NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
January 12, 2009 
Talk to the Newsroom: 
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic 
 
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 
2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com. 
 
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. 
 
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, 
N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of 
"Jazz: A Critic¹s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" (2002), 
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (2007) and "The Jazz Ear: Conversations 
Over Music" (2008). 
 
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, 
he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival 
Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, 
Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo 
Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community 
singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High 
Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
Why Isn't Jazz Audience Bigger? 
 
Q. Why isn't there more of an audience for "straight-ahead" jazz? Or put in 
a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active 
since the '50s or early '60s are given only niche status (or no visibility 
at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy 
regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry 
Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public 
have no awareness or appreciation of this genre? 
-- Paul Loubriel 
 
A. Paul: This is a big question. I'll try to hit some parts of it but I 
probably won't answer it to your satisfaction. 
 
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and 
far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to 
do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When 
you dance to music (in all ways -- partner dancing, stepping, headbanging -- 
just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. 
A lot of people born since 1960 don't feel that they own jazz. 
 
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn't know 
who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media -- obviously we're not 
talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the 
cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you're talking about) 
-- doesn't, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream 
jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements. 
 
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what's 
new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger 
issue about the shallowness of the general perception of "news.") With 
classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new 
compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new 
compositions. One has to sniff out what's interesting, however it presents 
itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run. 
 
As for the general public, they're not buying albums as much anymore, and as 
much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it's still an album art. 
 
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), 
because it's still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 
2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard. 
 
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in 
reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad. 

Letter to Obama: Let Great Jazz Into Your Inauguration Festivities

jazz-for-obamaDear President-Elect Obama:

The word on the street is that you like jazz, you really like jazz.

You became hip to the music, African-Americans’ great gift to the world’s arts culture, back in junior high school, when you still wanted to be called “Barry.”

In fact, once when you visited a record store with a friend from your Honolulu prep school, you stayed close to the jazz bins. “Barry was into things that other kids our age weren’t into. He went through the entire jazz section while we were there,” said your old pal Dean Ando, according to one newspaper feature.”That affects me to this day — he’s the one who introduced me to jazz.”

Did you dig real jazz, with genuine musical content, by creative players with an understanding of the tradition but with eyes on the future? Or were you keen on some variety of jazz lite? Who knows? But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your iPod playlist, which may or may not have been assembled by your staff to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose support you needed during the general election (hence Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), even includes tracks by jazz geniuses Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Miles and Coltrane, too, lead the artists named under the category of “favorite music” on your Facebook page.

Yes, those are pretty obvious jazz picks, and they’re all dead. Still, listing those artists is far more impressive than, you know, listing Kenny G. or the Rippingtons or some other such wallpaper-jazz nonsense.

I’ve not heard whether you ever visited the Green Mill, Chicago’s jazz mecca, while you were based in the Windy City.

Still, there are other signs that you may well support jazz during your White House residency.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” you had this to say: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians, and classical musicians, and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America, you know, that, I think, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times.”

While, as far as I can tell, you’ve not recently given props to any important living jazz artists — not even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis or pianist Herbie Hancock? — many major figures in the jazz community have gone out of their way to support you.

Did you hear about the “Jazz for Obama” concert in New York on Oct. 1? Did you attend?

A long list of front-rank jazz artists, black and white, opted to wear their politics on their shirtsleeves for a night in the name of helping you win the election. The performers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stanley Jordan, Kurt Elling, Hank Jones, Charlie Hunter/Doug Wamble, Bilal/Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Gambarini.

Thanks to a column by Ottawa Citizen music writer Peter Hum, I was reminded of the following examples of major jazz musicians’ overt support of you:

  • Hancock lent his name and musical cred to the “Yes We Can” video supporting your candidacy
  • Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Dave Douglas, at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, dedicated new works to you.
  • Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and many other prominent jazzers have displayed your face and message on t-shirts they’ve worn on stage.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, have used their Facebook and MySpace pages to demonstrate support for you.

Yes, all these jazzers were for you, and presumably still are. But are you really for jazz?

I’m asking, because of some rather disappointing news.

So far, the only notable musical artists reportedly invited to play your 10 official inaugural balls are, you know, big-name folks.

Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bruce “Super Bowl Half-Time Show” Springsteen are said to have been asked to appear at official inauguration events on Jan. 20, and the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are expected to headline an official kids-oriented show on Jan. 19.

Some of these are inspired choices; others, not so much.

Yes, your associates have coordinated a Jan. 20 event called ” ‘A Time For Hope’ 2009 Presidential Inaugural Jazz Gala.”

But the musicians selected for the event, despite being described as “global jazz artists,” are not well-known players. What’s up with that?

Since you self-identify as African-American, and since jazz is rooted in black culture, may I suggest that you use your great power to include MAJOR jazz musicians — black, white and Hispanic — in your inauguration festivities?

After you move into the White House, you ought to regularly invite jazzers over to your place, too.

Any of the above-mentioned artists, including Marsalis and Hancock, and pianist Hank Jones (part of that “Jazz for Obama” concert), a brilliant elder statesman of jazz, would make great choices.

So would veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins, arguably the greatest living jazz performer, and now enjoying critical plaudits for his recent concerts and latest CDs, including last year’s Road Shows, Vol. 1. Or how about other great, still-thriving saxophonists, like Wayne Shorter, James Moody, or Phil Woods, to name just a few other older players of that instrument?

Why not Terence Blanchard? In addition to his superb work as a trumpeter and bandleader, he is a gifted composer of film scores, and he serves as artistic director of the college program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now based in his hometown, New Orleans. Hancock is the institute’s chairman.

This is a very short list of jazz artists who would make great assets to your forthcoming festivities. Choosing any of these musicians to play your inauguration concerts  would demonstrate that your support for jazz is more than just lip service.

For more good ideas, you can turn to the two polls — readers and critics — annually published in Down Beat magazine, or the awards annually bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA).

So, President-Elect Obama, or, if I may, Barry: There’s still time to invite world-class jazz musicians to play your inauguration concerts.

Need help programming great jazz, or booking some of these artists? If you can’t rely on your own team, you know, give me a call.

Better yet, contact some of the great jazz musicians I’ve mentioned. Or make a connection with the editors of Down Beat or Jazz Times or Jazziz. Or consult the jazz writer Stanley Crouch, who made some similar points in a Dec. 21 column.

Yes, you can. Yes, you can make this happen – you’re the next leader of the free world.

What’s stopping you?