Biography Sidebars



Ben Sidran is widely recognized as the host of National Public Radio’s landmark jazz series “Jazz Alive”, which received a Peabody Award, and as the host of VH-1 television’s “New Visions” series, which received the Ace Award for best music series. A pianist, producer, singer and composer, he has recorded forty solo albums, including the Grammy nominated Concert for Garcia Lorca, and produced recordings for such noted artists as Van Morrison, Diana Ross, Michael Franks, Rickie Lee Jones, Mose Allison and Steve Miller (with whom he co-wrote the hit song “Space Cowboy”). He is the composer of the soundtrack for the acclaimed film Hoop Dreams, and scored the documentary Vietnam: Long Time Coming, which won both the Aspen Film Festival audience award and an Emmy. Sidran has authored two books on the subject of jazz, Black Talk, a cultural history of the music, and Talking Jazz, a series of conversations with inspirational musicians. He holds a PhD. in American Studies from Sussex University, Brighton, England, but has studiously avoided the academic life, preferring instead to spend his time performing, producing and writing. His written works include the memoir, A Life in the Music, the groundbreaking sociology text There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream and the acclaimed biography, The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma; his most recent recordings include Dylan Different, Don’t Cry For No Hipster, Picture Him Happy, Ben There Done That, Who’s the Old Guy Now, and Swing State.



Though primarily renowned as a gifted pianist, composer, and producer, among other musically related roles, Ben Sidran has also made a name for himself as a writer. Sidran's first book, Black Talk, Holt (1971), is based on his doctoral dissertation and is a sociologic history of Black music in America. After twenty-four years, the musician published a second book, Talking Jazz: An Oral History, Da Capo (1986), which presents personal interviews with jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. For his third literary endeavor, Sidran not only relates the details of his eclectic career in his autobiography, Ben Sidran: A Life in the Music, Cooper Square (2001) but also delves into issues of race and music, the technological advancement of society, and how music's many roles create varied personal musical experiences. Sidran shares with readers tales of interactions with many great names in soul and rock, including Steve Miller, Miles Davis, and Diana Ross, highlighting memorable moments in the history of music since the 1960s. Library Journal contributor James E. Perone observed that the artist writes with “fluid prose and a keen insight into pacing—much like a fine jazz performance.” Perone concluded that “this book is an unqualified winner.” In a Booklist review, Mike Tribby described Sidran as “a vital musical force,” adding that “his literate autobiography reveals a pop musician in touch with the rest of the world.” Sidran once commented: “Nobody has ever written a really first-rate book about what it is like to be a musician in this country. I hope to write that book. I travel constantly (as a pianist and singer), performing for audiences large and small. I see this as my research as well as my current vocation.”  His fourth book, There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, Nardis, (2011), a comprehensive history of Jewish participation in American popular music, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, and his most recent book,  The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma (Nardis) won first prize from the Independent Book Publishers Association. 



Remarkably, even as he maintains a successful performing and recording career, Sidran has also amassed an impressive array of credits in production and composition for radio, television and film.

Ben's multi-media career started back in Madison in 1973, as host and producer for the local late-nighter, “The Weekend Starts Now.” In 1975-76, Sidran was artistic director for jazz programming for the groundbreaking Soundstage on Chicago's WTTW, creating programs showcasing Dizzy Gillespie with Kenny Clark and James Moody and “Sing Me a Jazz Song” featuring Jon Hendricks, Eddie Jefferson, Annie Ross and Leon Thomas.

From 1981 to 1983, he was host and artistic director for the Peabody Award-winning “Jazz Alive,” on National Public Radio, featuring weekly national live jazz performances. At the same time, he was producing “The Jazz Life,” a Laserdisc series of six one-hour performance videos featuring Art Blakey with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Johnny Griffin, and others. 

Throughout the eighties, Sidran continued his multi-multi-media ways, as a contributor to “All Things Considered,” on NPR; music director for the Cinemax “Sass & Brass” special featuring Sarah Vaughan with Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, and others; and as host/ producer for “Sidran on Record,” back on NPR with weekly interviews of jazz personalities (Winner, International Radio Festival Award, 1986). A collection of 43 of those interviews, Talking Jazz: An Oral History, is also in print from Da Capo Press.

Sidran broke new ground bringing jazz to commercial television in 1988 as host of “New Visions” on VH-1, combining long-form interviews and live performances. Winner of the 1989 ACE Award for “Best Cable Music Series,” it ran through 1991.

In 1993, Ben served as music producer both for “Diana Ross Live: The Lady Sings … Jazz and Blues,” a live pay-per-view concert, and for “Higher Goals,” for PBS, a National Daytime Emmy nominee for outstanding children's special (for which he also composed).

The next year, Ben hit the big screen in a big way, as composer and music producer for “Hoop Dreams,” the gripping documentary of two young Chicago basketball players that won the 1994 Sundance Audience Award and New York Film Critics Award and has been voted one of the best film of the 20th century by many polls.

He served in that same capacity for “Vietnam: Long Time Coming,” with similar success (Winner 1998 Aspen Film Festival, Emmy Award, Director's Guild of America Award).

Ben went back to radio and NPR from 1996-1999, as a producer on “Jazz Profiles,” weekly biographies of major jazz figures. In 2004, Sidran reunited with the team behind “Hoop Dreams,” composing (with son Leo) the original score for the award winning documentary "With All Deliberate Speed,” on the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.