The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz

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Lists detailing the most important of anything are dicey propositions for both the author and reader.
The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz
A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

Ben Ratliff
Times Books, Henry Holt and Company.
New York, 2002
ISBN 0-8050-7068-0

Here is a clear example of superb music writing:

"Here we enter two contiguous realms: that of Chet Baker and that of the famously weird pianist Dick Twardzik. Both are cult realms, and cults are generally sprung from empathy toward weakness rather than admiration of strengths. But jazz is a music that depends on cults, because since the advent of rock and roll jazz has been a choice, an optional mode of being that very few are born into. You aspire to see yourself as a person who loves jazz, and thus you are led toward all sorts of false idols, as well as real ones. There is no point I worrying about the truth of cults; their true value always becomes evident in time, by the process of history."

And, so New York Times Music Critic Ben Ratliff begins his essay Number 36 out of 100 of the most important jazz recordings, Chet Baker in Paris: The Complete Barclay Recordings of Chet Baker, Volume 1 (Emarcy/Polygram France, 1989). Mr. Ratliff manages to sum up the jazz journalism zeitgeist in one tidy paragraph. He further illustrates two other characteristics of this curious list: (1) its enigmatic personality, and (2) his profound apologia for his choices. In the present example, Ratliff reasons,

I retain qualified admiration for Twardzik and Baker, even if neither on his own, was top-one hundred material. (Baker checked out of being a sentient, developing musician—in other words, one who gave a shit—barely after having gotten started, and he continued on the path of least resistance for thirty-five more years. Twardzik didn’t live past twenty-seven.) This is certainly not the album it could have been with greater preparation. But it represents an unusual confluence of talent.

Lists detailing the most important of anything are dicey propositions for both the author and reader. Authors cannot help but blow whichever way the wind blows and choose a list at a given time that will change at another, future given time. Readers (and listeners), depending on their familiarity with the subject, are looking either for guidance on how to complete a collection or for a deeper understanding of the collection he or she has. For his part, Mr. Ratliff wishes away journalistic feet of clay in saying,

History, mostly, lies in the meat of [its] traditions. You oughtn’t look at jazz only by its corners, its Hot Fives and Sevens, its Kind of Blues and Love Supremes. You have to look at what the corners surround. I don’t feel good about fetishization, and I am interested in albums that saw everything that needs to be said about a particular period without having accumulated the crust of myth...

...I’ve tried to include both kinds of albums, the sacramental and the useful, sometimes favoring those that were more broadly popular, representative of an artist of his time, or directly influential on the practice of jazz rather than the legendary and one of a kind.

For the reader’s part, Ratliff has chosen to list the recordings in chronological order. This avoids a ranking of the merits of the discs which would add nothing but a distracting layer to the reading. The book begins with The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, The Creators of Jazz (1917-1936) to Jason Moran’s Black Stars (2001) with some surprises and curios within. The choices that are not surprises are obvious: Louis Armstrong’s The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Charlie Parker’s The Complete Savoy and Dial Sessions and Charlie Parker with Strings, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

But Mr. Ratliff does throw in some interesting, if not controversial, choices. Chano Pozo— El Tambor de Cuba seems a narrow choice, though one defended under Ratliff’s "directly influential" clause above. Likewise for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys— The Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 3 : Basin Street Blues, though it is delightful that Western Swing receives its recognition. Tucked between Number 25—Nat King Cole Trio— Live at the Circle Room and Number 27—Thelonious Monk— Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1, The Tiffany Transcriptions don’t so much stick out as they push their way to the front where they should have been to begin with. It is in this essay that Ratliff makes the connection between Western Swing, southern California punk as practiced by the late ‘70s band, Black Flag.

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