Ratliff, Ben 1968-
Ratliff, Ben 1968-
Born 1968, in New York, NY.
Home—New York, NY. Office—New York Times, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018.
Writer, journalist, and music critic. New York Times, New York, NY, popular music critic, 2001—.
Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, Times Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Village Voice and Coda.
Ben Ratliff is a writer, music journalist, and jazz and popular-music critic. He traces his interest in jazz to his early exposure to the works of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and to his involvement with student radio station WKCR at Columbia University. He reported in an interview on the Web site Jerry Jazz Musician: "The station was an amazing community of completely different people, all united by the same obsessions, which was being on the air." He added: "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."
Ratliff went into a career as a music journalist and jazz critic, punctuated by his prestigious assignment at the New York Times. In his first book, Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, Ratliff lists, assesses, and describes the jazz albums he considers to be the most notable. He also includes a listing of an additional one hundred albums that will enhance a listener's musical education. Ratliff "acts as an advocate for what he sees as a popular art form in need of an infusion of interest," observed James E. Perone in Library Journal.
In describing the book in an interview with Paul Morris on Jerry Jazz Musician, Ratliff stated: "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." Ratliff further remarked that 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."
Ratliff begins his chronological listing with one of the genre's earliest groups, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He includes material from a venerable who's-who of well-known jazz musicians, including Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt, and dozens of others. He also populates his one-hundred-best list with some obscure and surprising material, including recordings by Latin jazz artists Tito Puente and Machito; organ jazz player "Baby Face" Willette; Brazilian Moacir Santos; and even an album by western swing and country music pioneer Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, because "those musicians really swung, and because they were all listening to Ellington and Basie. They were playing to different audiences and using some different ingredients, but they were, in their mind, absolutely part of the jazz tradition," Ratliff told Morris. Booklist reviewer Ray Olson called Ratliff's collection a "damn good book."
In Coltrane: The Story of a Sound Ratliff provides a biographical and historical assessment of the life and music of jazz legend John Coltrane, a musician known as much for controversy as for the reverence paid him by many fans. Underlying Ratliff's biography is his position that Coltrane, "tenor and soprano saxophonist, was not only a towering performer but also the last major figure in the evolution of jazz. Indeed, jazz seemed to lose its way after he died in 1967, aged 40," commented a contributor to the Economist.
Ratliff devotes the first half of the book to a biographical and professional analysis of Coltrane's life and music, discussing his initial work with the alto saxophone, his later switch to the tenor sax, his rise to fame as a member of Miles Davis's and Theolonious Monk's bands, and his success as a bandleader in his own right. The last half of the book covers Coltrane's work in the seven years before his death, as leader of a phenomenally successful quartet in the 1960s, as an eclectic experimenter after the quartet's breakup, and as a musical primal force that shaped and defined jazz until his death from liver cancer. Ratliff's "biography is particularly good in exploring Coltrane's afterlife," the profound influence, positive and negative, the musician had on the fundamental structure of jazz, noted the Economist reviewer. "Coltrane's musical presence remains so powerful that even today jazz musicians, particularly horn players, are influenced by it—unless they define themselves in sharp contradistinction to it."
A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "largely stimulating reconsideration of a jazz icon." Ratliff's "assessment is a model for music criticism," remarked a Publishers Weekly critic. Ray Olson, in another Booklist review, observed that Ratliff's biography is "popular, nontechnical music analysis at its best."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, September, 2007, review of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, p. 131.
Booklist, November 1, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, p. 466; August, 2007, Ray Olson, review of Coltrane, p. 21.
Dallas Morning News, December 21, 2007, Chris Vognar, "Ben Ratliff Bridges the Jazz Divide," review of Coltrane.
Economist, November 10, 2007, "Chasin' the Trane; Jazz," review of Coltrane, p. 104.
Esquire, September, 2007, Ben Hughes, "John Coltrane, the Book," review of Coltrane, p. 86.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2007, review of Coltrane.
Library Journal, September 15, 2002, James E. Perone, review of Jazz, p. 66; July 1, 2007, Dave Szatmary, review of Coltrane, p. 94.
Music Educators Journal, May, 2003, review of Jazz, p. 52.
New York Times Book Review, October 28, 2007, Pankaj Mishra, "Favorite Things," review of Coltrane, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, June 4, 2007, review of Coltrane, p. 40.
Compulsive Reader,http://www.compulsivereader.com/ (February 26, 2008), Bob Williams, review of Coltrane.
Dusted Online,http://www.dustedmagazine.com/ (February 26, 2008), Sam Frank, "Presiding/Residing: An Interview with Ben Ratliff."
Jerry Jazz Musician,http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/ (January 27, 2003), Paul Morris, interview with Ben Ratliff.
PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (January 8, 2005), Chris Vognar, review of Coltrane.