Friday, August 5: It’s the last day Ben Ratliff is working at the New York Times. Tomorrow he is a free man! Congrats Ben! Take a break! You deserve it after almost exactly 20 years of service to New York’s music community!
A few months ago I discussed Ben’s latest book on DTM. There’s also tentative plans for some follow-up questions: watch this space.
I know Ben, of course, and we’ve talked a fair amount over the years. He’s reviewed me quite a lot. I’ve never gotten a pan but he’s always called it like he saw it. After the opening night of trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian at the Vanguard, Ben was slightly skeptical in the next day’s paper. Charlie called me right away, furious. I waited out Haden’s diatribe against jazz critics, knowing that Ben was right to withhold fulsome praise. (That gig jelled more towards the end of the week.)
On the other hand, I received a different phone call from Billy Hart when a set at Fat Cat was reviewed in the Times. “How does he know all this?” was Billy’s simple question. Billy was unused to a jazz critic who could write clearly about how the drums fit into the history of the music.
One night at Birdland, I said hi to Motian, who responded, “Did you see what the New York Times said about me? They said I’m spooky!” (The Paul Motian interview in The Jazz Ear is one of the best documents of Motian in his own words.)
I could go on with Ratliff anecdotes. Truthfully he was an incredible asset for not just the three members of The Bad Plus but also for other musicians in our circle: Bill McHenry, Guillermo Klein, Jason Moran, Masabumi Kikuchi, many others.
Perhaps I’m biased, but it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s not a better way to understand New York jazz from 1998 to 2008 than starting with Ratliff’s coverage for the Times.
Giants kept dying off: the biz shrunk: Ben’s interests crystallized. In recent years Ben made a real shift, giving his attention mostly to various kinds of comparatively popular music. I personally care much less about all that stuff but reading Every Song Ever gave me tremendous respect for his vision.
It’s Ben’s own choice to leave the paper, and with the success of the recent book Ben is poised to become an icon among general music critics. Excelsior! And, thank you.