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Jazz for Curious Readers
Ben Ratliff
May 12, 2008

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two sons. His New York Times Essential Library: Jazz was published in 2002.

Since the museum’s sibling program, Jazz for Curious Listeners, is peering into the musical world of John Coltrane, Ratliff is a fitting choice for the newest public program of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Jazz for Curious Readers.

From Ray Olson’s Booklist’s review of Ratliffe’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007): “Sonny Rollins made an album called Saxophone Colossus, but his contemporary John Coltrane became the embodiment of that title, the last soloist to date to dominate jazz as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker had. New York Times jazz critic Ratliff gives us not another biography but rather a history of Coltrane's "sound," his personal manner of playing. Half the book traces Coltrane from beginning on the alto sax to adopting the tenor during early jobs to initial fame in Miles Davis' and Thelonious Monk's working bands and as a leader on recordings in the 1950s. The rest analyzes his last seven years leading the most successful quartet of the 1960s, for which he took up soprano sax, and more experimental ventures after disbanding it. Ratliff demonstrates that the first period was one of increasing complexity in Coltrane's solos; the second, of increasing tonal variety and extramusical (spiritual) motivation but decreasing structural underpinnings as Coltrane exploited modal scales over sparse or no Western chord changes. This is popular, non-technical music analysis at its best.”

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