Jazz critic Ratliff breaks down the beat

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 14, 2008

Media Credit: Alyssa Songsiridej
Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for The New York Times, speaks at the Kelly Writers House about his new John Coltrane biography.

A haven for wordsmiths, the Kelly Writers House last night shared its spotlight with music lovers as well.

A crowd of 40 gathered in Penn's Kelly Writers House last night to hear a presentation by Ben Ratliff, a New York Times jazz critic. Ratliff signed copies of his new book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.

As part of a two-year collaboration with Ars Nova, New York's haven for emerging artists, KWH sought to connect jazz lovers with the writing community. "We want to reach the jazz audience in the Penn community," said Sam Allingham, an assistant for the Writers House.

Ratliff's inspiration for the project came during his early days as a critic for the Times. Reviewing as many as four bands a week, he began to notice a pattern among many of the bands: their music echoed tones of Coltrane's work. With evidence of such an overwhelming influence, he wondered, why can't we move beyond this music?

His answer lay in Coltrane. The book is divided into two distinct sections - the making of Coltrane's art and how he was received by his listeners and critics. "This is not a biography," he insisted. "It's a book about his work."

Ratliff read excerpts from the text, both from music critics who wrote during Coltrane's time and commentary of his own. Later, he answered questions from an eager audience, some of whom were artists themselves.

"I'm involved with the student radio station," College junior Sam McDermott said. "Since I don't have the firmest grasp of Coltrane over more modern jazz, it seemed like it'd be interesting to hear how they were connected."

In researching the book, Ratliff initially worried that his discoveries about Coltrane would dampen his fascination with the artist.

"In some weird way, he was more" Ratliff said. "He didn't shut himself off from opportunities."