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NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

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Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
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@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. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
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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