casual listener and the jazz aficionado navigate what can be quite a mind-boggling exploration the recorded annals of jazz history. This book tells the story of jazz through its most significant recordings and traces the many trajectories it has taken from its popular heights to the artsy reputation it holds now:

AMANDA MACBLANE: In the preface to your book, you say that most jazz musicians are “reverential toward the past.” So what have been the influences that have acted upon jazz to keep it fresh and safe from falling into the trap of nostalgic stagnation?

BEN RATLIFF: I think a whole generation of players is coming up now who are learning from new teachers who have a fresh perspective on the music. And they’re also learning a lot about the history of jazz through the Internet, which sort of democratizes everything. There’s no kind of hidden histories anymore. There’s no secret knowledge anymore. If you want to know all about Albert Ayler, there’s a 200-page biography of him on the Internet. And if you want to know all about Louis Armstrong—there’s been tons of information about him for decades now, but now it’s all there and you’re free to make your own decisions about what’s important and what’s not without two or three heavy weight critics being the only ones who can tell you. I think that’s really good.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Speaking of critics, I don’t know if you read the piece by Stanley Crouch where he refuted a lot of the praise that Dave Douglas had been getting…

BEN RATLIFF: Right. In JazzTimes.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Exactly. Basically, he wrote that white critics will always be more comfortable with a white trumpeter like Douglas even if there are many black players out there that could outplay him or compose better than him. First of all, he makes it pretty clear that race relations still figure pretty prominently in discussions about jazz.

BEN RATLIFF: Yes.

AMANDA MACBLANE: But it also kind of threw into question the role of the critic and how the critics have shaped jazz over the last several decades and I was just curious to find out what you think has been the effect of criticism on jazz, what it can do to serve jazz better, and what it’s done to not serve it so well.

BEN RATLIFF: Well, let me talk about Stanley’s thing for a minute. I mean his argument was that most jazz critics are white and middle-class and, as you said, are more comfortable enthusing about and writing about white players or black players that they feel they can condescend to than black players whose musical language they don’t feel comfortable with. Here’s what I think. There is a problem in jazz criticism which is that critics and writers want to please their editors, and editors are always looking for news and a hook and an angle. The whole record making process has changed in the last 20 years to a place where you can only make a really big splash as a jazz bandleader if you have a concept or if, let’s say, you’re playing a premiere of a new long-form composition or if you have a commission to do, something like that. These are things that jazz critics tend to be able to sink their teeth into more easily because they have an idea. They don’t just have to talk about notes and rhythm and harmony; there’s an extra-musical idea that they can talk about. Now this is kind of a European notion and it’s getting away from the black American tradition of jazz, which is less about the material and more about how the material is played. Amiri Baraka had this phrase that he wrote when he was LeRoi Jones, talking about this idea of “the changing same.” He said that the one thread that goes through so much of jazz, as well as James Brown and soul music and so on, is this idea of “the changing same,” where it’s the idea of the groove and repetition and how music in one sense just stays the same and keeps chugging along, but little things within it keep changing. Now this idea, this is really one of the glories of black American music, but that’s kind of at odds with critics can write about because where’s the concept? Where’s the theme? Where’s the hook?

AMANDA MACBLANE: Right.

BEN RATLIFF: That’s a problem. I think that jazz critics focus too much on material and not enough on actually how the music is played. And if you did an analysis of it, you might find that more white bandleaders are coming up with ideas that have more thematic hooks and ideas. You know, “This record is about X + Y,” “This record is about my homage to Z.” You know what I’m saying?

AMANDA MACBLANE: And certainly something I’ve noticed in just about any kind of art, if there is little diversity in the people who are critics or the people who are reporting on it and bringing it to the public, a lot of times there is a similar set of criteria for excellence that they hold between them. If it’s a just a bunch of middle class, white men criticizing jazz they obviously hold a similar aesthetic criterion and because they are working for similar publications so it ends up being the same ideas over and over again. But also, there’s a lot less coverage of it now.

BEN RATLIFF: Yes.

AMANDA MACBLANE: The diversity of opinions isn’t even a possibility at this point.

BEN RATLIFF: Yeah, that’s true. I think I put in my book the fact that when I started doing this [criticism for The New York Times] regularly, which was only 7 years ago, there were usually two or three critics from daily newspapers in New York at gigs. And now usually there is only one. That’s me. That’s a pretty dire situation in terms of people never hearing about things that have happened. I think that the prevailing attitude among newspaper editors is that one time-only musical performances are pretty low on the priority list in terms of what should be covered because it happens once and it’s over and nobody can go again. If you write about it in the paper, you are just taking up space that could be better used by a service piece for the reader, where you can read about it and then go buy a ticket. My problem with that is that I do believe that jazz is essentially a live medium and this is news. This is cultural news. Cultural history. This is what has happened and anybody’s who interested in jazz would be interested to know what happened. And maybe if they have good memories, the can remember to go and see that person that’s in town.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Right.

BEN RATLIFF: But one more thing added to what I was just talking about, about themes, about how critics need a theme and a hook and everything. It’s this idea of newness, that everybody has to be doing something new. It’s a really slippery idea and a really problematic one. I love to be surprised as much as anybody else and I do think there are some people out there who are playing music that legitimately, literally sounds pretty new but I don’t think it should be the main criterion for “Is this music worthy or not?” People are sort of losing track of the fact that, you know, hearing a groove is fantastic. Hearing a musical language played at a really high level is fantastic. I mean, ultimately, who cares if it’s a long form piece about Walter Benjamin, the literary critic…you know, what I mean? I also see that the grant system weighs heavily toward jazz bandleaders that are going to do a project that is about an extra-musical concept. Like the grants are given to bandleaders who do things like make records dedicated to an obscure Italian filmmaker or something like that.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Right. [laughs]

BEN RATLIFF: And that’s all interesting, it’s all fine. If the music is good, if the bands are good, then it’s not for me to have a problem with it. But I just think there’s a sort of misunderstanding here about what jazz is and what it has been historically.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Certainly. So to get to the book, I was hoping you could tell me just a little bit about what challenges you faced creating the book and who you hope this book will be read by and how you hope it will help them.

BEN RATLIFF: Ok. Well, I’m 34 and I feel that I really want to get more people around my age interested in the music. I love all kinds of music and I can talk to friends about all different kinds of music, but it’s depressing when I’m the only person that knows about or cares anything about jazz. I want to have these conversations with people of my generation. So part of the reason for doing a book like this is just purely for advocacy, to write with some degree of excitement about great jazz records. But the other thing I wanted to do with the book is write about jazz history and various ideas that I’m attracted to in jazz history through a particular lens. I had no great desire to do a book like this, but when it was placed in front of me, I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I had in my mind the other books like this out there and I wanted to do something a little bit different. And that’s why I self-consciously chose some records that a lot of people don’t know or chose lesser-known records by really famous artists and things like that. It’s nice to give people something to talk about. Anyway, you know what I’m saying. People make all kinds of records about highfalutin concepts…

AMANDA MACBLANE: That’s true and then a lot of things fall through the cracks based on that system.

BEN RATLIFF: Yeah.

AMANDA MACBLANE: So, I guess I just wanted to wrap up by having you tell me what’s in your CD player or on your record player right now.

BEN RATLIFF: Anything? Well, the new Eric Reed album. It’s called Mercy and Grace, it’s a solo piano album of gospel music, which I think is really good. The new Greg Osby album called St. Louis Shoes. An Earl Bostic record. The new Café Tacuba album, which is genius. The new R. Kelly album, Chocolate Factory. The White Stripes: Elephant, which is really good. That’s probably about it right now.

AMANDA MACBLANE: That’s pretty eclectic though!

BEN RATLIFF: Yeah.

AMANDA MACBLANE: And you’re fortunate that this is what you can do with your life.

BEN RATLIFF: I’m kind of a thrill-seeker ultimately and I’m able to follow the pleasure principle to a really pleasing degree in this job and I get interested in things and I go down certain avenues for a while and then I change course. It’s nice, but I hate the fact that I’m always ignoring something worthwhile and the only way to get around that would be to hire 2 or 3 more critics here.

AMANDA MACBLANE: There’s just one of you though. So it’s almost impossible.

BEN RATLIFF: Yeah.

AMANDA MACBLANE: But you’ve got many more years to find out about all this music.

BEN RATLIFF: I hope so!