Interview with Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff was the jazz and more critic for The New York Times for almost exactly 20 years: His last day at the paper was August 5. We joked that the following, taped at my apartment at the end of September, was his “exit interview.” The transcription was by Kevin Sun.

Ethan Iverson:  Where are you from?

Ben Ratliff:  I was born in New York City. My first residence was on the Upper West Side, West End Avenue in the 90s. My mother was English and my father was a graphic designer who, for a time, had a job as the art director of an English art magazine—Studio International—so the family moved to London for a period when I was young. Then we moved back to Rockland County, north of New York City—so I lived in Suffern, New York, and then New City, New York. These were leafy suburbs some distance from a useable town and without a commuter-rail line. So I was kind of removed. I got used to using my bicycle a lot, and as a teenager, taking the bus into New York.

EI:  What did you read as a kid?

BR:  I was influenced by the sight of all the books in our house, and it seemed to me that we had a lot. My mother, especially, was a reader. I remember the uniform editions of Dickens novels she read in school, a lot of yellowing Penguin paperbacks from England, pretty much everything by Anthony Trollope, and a lot more that she caught up with after moving to New York in the early ‘60s, where she worked as a researcher at Time-Life books. A few of those books we owned were James Baldwin’s first two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, and during high school, those led me into a long phase of Baldwin and books that dealt with race—Richard Wright, Claude Brown, Harold Cruse, Eldridge Cleaver, Baraka’s Blues People, Langston Hughes. In a larger sense I would say that I read within a generally mid-20th century male-writer orbit, adventuresome or outsiderish American guys: Sam Shepard, Mailer, Saroyan, Creeley, Henry Miller, Kerouac, Ginsberg and all that. Then I thought, hmm, what led to this, and found a lot that was interesting to me from a bit earlier: Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, William Carlos Williams, early Pound, Kafka, Baudelaire, then the Russians. Amazing to think how male it all was. I wasn’t especially aware of that until my early 20s. I think I’ve gone the other way. I still read men, but these days I feel relieved not to.

I should also say that when I was growing up we had a copy of Nik Cohn’s book of pop criticism, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, published in 1969, which did as much for me, the eventual writer, as any book I ever read.

Then in college I got really interested in criticism per se.

EI:  Did you ever write any fiction yourself?

BR:  No.

Well, yes, but nothing I ever felt good about. I couldn’t establish a voice, I felt very self-conscious. Probably I didn’t do enough to get all of the bad stuff out of the way.

EI:  What was the gateway into criticism?

BR:  I was really into music as a teenager, and being removed from where things were actually happening, I depended on reading about it. My father would bring home the Village Voice and Rolling Stone and Soho News. I had read Nik Cohn and I had a kind of baseline for the sound of pop criticism, as heretical and unreproducible as his baseline was. I started reading about all kinds of music, including jazz, but more rock ‘n’ roll. Like a lot of people I recognized that there was some fizz in the best of the writing of people like Robert Palmer and Lester Bangs. And the Village Voice in the early ’80s was great, you know? I mean, that’s enough to get you interested in criticism. By the time I was in college, I was looking backward and going about it in a slightly more organized way: Pauline Kael and James Agee and Manny Farber. Almost all journalism-oriented criticism, not academic.

EI:  When I came to New York in 1991, the Village Voice was still amazing. Almost every week there was a column by Gary Giddins, a column by Kyle Gann, and a column by J. Hoberman. That really seems like glory days now, to remember that kind of discourse happening every week from the paper you picked up on the street.

BR:  There was a lot there. There was also Leslie Savan, who wrote brilliantly about advertising, and Colson Whitehead on TV, and Ann Powers on pop. Certainly at that point I thought, “Hmm, I think i’d like to do this when I get older.”

EI:  Let’s backtrack for a second: Did you ever play an instrument?

BR:  I’ve played guitar since I was 11 or 12, and before that clarinet, and at various times in the last 25 years piano, but guitar more than anything else. Really just for fun and with friends, never studied it academically.

EI:  What was some early favorite music?

BR:  Just certain records we had around the house. Somebody gave me a copy of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, one of those early Columbia LPs, when I was very young, and I thought that was amazing. We lived in New City along sort of a semi-rural road and two miles down was the photographer Lee Friedlander. Our family knew his family. Lee zeroed in on my interest in jazz when I was a young person, and he brought a copy of the Miles Davis first quintet stuff, a Prestige double-record reissue of Cookin’ and Relaxin’, with one of his photographs on the cover, and said, “Here.”

EI:  Lee Friedlander gave you your first Miles Davis record! I love it.

BR:  Sometimes it takes a figure like that to enter your life and say, “You don’t know this yet, but I think this is for you.” I listened to that record a lot.

We had Beatles and Stones records and a basic classical music collection. We also had the soundtrack to the film American Graffiti, which, in 1974 or so, was a big record—weirdly retro, but it sold a lot of copies. It was a double album, with early rock and roll—Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys—but also R&B vocal-group music: Sonny Til and the Orioles, the Flamingos, the Platters. Very wise and romantic songs like “Almost Grown” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” did a lot for me as a pre-teenager. I have wondered whether it was the same for others my age—was it something we never talked about? That music was at most 20 years old, but it sounded ancient, and I found it really fascinating. I also realize now that there was not one woman on that whole record.

As a teenager the radio was important: for me, WNYU and WFMU. WHBI in Newark had Gil Bailey’s great reggae show on Saturday nights, and you know, you stay up late with a tape recorder.

EI:  Reid Anderson says the same thing, he would tape stuff off the radio…

BR:  …And listen to it over and over.

EI:  Where did you go to college?

BR:  Columbia. When I got there I was 16. That’s just too young to go to college. I had a very good time, made some good friends, and I got a lot out of spending many, many hours at WKCR. But a lot of college I was just too young for, and I think I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since—learn things I should have learned then.

EI:  WKCR: I feel like that’s a good moment for us to have a mutual elegy for liner notes.

BR:  Wow.

EI:  Because you go into those libraries or radio stations and even if you don’t listen to everything, you can look at the back of the records and see what they say.

BR:  At 17 or so, it was formative for me to confront the record lockers at WKCR. There were thousands of LPs, and just as you say, every one that you take out has lots of words on it, lots of context and information. I found that thrilling, in an almost child-like way. I’d check out and bring home about 20 records at a time and start putting things together.

My degree was in classics, Latin and Greek. I graduated in 1990 and worked in book publishing for six years.

I didn’t study journalism at Columbia per se but I did take one class through the general studies school with Gary Giddins. I had been reading his writing, and had a sense that I would like to learn about criticism in a more guided way. He was great. It was a class with a very simple format—it was called “Critic and Audience” or something like that, and everybody in the class would have to go out every week and absorb something. See a play, watch a TV show, read a book, listen to a record, whatever, and then write about it.

Among the things I wrote about in Gary’s class were a reissue of an Albert Ayler record, Live in Greenwich Village, Jim Jarmusch’s film Down by Law, and Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 6, which I saw at the RAPP Arts Center in the East Village.

Gary was the first person who brought my attention to the idea of the cliche and how debilitating cliches are to a piece of writing. And to economy: saying what you mean and making the piece express its value.

He was also the first person to suggest to me that the evaluative judgment, thumbs up or thumbs down, may be the least important part of a piece of criticism. Some people would disagree, but that made sense to me then and it makes sense to me now.

EI:  Tell us briefly how you ended up at the New York Times as a music critic.

BR:  I knew by the time I was in Giddins’s class that I really wanted to pursue writing about music. I was already doing a lot at the radio station at Columbia, which gave you great access to musicians and, de facto, made you part of musical culture in New York. Sonny Sharrock was a musician who had sort of re-emerged at that moment. My friends and I would see him and his band whenever they played. I interviewed him for the radio and eventually I thought, “Hmm, maybe I should take what I got here and turn it into an article.”

Gary suggested that I write one—after interviewing him some more—and send it on spec to Coda Magazine in Canada, which I did, and they took it. That began a relationship with Coda that lasted three or four years, which was really nice. I liked Bill Smith, Coda’s editor, and once visited him where he lived out on Hornby Island, off of Vancouver Island.

I was writing long articles for practically nothing. I had this idea that I should learn how to write long because if I ever go the chance to write criticism for a living, I’d have to write short, and that turned out to be the case. So I wrote a bunch of long articles for Coda and I loved that.

EI:  Do those long Coda articles hold up now? Should we chase them down?

BR:  They might be valuable just as documents of something that happened at a certain time at a certain place. I wouldn’t disavow them, but the voice might be unrecognizable to me.

Anyway, so then I wrote for the Voice quite a bit around like ‘94 to 96, and that was exciting. I had some weird ideas, and my editors—Giddins and Evelyn McDonnell—never suggested that I rein it in. They just made sure the sentences and logic were tracking. I was in heaven, really. I owe them a lot.

I was also working in book publishing and trying to see which one of these was going to win: writing or book publishing. I did not get the hang of upward mobility in the book publishing business. I was at Little, Brown, then William Morrow, then Henry Holt, a minor editor. At one point, the president of Henry Holt said to me, “You: I think you’re wasting your time here, because you’re never going to get anywhere,” and that was a real gift. So I left.

I figured that I could probably squeak by as a freelancer, writing for the Village Voice and Publishers Weekly and Artforum a little bit. I was also getting married around that time, too, so I had to be able to look at myself fin the mirror and respect myself as husband material.

For about a year, I had been in touch with Peter Watrous, the jazz critic at the Times. We had been going to gigs together and he said, “You know, I think the Times should bring in someone else to work as a stringer, because there’s so much going on and we’re missing a lot of it. Would you be interested?” Yes.

Finally in 1996 a spot opened and I got a call from the Times. As a stringer, there was no contract and there were no benefits or whatever—it was a very little amount of money per piece, but I figured if I do enough of these every week, it’s going to work. i wanted nothing more than to be doing this every day. It was like that for a couple of years, then I got a contract, then I got on staff.

EI:  Let’s pause for a moment and assess some of the history of jazz criticism and rock criticism. It seems like the great rock musicians know and respect the great rock critics.

BR:  That’s pretty true.

EI:  In jazz, it’s not really like that. The musicians don’t know or care about the critics.

BR:  That’s also pretty true.

The philosophy of rock is essentially founded on the idea of killing your parents, breaking with the past and creating something entirely new: being shocking or disorienting. What we think of now as rock criticism, at least in its sensibility, basically starts with punk and is fairly hazy about what came before it. Anything that seems allied with punk in some way is basically true and right. Somehow that includes Bob Dylan. It also includes John Lennon, but not Paul McCartney. The culture of rock musicians buys into that and the culture of rock critics buys into that, so there’s unity. You’re absolutely right, it’s astonishing sometimes to hear rock musicians talk with knowledge and insight about Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus or whomever. They care what those people said and thought.

In jazz, there’s a fundamentally different understanding between critics and musicians. Many critics are futurists, a slightly less violent cousin of punks: they believe it is the music’s need or destiny to break away from the past and reinvent itself. And many jazz musicians believe that continuity with the past is extremely important.

EI:  This is the supposed divide, innovation versus tradition.

BR:  One thing that critics in many other disciplines have figured out is that binary thinking is stupid. In jazz, a lot of us are still thinking about innovation versus tradition, one or the other, and it’s way more complicated than that. I’m aware that this is changing now among younger critics. But it’s been the case for a long time.

The first musical movement that I was old enough to participate in some way, was punk, because it was available to me in 1982 and was happening very close to where I lived. CBGB’s had all-ages matinee concerts on the weekends, so I could go see the best of it live. That became a really fundamental part of my understanding of music. It’s just the way things worked out, because of where I lived and what was available to me. Culture is based on availability. But I’m really glad to have learned, through later paying close attention to jazz, about something about the idea of refinement as a virtue, as opposed to, “ckkkdkcckkcck.” [Makes chopping gesture]

EI:  Always killing your parents every time out.

BR:  Yeah. I took years of trying to deal with that issue in a meaningful way. “What does it mean to practice refinement? And what does it mean to keep strengthening an ongoing relationship with the past?” are really helpful questions when thinking about all art.

EI:  Right.

BR:  I think it took jazz to teach me that.

EI:  If was interviewing a musician, I’d ask about musicians of the past. With you, perhaps we should talk about critics, at least a little bit. Is there a favorite piece that you thought were really great?

BR:  Well, I remember being really bowled over by a piece Greg Tate in maybe 1986, “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke.” As I recall, he was trying to reckon with the idea of—what is the discourse around blackness in contemporary popular art, and is it strong enough? Is it good enough?” He was doing it with Greg Tate language, which is rhythmic and combustible and just great.

That’s the kind of thing you can read at an impressionable age and think, whew. Even if you don’t think, “I can write like that,” or, “I want to tackle exactly these subjects,” it shoves you a little bit. It opens up the idea that criticism can do anything and can look like anything and ignore low expectations. It’s not a set form, it’s infinitely flexible.

EI:  Nice. Any other pieces by majors come to mind?

BR:  Whenever I’m asked about what music critics were important to me, I can only think about critics in other disciplines, who were as important or more—maybe because if I thought of myself as a music critic, full stop, then I’d be dead in the water.

EI:  I asked Ron Carter about his bass influences, and he said something like, “Oh, I don’t have any bass influences, but I really was impressed by Cecil Payne on baritone saxophone.”

BR:  Why do you think he said that?

EI:  Maybe something similar, that his vision of music is not just the bass, even though I can play you Paul Chambers records that clearly foreshadow Ron Carter!

BR:  Isn’t that interesting? Maybe I have a similar instinct. You don’t necessarily want to draw inspiration from the people doing what you do. You want to look outside of what you do and somehow translate that thing outside of what you do into your own discipline.

EI:  Sam Rivers said the key to originality is to imitate somebody who played a different instrument. Dave King says he tries to play the drums like how Tom Waits sings.

BR:  In that early piece I wrote about Sonny Sharrock, that’s what he said too, that he hated listening to guitar players and preferred to think about saxophone players. It all makes a lot of sense to me.

EI:  I’ll ask some leading questions. What’d you think of Whitney Balliett?

BR:  Yes.

EI:  He’s kind of good, right? When he’s on, there’s something really good there.

BR:  He’s fucking great. Of course, he had limitations of taste.

EI:  For sure.

BR:  I never met him, so I was never able to smell the guy, but I have a fair sense of who he was and what kind of world he came from and travelled in just from reading. His attention to language, his crazy attention to language, was instructive. And his belief in description—and description for me is like the number one thing. All follows from description.

EI:  To be a great rock critic, you have to paint the larger picture, the milieu. Rock is sort of theatrical and there’s sort of a lot there on the table to write about right away. That’s less true of jazz, but Balliett makes you feel like you’re in the clubs in New York, part of an intimate scene. You want to be one of those people, you want to be hanging out and part of that world.

BR:  Implicit in his writing was that concert-going was a daily activity, almost like keeping your chops up. He was a beat writer, but he was given the freedom to develop an unusual style and to take his writing wherever he wanted. Maybe it’s a New Yorker thing. You also get that sense from Roger Angell writing about baseball, that hanging out in the locker room and talking to baseball players was normal for him, and the cumulative effect of decades of hanging out in the locker room with ball players was very helpful to him as a writer.

Whitney Balliett listened hard. He was able to describe with a kind of imaginative abstraction—for example, describing Teddy Wilson’s profile as “a series of arcs and spheres.” He could also describe sound and individual styles almost as if he were talking about a physical object, and that kind of thing went really deep into my way of writing.

EI:  Martin Williams.

BR:  He was a historian, a historical synthesist. His strength was arranging the events of jazz into a historical narrative and describing what led to a certain musician. That’s a kind of clean, organized thinking that was really helpful to me. I always found his style exceedingly dry, almost invisible, but I got a lot out of the force of his perceptions.

The anthology of recorded jazz that he put together for the Smithsonian was great. He did weird things: he included a Benny Goodman studio reel where he took several takes of Charlie Christian playing the same short solo, on “Breakfast Feud,” strung them together and said, “There. That qualifies as one of the great recordings of jazz.”

EI:  Hah. I didn’t like that as a kid. I didn’t spend much time with the Smithsonian set, but as I remember I was too much of a purist then, and didn’t think those solos should be back to back. Maybe I should give it another listen!

Who else from that era? Nat Hentoff?

BR:  He was absolutely important for all his liner notes, and chronicling his time with a moral conscience, and for putting various people in the studio, for making certain records happen with Candid. The World of Cecil Taylor, Abbey Lincoln’s Straight Ahead, Max Roach’s We Insist!, Booker Little’s Out Front—those are Nat Hentoff productions.

He was a presiding conscience, regardless of what one could take from his writing. Like Balliett, he heard a lot and he hung out a lot and he talked to musicians a lot. He tried to present their feelings and tried to present them as human beings, and that was really important.

He would call me every once and a while and leave a message. It was always by telephone, no emails as far as I can remember. “Read your piece on so and so. Very fine. This is Nat Hentoff.” As if he were doing a radio spot.

EI:  That’s great, what a nice message to get. Yeah, Hentoff wrote hundreds of liner notes.

I don’t ever remember reading you on a liner note…?

BR:  There were few, for David S. Ware and Joe Maneri albums and some others, but as soon as I started writing for the Times, I couldn’t.

EI:  Let me bounce a couple more names off of you. Albert Murray.

BR:  Yeah, very important for me. I found the book The OmniAmericans really stimulating. Stomping the Blues I loved, and I still love, because as an exercise in rhetoric, as a sort of long poem, it’s almost outrageous in its sense of rhythm and the way it sort of just keeps coming forth—and also for its central ideas about blues as an evolved, sophisticated, and specific language. It also belongs in that pantheon of great books involving juxtaposition of text and image in innovative ways—up there with W.G. Sebald and John Berger and Anne Carson.

The Hero and the Blues is a great little book, too.

I had a very productive, long afternoon talking to him once at his apartment. He talked about all his favorite pet subjects: Count Basie and Malraux and all that stuff. He kept on dropping these great statements, like about the “break,” which is today still a kind of chic concept in jazz studies and literary studies. “The ‘break’ in jazz is the place where the improvisor writes his aesthetic signature on the epidermis of the music!”—something like that. I liked it a lot, I liked him a lot.

EI:  What about Stanley Crouch?

BR:  I met him before I worked for the Times, writing something about Lincoln Center for Tower Records magazine, writing what was by then probably a late entry into the literature of “Jazz at Lincoln Center, good or bad?” I liked him very much—I found him interested in dialogue and laughter. There was also sense of him wanting to get me up to speed and impart some wisdom that I really ought to consider, and I was grateful for that.

The last portion of his book Considering Genius, the epilogue, it’s maybe a 50-page chunk, is about the daily life of jazz in the clubs. He’s sort of sifting through thirty or forty years of memories of musicians as creators and human beings, how people carried themselves, the ritual of nightclub life and performances and all that. That’s a great piece of writing—quite important to me.

EI:  I mean there’s too many to mention, we should talk about Giddins for sure, but we can’t go over everybody without missing some names…

BR:  I would say that in different ways I learned lessons about journalism, criticism, and historical accuracy regarding jazz from A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business—one of the first books I think of when I recommend books on jazz to people—as well as the work of Dan Morgenstern, Valerie Wilmer, Amiri Baraka, Robin D. G. Kelley, Zita Carno, and Kevin Whitehead.

EI:  I always looked for Kevin’s byline in DownBeat, I’d even go so far as to say he’s an influence on my own writing on DTM.

So let’s finish with Gary Giddins, since you worked with him and he was such an important critic. I devoured his collection Rhythm-a-ning in high school.

BR:  Like Martin Williams, Gary Giddins’s thinking was historically organized, but also he seemed to have a very sharp memory for what he had read and seen and heard. Every piece he wrote seemed to have a pretty decent sized frame of reference. He, and Stanley also, convinced me that you can set up a pretext for an article: this is an article about so and so—but having established that pretext, you can write about whatever you want. You can bring in a greater amount of history and culture. Giddins did that a lot. His judgments were deeply felt and sometimes quite stern.

And also like Stanley, he picked certain people that he would champion unabashedly. When I was really tuned into Gary Giddins, he was the guy who wrote about David Murray. It was important to him, seemingly, to make a case for this guy [pounds table with fist] and to fix him in history. I sense that Gary Giddins had great reverence and respect for the historical record. I think it’s the same with Stanley too: in that way they’re both almost idealists. Or maybe they’re realists: they feel they have a sense of how the historical record works.

I will say that this is something that I don’t do–or rather, I don’t consider it one of the important aspects of the job. When I’ve done it, it feels like something an editor suggested, or something I had to talk myself into. History can be fickle in the way that things shake out. Plus, I write out of conviction, but I don’t particularly need to feel that I’m right.

EI:  I wonder if the long view of David Murray or Wynton Marsalis will have been hindered by having such obvious champions as Gary Giddins or Stanley Crouch.

BR:  What do you mean?

EI:  The scene reacts to how critics talk about things. Even though we’ve agreed that jazz musicians don’t care about critics that much, the mechanism of popular perception can still be powerful. Some cats never felt that David Murray nor Wynton Marsalis was “the answer” the way that these powerful critics did.

BR: Yes.

EI: Indeed, I’m confident that many musicians (of my generation anyway) think less than they should of David Murray or Wynton Marsalis simply because they were critic’s darlings, with the community’s internal assessment not measuring up to the external praise.

BR:  In both those cases, those musicians answered burning questions and burning concerns for those writers. And they came to symbolize something. At a certain point, I suppose both those writers weren’t even writing about music, per se: they were writing about other ideas, ideas that were greater than music.

My orientation is that there’s so much to deal with in the music itself. I’m a hog for sound. I want to describe the sound and go from there. If that leads me toward larger social questions, great, but it doesn’t have to.

EI:  All right, let’s move on and talk about your time at the New York Times. Going back to killing your parents versus wanting to refine: I think you alluded to the fact that when you started at the paper you really felt like the David Wares and the Joe Maneris needed your support.

BR:  Yeah. I felt they needed to be supported in so-called mainstream media or at least within a kind of criticism that wasn’t totally “rah-rah, I’m a member of the club,” a more objective, dispassionate form of writing. I felt that’s what these people needed.

So how did I progress from that? Really fucking quickly, actually, once I got to the Times, because I just realized, all of a sudden: frame of reference is everything. If I restrict myself to a limited area, it’s a total waste of my time and it’s a total waste of my employers’ time. Stepping into the Times job, I was stepping into the Peter Watrous, Robert Palmer, and John Rockwell’s vision of the job, which was often about breadth. Breadth is its own virtue. Writing about, you know, Bobby Blue Bland, K-Ci and Jo Jo, Janet Jackson, Gal Costa, Ornette Coleman, Harold Ousley, and Pantera… If you could do all of that in a week or two weeks, then you were really doing it. And if you could do it in a way that felt cumulative, not just like, “okay, gonna go out and do this job, gonna go out and do that job”– if you can write about it in such a way that over time, all these experiences started talking to one another, and in your head you could create some unified theories about music and performance and popular culture, then that was the goal.

So that was the larger idea. Within that was, concentrate on jazz, 50% or more of the time, sort of hold that down, keep going out to the clubs, checking out what are the new bands coming along, patrol that, and be open. I mean, it just seemed ridiculous to declare allegiance to some idea of “outside” music, rule-breaking music, because what does that mean? After a little while, what does that mean? I loved some outside music, and I loved some inside music, and they weren’t opposites.

EI: You did a lot to argue for the Afro-Cuban influence. Of course Afro-Cuban is nothing if not the tradition, or the complete opposite of “killing your parents.” How did that come into your vision of jazz?

BR:  A lot of it, initially, came through Peter Watrous, who was getting ready to leave as I came into the paper, and had been going to Cuba and knew a lot about Afro-Latin music, and we’d go to clubs together and he’d say: pay attention to what this conga player is doing, or pay attention to what this piano player is doing. I remember watching Alain Pérez, the bassist in Issac Delgado’s group, in 1997, and feeling like my sense of equilibrium was being shifted. He recommended records to hear. Other people did the same thing—Ned Sublette, the writer and musician, whom I’d known since the 80s, and Robert Farris Thompson, the great historian and Afro-Latinist at Yale. I came to know Harry Sepulveda, who runs the Record Mart store in Times Square by the N/R stop, a generous man and an amazing repository of knowledge about Afro Latin music. I recommend this to anyone: go in there, introduce yourself, shake his hand and say, “I really love such and such, can you recommend something else for me that will blow my mind? He will say, “yes.” And he will lead you to something and start talking to you for ten minutes.

Brazil was really important to me too, and I went there several times for different kinds of stories, mostly to Bahia, but also to Rio and Sao Paolo. The story of Brazilian music was satisfying and nourishing to me, in terms of, you know, the big story. They’ve got it all. They’ve got West African origins, European influences, folk tradition, art tradition, it’s all stacked. Bossa Nova I still find one of the greatest things in the world: it’s such a paradox of smoothness and, you know, rhythmic viciousness.

I found increasingly that I could not write about a metal band or a R ’n B group without thinking about things I learned about rhythm and tone from Afro-Latin music.

EI:  You were at the Times for twenty years: What’s your short form take on what happened to jazz during that era?

BR:  When I started, I was seeing a lot of music that sounded like Coltrane’s Live at Birdland. In the mid ’90s or so, there was just a big shift in rhythm sections and also in new information that was coming into the music, from musicians traveling and learning from in Cuba or the Middle East or whatever. There was a new idea of what jazz could ingest from other traditions, and it was much more rigorous, I think, than what had come before.

EI:  Rigorous in terms of assimilating other traditions?

BR:  Yeah, there seemed to be less fear that jazz in and of itself would disappear if it absorbed too much from another culture.

Well, the role of the drummer, the sound of the drummer, the possibility that the drummer would be phrasing a beat differently every beat, that seemed to be more common at some point.

The declining influence of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and maybe Herbie Hancock?

Those are some of the things that come to mind. New rhythmic complexity, different kinds of humor, different kinds of dryness.

Some of my fondest feelings about having that job for 20 years was seeing some of the great new bands at them at the moment of, “Wow, I think they’ve got it.” That includes Jason Moran’s band, and Robert Glasper’s band, and the Bad Plus. I like to be lost a little bit, and grew to trust the feeling that if I felt lost in the right way, then the music was valid.

EI:  You saw the master Paul Motian in his late years and you really supported him at the paper.

BR:  Was he as good as we thought he was?

EI:  His gigs at the Vanguard always stood out as special events amongst all the other great music in the city. That’s the way I felt about it, anyway.

BR:  That’s the way I felt about it, too. That guy was such a mystery to me. Looking for the mysteries is a really good way of setting up your compass as a critic. If there’s something you fundamentally don’t understand, go there and put your head in it for a while and try to come to grips with it. It’s okay if you don’t figure it out, but at least put your finger on what the paradoxes are.

And Motian had a lot of paradoxes. He was so free, almost anarchically free, and yet his sense of time was unquestionably strong. A lot of what he did seemed so simple, but it was also very, very complex.

Tell me what you liked about him.

EI:  One thing I realized was that he always played the same way. You mentioned time and free: he played time and played free: the time as very strong and the rubato burn was very free: but in his hands those different approaches were somehow the same thing.

BR:  Right.

EI:  Motian got to the highest level of that. For sure.

BR:  And that is not to be understood.

EI:  For sure it is not to be understood.

BR:  That is a proper mystery and will remain so.

EI:  Motian said to me that he and Dewey Redman would tell each other, “Music: There’s no way to explain it.”

BR:  He and Dewey would say that?

EI:  Like they would talk that way to each other on a gig with Keith Jarrett.

BR:  “There’s no way to explain music.” And how do you reckon with that?

EI:  Well, I guess I come down on the side that words are really important!

BR:  Sure, if only to be inadequate.

EI:  Going back to liner notes, I have a frustration with poor metadata and the idea of it all just being in the cloud. Actually placing a certain amount of text with the recording seems important to me.

I wanted to interview Motian, you know, but he always refused. I think he wanted to teach me some lesson there. I asked him once, he said no, I asked him again like two years later and he growled, “I told you no already!”

On the other hand Motian read all the jazz biographies, and was thrilled when I gave him a book on Jo Jones. So even when he’s saying there’s no way to explain it, he was very much interested in the music’s history.

BR:  Right, and he was an anecdote hoarder, wasn’t he. He remembered stories. Sometimes he liked stories that had no point or had no punchline. He told me that he was so thrilled to be working with Hank Jones, and Hank Jones said to him one day, after they’d been playing, “I know your secret.”

I said, “Oh yeah? And what do you think he meant?”

And he said, “I don’t know!”

EI:  With all the great jazz musicians, there’s some level of obscurity. That’s what being hip is: If you are being hip, then you’re working at a different level than can be seen on the surface.

BR:  Like holding back from naming something because naming something reduces it, takes the soul away, something like that. When I think of Paul Motian, I think of a very high order of wordless communication. Paul and Masabumi Kikuchi: what was that? What were they doing? What do you call that?

EI:  I think that was actually one of the last bits of extraordinary 20th-century art.

BR:  20th-century art.

EI:  Obviously they took in so much input, they both studied all sorts of things, but the output ended up being refined, specific, and private. Eventually there was actually one location it happened at, the Village Vanguard, and it happened only twice a year. A few people who got it were devoted fans, but most people didn’t get it. (And they didn’t need to, either.)

The phrase “one of the last bits of 20th-century art” means was that there was a pure element, something almost old-fashioned. I don’t think it was postmodern, or genre-blending, or easily decodable on the surface, the way we all live now. It was just this one private and modernist thing.

BR:  That’s right. No, it wasn’t postmodern or genre-blending, it didn’t have an agenda like that.

So maybe you’re thinking of jazz starting in small places, basements and brothels or whatever, almost private places, and then by the middle of the century becoming popular, and then by the end of the century, back down to the private place again?

EI:  Huh. I didn’t necessarily see the arc that way but I suspect you are right.

BR:  Around 20 years ago, there was a very short-lived club that opened on the upper east side—it might have been connected to a hotel or something. I’d always go to these places out of curiosity, and Houston Person and Etta Jones played a gig there. It was a small room and the gig was under-attended. I don’t think the sound was anything special, and it was a first set of maybe a two-night run. This was never going to go anywhere, this enterprise, but those musicians created a condition of nirvana in that room. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the generosity of what they were doing—so much so that it made me want to weep. Why did they think we deserve this, in this situation? How could that be? Anyway, they created something intensely special in this very non-special place for a non-special occasion. That’s really hard to do. All this time later I’m still thinking about that.

EI: A few jazz insiders have expressed to me occasionally, “Well, Ben just likes that rock stuff, he doesn’t love jazz,” which I never felt about you because I never thought you could have written what you wrote about the great jazz musicians unless you loved the music.

To prepare for this interview I re-read a bunch of your stuff from the Times. One of the pieces I really enjoyed was the profile of Metallica. After reading it I had the insight that you could really be sardonic about these guys — even portray them as goofy — because they were just these rock icons. There was room to maneuver with these outsize personalities.

With your jazz heroes, there isn’t that room, because you have to come in the door reverent. That’s got to be a kind of a bummer about jazz sometimes.

BR:  Yes, you’re right. I have a spent a lot of time thinking about that and dealing with that question and the culture around jazz especially.

I don’t know what it was like to be a jazz fan in the early ‘60s, when there might have been a slightly messianic sense about it, a sense of the universe having ordained that this is the great music of the world. You know: of course this is the most important thing in the world. Are you kidding? Like, are you an idiot? Of course!

I wonder if that’s what people felt then…because when I came into it, and now as well, certainly, there is a sense of needing to protect jazz. That’s the first feeling about jazz: you gotta protect it.

After that you can like it or dislike it, whatever, but this thing is hanging on by a thread, so if you’re going to step in the room, be respectful and be supportive.

Advocacy is an important role for critics. With advocacy comes excitement, and transmitting excitement to readers is an important function of a critic.

But at what level am I cooperating with musicians? I don’t want to get too close to them, because that’s going to affect what I write. I don’t want outside forces to affect what I write, I want it to be as much from the inside as possible.

When you’re talking about Metallica, you’re talking about a band that’s rich as Croesus, and their egos are as big as their houses. So you feel much more freedom. They’re also aware of how bad some of their art has been…

EI: [laughs]

BR:  … and they’re grown men who have comes to grips with that. So that’s part of why that was a lot of fun. Also—Kirk Hammett is genuinely interested in jazz. We had an interesting conversation about all that.

EI:  You got to put the name Pat Martino in a piece about Metallica, that’s cool.

Even for myself and my little world here at DTM, I feel the pressure to always be supportive and reverent first. It slows you down a little bit, at least that’s how I feel.

BR:  It can. I don’t know. I’ve wrestled with it, that’s all I can say. I know it’s different for my colleagues who are, say, movie critics. It may not be much different for my colleagues who are poetry critics or dance critics: they may be experiencing some of the same thing.

We have an ethics handbook at the Times, and if you don’t adhere to it, you might lose your job. In that handbook is the idea that you can’t be friends with the people that you’re writing about, just like you can’t take money from the people that you’re writing about.

So what does that mean? You can interpret that in a lot of different ways. I became quite friendly with a number of musicians over the years, and these friendships were very important to my understanding of the music, but I was very careful about going too far with those relationships.

I would often need to call a musician the morning after a gig to answer a really important question that I needed to get answered before I could write a piece that I was comfortable with. Because you know musicians, sometimes they hardly say anything on stage, and they give you this brain-twisting mass of sound—which is a great gesture, like “here, deal with it.” And then I don’t like to hang out, so I disappear after the gig, but the morning after I realize that I have a lot of questions. So that space between familiar-enough-with-a-musician to call and have a decent chat, and actually being friends—which happens easily enough in the jazz world—is tricky.

EI:  You mentioned an ethics handbook: has there been a directive about inclusiveness that changed over time at the paper or that you felt internally? I have noticed in the last ten years that there’s been a real sort of awakening to make sure things are diverse, to make sure things are acceptable politically on multiple fronts.

BR:  I think social media helped that happen. Even in the late ‘’90s, we had no conclusive idea what readers were thinking or how they were responding. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, we had a much better idea of what readers thought, so some of our writing might have changed accordingly. For a long time, there was a tragic lack of writers of color in the culture section of the Times. That is now finally beginning to change. That, in and of itself, is going to change some of the discourse in the paper.

EI:  Was there anything you wanted to say about your time at the paper that we didn’t cover?

BR:  There was a repetition aspect to the job: the fact of having to produce a piece of copy, three or four times a week, or whatever it was. That alone did a lot for me, and when I was ready to leave, it was after writing four books and feeling that I had a writing life outside of the Times, but also when I was finally ready to admit that I didn’t need the daily-paper writing regimen to feel I was progressing.

When Nate Chinen joined the Times, in the mid-aughts, it changed my job in a very positive way. I had a comrade, and a good one. Nate knew the scene really well—he surely knew various parts of the scene better than I did—and so my work and his work could bounce off each other a little bit. Breadth was written into the job for both of us, but in certain ways jazz was our shared home base. For there to be two people greatly concerned with jazz at the New York Times: this was a really generative thing.

EI:  What’s next?

BR:  I’m teaching at NYU at the Gallatin School, a small program within undergraduate NYU, where there’s no majors and there’s no departments—so it’s very cross-discipline. It’s for students whose interests may be far apart, so they end up creating their own concentrations.

This semester I’m teaching a class about cultural criticism in the broad sense, not just arts. So far we’ve read Maggie Nelson, Guy Davenport, George Orwell, Mary Ruefle, Mark Greif, Margaret Fuller, James Baldwin, Rebecca Solnit, Parul Seghal, John Berger, Amiri Baraka…We’re trying to get at these questions of, “What is criticism? What’s it good for, and how does it work?”

The basic idea is: criticism looks beyond received wisdom, and it takes a million forms. It doesn’t look like one thing.

Beyond teaching, I’m freelancing. I seem to be writing regularly for Esquire, and other things—more to come.

And certainly another book, when I can get the right frame for it, and convince myself that it’ll be worthwhile to spend a few years on it.

EI:  Well, I look forward to that next book and anything else you’re writing.

This was a fun conversation. On behalf of so many in my immediate circle of fellow musicians, we thank you again for the twenty years of invaluable support.

Bonus track: my quick review of Ben’s latest book with a representative Ratliff quote (originally posted on DTM last May):

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty is a manifesto of the postmodern age, declaring that is our duty to take on all kinds of music with equal seriousness.

“Musical plenty” is very much our moment. Perhaps it will remain our moment until the human race outgrows the personal computer.

The question remains: How deep are you listening to all that “plenty?” Ratliff hears a tremendous amount, and his fluid and poetic prose style is always a pleasure to read. His mildly sardonic yet utterly sincere attitude when addressing Mariah Carey or Grateful Dead fandom is almost a kind of genius.

Ratliff was first known as a jazz critic, not as a general music critic, but an important harbinger of his eclectic tastes was an early insistence on Afro-Cuban as essential to jazz. (Most jazz players know this but it few critics have emphasized it like Ratliff.)

The real point of something like Every Song Ever is to make the reader go buy some records. Ratliff got me with Patato & Totico. Ratliff:

There are many distinctions to Patato & Totico, the record made in 1968 with Totico Arango singing over Patato Valdés’s percussion, accompanied by Arsenio Rodríguez on tres, Cachao Lóoez on bass, three players on claves, and a five-man vocal chorus. It is the closest thing the the 1960s New York rumba community—an exile Afro-Latin culture that regularly gathered to play in public spaces—had to an authoritative document.


Its tracks are poetic rituals, not like most of what we listen to in this world. They’re street-rumba tracks, but they’re untrue to street-rumba reality: they are not field recordings or standard, flat, fast-and-cheap documents. They include a guitarist, or actually a tresero: categorically an ingredient not normally heard with rumba, and specifically the best tresero ever to have lived. 

Ben Ratliff website.

MacMillan page for Every Song Ever.