[JPL] Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16

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Mon Jan 12 12:47:48 EST 2009


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 at 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.

Other Times staff members have answered questions in this column, including
Executive Editor Bill Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramsn, Managing Editor
John Geddes, Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon, Associate Managing
Editor Charles Strum, Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald, Metropolitan Editor
Joe Sexton, Living Editor Trish Hall, Investigations Editor Matthew Purdy,
National Editor Suzanne Daley, Sports Editor Tom Jolly and Culture Editor
Sam Sifton. Their responses and those of other Times staff members are
available on the Talk to the Newsroom page.

These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and

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.

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