Ben Ratliff 1, Smithsonian Jazz Anthology 0

I just read Ben Ratliff’s excellent critique of “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” at the New York Times. I have disagreed vehemently with Mr. Ratliff on these electronic pages before, but this time he really hit the nail on the head. I have heard rumblings and grumblings about this project from my professors at Rutgers and various jazz scholars who have passed through the Institute of Jazz Studies — the general consensus seemed to be that in an effort to please everyone, the anthology ended up pleasing no one. Just read the piece, though — he astutely enumerates the compilation’s limitations, so there’s no need to repeat his observations here.

I do have one mild quibble with Mr. Ratliff’s assessment, however, which I’ll get into after the jump:

In his review, Mr. Ratliff lists “Haig Haig” by Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer as one of the “solid to questionable wild-card choices” included in the anthology. This track is not at all questionable in my book! To give him some credit, he did list it first, implying that it was more “solid” and Cab Calloway’s “Hard Times” was more questionable. Even “solid,” though, doesn’t go nearly far enough to do justice to those two musicians’ work together in the 1960s. Terry and Brookmeyer’s collaborations are among the hardest-swinging acts of bad-assery that my ears have ever enjoyed. YouTube only boasts a small taste, which I’ve included below — I’d recommend the album “Power of Positive Swinging” if you’re looking for a little more (only $5.99 on Amazon!)

Of course, quibbling over which tracks were or weren’t included in the anthology merely serves to reify it; still, I couldn’t help myself but to geek out a little bit about a seriously under-appreciated bit of music that has blown my mind like few others have, now being shoehorned into this awkward (and, as Ratliff convincingly argues, increasingly futile) canon-formation exercise.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
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3 Responses to Ben Ratliff 1, Smithsonian Jazz Anthology 0

  1. Alan Kurtz says:

    Alex, unless I missed it, you fail to tell us whether or not you’ve actually listened to the box set Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. This raises a familiar flag. Didn’t you once condemn the Ken Burns Jazz TV series before you’d even watched it? I reiterate my objection (a) that a scholar ought to make it clear to his readers if he (the scholar) has no firsthand experience with the product under discussion; and (b) that, lacking such experience, a scholar ought not to weigh in on such controversies. Otherwise you cannot credibly assert, as you do here, that “this time he [Ben Ratliff] really hit the nail on the head.” How would you feel, Alex, if I were to publish a review of one of your performances without ever having heard you play?

    • arodjazz says:

      I haven’t listened to the set back to back to back, but I have heard most of the music on it. Regardless, the frame of criticism for this anthology has little to do with the content of the pieces themselves; instead, I take issue with the way in which they were assembled for the box set — information which is discernible without actually listening to the recordings in succession. Ratliff’s assessment strikes me, as someone deeply immersed in jazz history as a student and scholar for the past two years, as prescient and well-articulated. That is all that I said, and of course I stand by it.

      The choices that the editors of this anthology made were largely political and ideological — they reflect a set of attempted solutions to the problem of canonizing jazz. As Ratliff points out, they are different than the solutions proposed by Martin Williams in his previous edition of the anthology. I also agree with Ratliff that, for all its faults, Williams’s version, which emphasized certain central figures rather than the one-track-per-artist policy adopted by the current set, was a more effective approach. I’d say more broadly, though, that any comprehensive attempt to anthologize or canonize jazz is bound to be a futile one.

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