On a lark last week, I borrowed New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff’s Essential Library of Jazz, 100 record recommendations presented by the grey lady herself. (A side note- there are three keys to my sanity on the ship- yoga, Netflix, and the Miami Public Library) I have been a fan of Mr. Ratliff since I was in college. He was preceded as senior jazz critic at the Times by a guy who was pretty well in Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch’s hip pocket, and probably wrote himself out of a job when he tossed off an above the fold piece calling Wayne Shorter’s very demanding, beautiful “High Life” record a sellout of the highest order. (EDIT: Peter Watrous) Ratliff spilled substantial ink on the scenes in NYC not owned by Lincoln Center when it wasn’t quite so cool to do so, especially the then crucial “What is Jazz” festivals the Knitting Factory did every year. He became must reading for me, then several hundred miles away from NYC both physically and intellectually, and dying to get closer. Ten-plus years later, I still find him knowledgeable, informative and fair, never more so than in this text.
The single biggest battle in jazz and its related musics over the past twenty years has been the attempts to create, formalize and disseminate a canon, some critical mass of “important” music that we want to pass on, much as classical music has done, now ironically as rock and roll is doing with its hall of fame. I think Ratliff has done as good a job as any here, citing the absurdity of the task at the get-go by including a second list of 100 as an appendix. He also laces each individual entry with references to others who are either influences for or influenced by the artist in question. Even when I disagreed with a particular choice I saw his solid rationale, and he went out of his way to include some beautiful, obscure but important material. (Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s Newest Sound Around, a Chano Pozo record)
One major quibble- I understand the importance of including recent work in any canon like this, if only to reinforce the fact the music is vital and alive. But I disagreed strongly with nine of his eleven choices after 1995, given the alternatives. Not that they are bad records by any means, or that mine would be any better or more definitive- I think it’s just too soon to judge what is going to “stick” aesthetically. Better to print a “top ten” of the nineties, and call it just that, that try to write “New Directions” or Marcus Roberts “Homage to Duke” into the canon quite yet.
For the record, offhand I would pull the aforementioned two records, plus Abbey Lincoln’s “Who Used to Dance”, Cassandra Wilson’s “Travelling Miles” in favor of Dave Douglas’ “In Our Lifetime”, Michael Cain’s criminally underrated “Circa”, a recent album by Patricia Barber and one more TBA. Also conspicuous by their absence are the Vanguard Band’s “Music of Bob Brookmeyer”, Blakey’s “Moanin”, etc. But as I said, I’m quibbling.)
This book really inspires me to go back and explore some of the recommendations I’m less familiar with- James P. Johnson, the Jelly Roll Hot Pepper Sessions, and Julius Hemphill, to name three. Music I´`ve mostly been exposed to through schooling and liked, but haven´t gotten around to really absorbing. I guess that is the best thing about a canon- it can be a solid palate from which to paint your own aesthetic picture.
It is not, however, the be all and end all of anyone’s taste, nor should it be. Which brings me to this self-flagellating post over at New Music Box. (others have covered it well, but when has that stopped me from opening my mouth? The corresponding response thread is great) It’s rather sad to see this chap paint himselves into an aesthetic corner based on some notion of what he’s “supposed to” like, or understand, or appreciate. It’s also intellectually and emotionally dishonest. It’s another version of dating someone because you like what they represent more than who they are, which I’m sure most of us have done at one point. We love showing her off, but once you are alone together it’s things get a bit dodgier, and often quite uncomfortable. Love is an is, not a should, and that Is is never something to be ashamed of.
I think the role of anyone promoting an aesthetic, be it a critic, composer, artist, whatever, is to highlight a style’s strength, and communicate it’s impact on you, in the hopes that someone else will feel that impact as well. Dictating taste is ultimately an exercise in futility, like trying to tell someone who or how to love. It’s a lot more fun to play Cupid and then let the chips fall.