Interviews

Ben Ratliff, author of Jazz: A Critics Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

 

 

 

In the preface to his book Jazz: A Critics Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff writes, “You oughtn’t look at jazz only by its corners, its Hot Fives and Sevens, its Kind of Blues and Love Supremes. You have to look at what the corners surround.”

In this spirit, his book is an exploration of jazz in its many varied forms, and opens the reader’s ears to quite surprising recordings comfortably overlooked by other guides. While it includes many of the classics jazz historians have come to expect from such an endeavor, it also lists a variety of Cuban, Brazilian and avant-garde recordings even serious jazz fans may find puzzling, yet worthy of discovery.

In our January, 2003 interview, Jerry Jazz Musician contributor Paul Morris and Ratliff discuss the book, the logic of his choices, and his experiential perspective on jazz.

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JJM  So many of us grew up in the world of rock and roll and found our way to jazz somehow. How did you get interested in jazz?

BR  Somehow, a Louis Armstrong record drifted into my house when I was ten or so, and I subsequently found out some things about Miles Davis and a few other jazz people. The big leap forward for me was being involved with radio station WKCR while a student at Columbia University. The station was an amazing community of completely different people, all united by the same obsessions, which was being on the air. I was one of the people who camped out at the station, which turned out to be a remarkably fast way for me to learn much about jazz because they had an enormous record library. I didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars at the record store to figure out what I liked and where I wanted to go. Even though WKCR is a college radio station, it is taken quite seriously in New York and has a wide, hardcore jazz listener following. Because of that, if I wanted to invite a musician on the air to talk, it was doable.

JJM So you got to do interviews…

BR  Yes, and because we were in New York and I had this connection to the station, I got to hear music and meet musicians. I was suddenly “of that world.” I don’t know how I would have had that access and opportunity if not for my involvement with WKCR.

JJM  Your book, The Essential Library of Jazz, lists 100 of the most important recordings in the history of the music. How do you see people using this book, either for those new to jazz or who are veteran jazz listeners?

BR  The idea of this book was presented to me by New York Times Books, who have begun publishing a series of books written by their critics that take the form of the “100 Essential Documents” of different aspects of the culture, whether it be jazz, opera, film, etc. My book is the first of the series to be published. I never aspired to write a book like this, but I thought it would provide me with a decent opportunity to write about certain things in jazz history that interest me as a writer. It is an alternative way to write about jazz history, using records as the filter for it. The book is written for a very general readership, although there is enough specific information in it and enough semi-obscure recordings that people who do know about jazz would be interested in it also. The nature of the book is that it is a list, and a primary purpose of it is to provide a form of entertainment for those who read it and see if my choices correspond to theirs.

JJM  You write in your introduction that you have a bias that favors understanding jazz as it is currently played.

BR Yes, that is because my job as jazz critic for the New York Times involves seeing live concerts, sometimes as many as three or four a week. Consequently, I am in tune with what is playing in the clubs and the incredibly wide range of what jazz sounds like now. What I meant by saying that I have a bias that favors jazz as it is currently played is that I believe jazz is in an emergency situation right now, and I am faced with that on a daily basis. I thought it would be most useful to write a book that is weighted toward the music as it is currently played, rather than burying myself in outmoded styles of jazz and holding those records up as lost paradises. I did put a lot of old records in there, but decided to put my biases up front and explain why so many that were recorded during the last forty years were chosen was because of the impact they have had on jazz as we know it now.

JJM  Compared to similar books, you had much more information on free jazz and music of the last thirty years.

BR  In general, there are inequities in jazz books that I wanted to address. In many of the jazz books I read growing up, I felt one of the inequities was that writers either knew nothing and cared nothing about free jazz or post-Coltrane type music, or loved it so much that they blathered on about it incoherently. I wanted to write a book that could have room for free and post-free and connect it sensibly with the rest of jazz history.

JJM  I must say you got me digging out some of my old recordings. It was fun to listen to Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, which I hadn’t heard in many years, and I was surprised that you put Miles Davis’ Get Up With It on your list of essential recordings.

BR  I always favored that over Bitches Brew because, to me, parts of it are more beautiful and more austere. It is both lovely and frightening. And, it is the closing statement on that whole six-year period of electric music before Miles vanished and went mute for five years. Choosing this recording is an example of how I felt that it was important to make some choices that weren’t so obvious. Even if some of them seem a little perverse, I think it allows people to engage with those odd choices and question them, and maybe decide that they do like Bitches Brew better, but to think about why. When writing about jazz, there is way too much perceived wisdom and judgements that are basically repeated over and over again without thinking what they mean, and without thinking whether they still apply twenty or thirty years after the judgements were first made.

JJM You include several Latin jazz recordings by Machito, and by Tito Puente. Why were these important?

BR This goes back to the idea of my forthright bias about jazz as it is currently played. If you are going to pick up a book like this in 2003, you are going to want to come out of it with some sense of what jazz means, and to me that means what jazz means now, taking into account the present and the past. One of the ways jazz is heading right now is that it is “Latinizing,” just as our country is. I meet more and more musicians, especially drummers, who have either been to Cuba or have plans to go there to study with Cuban musicians. Their intent is to learn Cuban music in the proper way, without playing jazz with a light Cuban flavor and passing off bad watery rhumba as the real thing. I also believe that some of the most imaginative records in jazz in the last ten years have been Latin jazz records. Also, it is clear to me that Latin jazz has not been well represented in other jazz books. Martin Williams’ The Jazz Tradition, which is one of my favorites, and books that are more directly comparable to mine, like Len Lyons’ book about essential jazz records called The 101 Best Jazz Albums: A History of Jazz on Records, don’t represent Latin jazz very well. I had to ask myself, If my book is going to be different, how is it going to be different? Including Latin recordings seemed to be an obvious way to make it different.

JJM  I compared your list to Len Lyons’ list and I found nineteen matches.

BR  That is interesting. I still haven’t done that, but that sounds about right.

 

JJM  A choice you made that one would think was peripheral to jazz was Bob Wills. Why is Bob Wills on your list?

BR  Because those musicians really swung, and because they were all listening to Ellington and Basie. There were playing to different audiences and using some different ingredients, but they were, in their mind, absolutely part of the jazz tradition. I thought it was important that the best western swing be represented.

JJM  Another surprise for me was seeing a Stan Kenton album on your list, New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm. Your essay on Kenton was very interesting, and you included a wonderful photograph of Kenton behind the wheel of a bus.

BR  Yes, the photo is by Lee Friedlander. Kenton’s music fell dramatically out of favor in the sixties. I have only recently found use for it myself, and part of that came from having experienced Bill Russo’s repertory band play some Kenton music live. People “dis” repertory bands all the time, but I find them incredibly useful because they help understand what this music was supposed to sound like, especially in big bands where there is such a wide soundscape. To hear how the music ricocheted around the different areas of the band is essential in understanding it on the level the composer and the arranger intended for the listener. I have gone back to those Kenton records and find fascinating things in them — and some very flat footed things too — but the best way to understand any form of music is through its nearly perfect statements as well as its overindulgences and near misses.

JJM  Before I ask you about another surprising choice, I want to insert that you cover the Ellington and Armstrong and Parker recordings that everyone would expect to find in this book, and your essays are insightful and fun to read. Having said that, I do want to ask you about the unusual choices. You include a Louis Jordan anthology, and you make the comment that “Louis Jordan was one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century.”

BR   Jordan was part of jazz, part of R&B, and was one of the most important wellsprings for rock and roll, so, in a sense he was some of the best of twentieth century American music in a nutshell. He was connected to all these various ways in which the music could go. Although one could find his music somewhat frivolous, I find it to be wise and witty. It is great stuff. Jordan has had some impact on some jazz musicians. Whenever I can, I like to point out that jazz doesn’t need to be considered as a very rare, very special, very cordoned off area of music. The more jazz is connected to the rest of popular expression in America, the better off we all are. When it is, we can enjoy it more and we can feel that it is has made an impact, rather than just receding further and further into obscurity.

JJM  You use the term “perverse” to describe some of your choices. Tell us about the choice of an organ jazz record by “Baby Face” Willette called Face to Face.

BR  Face to Face transcends the cliches of organ jazz records, of which there are many. There is a drive and a gut feeling on the record — and really excellent playing — that makes you feel that you are not listening to just another organ record. There are tons of “just another organ records” out there. The further into the book I got I realized that each record I suggested to do a certain job. That job might be to talk about a single musician or a style or a school of thought or an era. When I got to a certain point where a record had to do the job for a tenor or an organ recording, I just chose the one I loved the best.