JJM The inclusion of the Brazilian record by Moacir Santos was a surprise
BR I thought it would be fun to put in a record that was legitimately brilliant but which few people have ever heard. Also, it was a way to talk about how American styles made their way to places like Brazil without anybody in America ever realizing that. I hear a Gerry Mulligan big band influence in the Santos record, Coisas, but I also hear great originality in Santos’ composing. I thought that the record is strong enough to stand up on its own as a top 100 choice. Also, Santos is still living, and I thought it was important to have as many recordings in the book by people who are still living as I could.
JJM In addition to your top 100, you have a second 100 that you have labeled, “More albums you should own or at least know about,” which include many interesting choices that people are going to want to check out. You comment in your introduction, “Don’t come to me with your ‘why didn’t you put this on your list until you have looked at that one.'” But, I am going to come at you with a couple “Why didn’t you put this on your list? questions, and tell me what you think. How come there is no Bud Powell in your top 100?
BR I realize now that that’s a problem, and it is number one on my list of regrets. I can give you some more too! It’s funny, while doing this book I cornered myself into all kinds of strange processes of logic that seemed to make sense at the time. The great thing about Martin Williams’ The Jazz Tradition is that he was able to revive it. I hope at some point to revive this book, because there are things that I would take out and there are things that I would add to it. Immediately, once I saw the book and read through it from beginning to end, I noticed that the absence of a Bud Powell record from the top 100 was palpable, even though I put one in the alternative 100. I think my reasoning at the time might have been that I didn’t want to spend too much time on bebop, and that I had briefly discussed Powell elsewhere in the book. But you are right to question me about why I left Powell out, and I will tell you a couple more that should have been in the book. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, by Chick Corea is one, and the record Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley should be in the book too, just because it is perfection. It would have been a good place to talk about how you don’t need to be an absolute original to make nearly perfect art. You can say that at that time Nancy Wilson sounded a lot like Dinah Washington, but it doesn’t matter. She had such control over her craft, and the record is such a beautiful thing.
JJM Yes, it is certainly her best. Another artist not on your list is Wes Montgomery.
BR Yes, I considered him. I thought a lot about guitar records, and even though I grew up playing guitar, I think that is the instrument that gets short shrift in the book.
JJM You have Django in there, Charlie Christian and Grant Green is noted for his performance on the “Baby Face” Willette record as well as being listed in the second 100.
BR That’s right. I don’t know what to tell you about why I left Wes Montgomery out.
JJM You say that you have a level of dissatisfaction with records as opposed to performances. Why?
BR I sort of want it all. When I go to hear music live, I want to be reminded of why people make music in the first place. I want to be part of the audience participation, and see how the artists react to the needs of their constituency. That is not something you can get from records. Many records, including the ones I write about in the book, are brilliant, but there is something I like even more about live performance because the artist does it and then it is gone. There is a blank slate on the next set and the artist can start over, do it better or do it differently. I am influenced by a couple of people who have written about this sort of thing, and who are usually described as “musicologists,” but to me they are just good thinkers. One of them is Christopher Small, who wrote a great book called Musicking, and the other is Charlie Keil, who has written a lot about music as a participatory act — including their audience in the participation. Because I witness so much live music, I have to rationalize for myself why I keep doing it, and why I like to go through the process of getting to the club, sitting down, clearing my mind, and experiencing something new. I enjoy this much more than sitting down alone, concentrating on a record. That is just the way my mind works.
The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz:
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
BR The people who were my heroes as a kid, in the end, don’t make the cut. I think they were idols but not heroes. Pete Rose, Richard Wright, John Malkovich, Keith Richards or Miles Davis are people I loved for one aspect of their lives, but the more I learned about them, the less I felt that I could be influenced by them as complete human beings. I am a parent and whoever my hero is has to be someone who is a good parent. So, I have friends and relatives who are more heroic to me than most of my favorite artists. But I would say that Duke Ellington is a heroic figure to me.
Among Ratliff’s essential jazz recordings
Essential Bessie Smith
Singin’ the Blues Vol. 1
Kansas City Sessions
Mary Lou Williams
A Love Supreme
Point of Departure
The Real McCoy
Inner Mounting Flame
Ben Ratliff products at Amazon.com
Interview took place on January 27, 2003
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with American popular standards biographer Will Friedwald.