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February 1, 2007

TT: Whitney Balliett, R.I.P.

“My bookshelves, like my writings, are haunted by ghosts of influences past, all remembered with great tenderness, much as one recalls an old flame from college days,” I wrote in a 1999 essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader. One of those influences died this morning.

I didn’t read The New Yorker as a boy—I wasn’t quite that precocious—and so my first encounter with Whitney Balliett, whose jazz criticism appeared regularly in that magazine for the better part of a half-century, came when I ran across a remaindered copy of Such Sweet Thunder in a department store. It was the first book about jazz that I read more than casually, and it made a lasting impression on me, not merely because of the music it discussed but because of the miraculously vivid way in which it was written.

Time and again, as in his celebrated profile of Pee Wee Russell, Balliett drew verbal pictures whose evocative power was infallible and inimitable:

Russell spoke in a low, nasal voice. Sometimes he stuttered, and sometimes whole sentences came out in a sluice-like manner, and trailed off into mumbles and down-the-nose laughs. His face was never still. When he was surprised, he opened his mouth slightly and popped his eyes, rolling them up to the right. When he was thoughtful, he glanced quickly about, tugged his nose, and cocked his head. When he was amused, everything turned down instead of up—the edges of his eyes, his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth.

Balliett wrote the same way about the sound of jazz as he did about the men and women who played and sang it. “Guided by Edmund Wilson’s precept that a critic must first describe what he is going to criticize,” he explained, “I began trying to describe what jazz sounded like. Music is transparent and bodiless and evanescent, so I was forced to use metaphor and simile and other such circumambulatory devices.”

Some of his purpler passages did indeed have a roundabout quality, and readers conversant with the technical language of music occasionally found his inability to use that language frustrating. On the other hand, his musical illiteracy forced him to coin some of the most memorable images ever to have found their way into the literature of jazz. Here’s one of the best of them, a pen portrait of Buddy Rich in full flow:

He could move between his tom-toms and his snare drum and his cymbals with such speed that he gave the impression he was playing simultaneously on three different parts of his set. His long solos were not rhythmic investigations as much as avalanches—he wanted to bury his listeners with his brilliance, with crushing rolls and rimshots, with round-the-set rocketry and bass-drum thunder.

A few years ago I wrote an essay for Commentary about what I called “the amateur tradition in jazz writing,” in which I cited Balliett as an example of the very best that tradition had to offer. I still feel that way. To be sure, he didn’t know enough about music to be a great critic, but he was a great appreciator, which is at least as good and very often better. It was from his New Yorker articles that I first learned of the music of Russell, Gene Bertoncini, Sid Catlett, the Classic Jazz Quartet, Blossom Dearie, Bobby Hackett, Jim Hall, Ellis Larkins, Dave McKenna, Charlie Mingus, Red Norvo, Jimmy Rowles, Dick Wellstood, Alec Wilder, and countless other artists whose work would brighten my life ever after. He was also a superlative journalist with a well-tuned ear for the telling quote, and every profile I have published in my thirty years as a professional writer bears the stamp of his style.

I met Balliett a number of years ago, and made a point of telling him how much his writing had meant to me. By then, alas, he was on the outs with the magazine he had served so loyally for so long. He was treated cruelly and shabbily by William Shawn’s successors, who had no understanding of the significance of his work. His last years were by all accounts disappointed ones, though he did manage to collect his best pieces into a hefty pair of volumes, American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz and Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001, which will serve as permanent monuments to his unique gifts.

My heart sank when the word went out yesterday that Balliett was close to death. Though we were never more than distant acquaintances, his writing was so expressive that I felt as though I knew him better than I did. Today I feel as though I had lost a friend.

UPDATE: Doug Ramsey's tribute to Balliett is here.

Posted February 1, 2007 2:03 AM

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