Writing about jazz generally takes one of two paths, analysis or appreciation. Whitney Balliett was not a musicologist, but one of the field’s most gifted appreciators. His descriptions of what he heard, saw and felt in music are among the best twentieth century English prose in any field. Consider this passage about Thelonious Monk.
His improvisations were attempts to disguise his love of melody. He clothed whatever he played with spindly runs, flatted notes, flatted chords, repeated single notes, yawning silences, and zigzag rhythms. Sometimes he pounded the keyboard with his right elbow. His style protected him not only from his love of melody but from his love of the older pianists he grew out of — Duke Ellington and the stride pianists. All peered out from inside his solos, but he let them escape only as parody.
Musicians and academic analysts often found more poetry than accuracy in some of Balliett’s lyrical descriptions of performances and called him to account for evaluations like his contention that Max Roach didn’t swing. But it was easy to forgive him anything when he created sentences like these from an account of Pee Wee Russell’s clarinet playing.
By this time, his first chorus is over, and one has the impression of having just passed through a crowd of jostling, whispering people.
In his final chorus, he moves snakily up toward the middle register with a series of tissue-paper notes and placid rests, adopting a legato attack that allows the listener to move back from the edge of his seat.
Balliett’s skill at describing music was matched by his ability to capture the those who make it, as in this passage about Earl Hines at the piano.
Hines–tall and quick-moving, with a square, noble face–is a hypnotic performer. His almost steady smile is an unconscious, transparent mask. When he is most affected, the smile freezes–indeed, his whole face clenches. Then the smile falters, revealing a desolate, piercing expression, which melts into another smile. He tosses his head back and opens his mouth, hunches over, sways from side to side, and rumbling to himself, clenches his face again, tears of sweat pouring down his face. His face and his manner are his music–the sort of perfect, non-showman showmanship that stops the heart.
Balliett was not enamored of the avant garde of the sixties, writing that “It depends not on mere emotion but on an armored passion.” Nonetheless, he went to hear its leading figures and gave it a balanced assessment.
At its worst, then, the new thing is long-winded, dull, and almost physically abrasive. At its best–in the hands of Ornette Coleman or (Cecil) Taylor–it howls through the mind and heart, filling them with an honest ferocity that is new in jazz and perhaps in any music.
Balliett was the jazz critic of The New Yorker for forty years under its brilliant editor William Shawn. The magazine’s new owners forced Shawn out in 1987. As the editorial leadership went through changes, Balliett was downgraded, finally reduced to doing short profiles. Not long after he was relegated to a quickie sketch of Barbra Streisand, he disappeared from The New Yorker altogether, one of the magazine’s greatest assets flung away. In his last decade, he wrote occasional articles for other magazines and a few memorable pieces for The New York Review of Books.
Most of Balliett’s work for The New Yorker was anthologized in books. Two of the most recent are American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz and Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001.
After having read him all of my adult life, I finally met Balliett in 1997, prepared to tell him what his work had meant to me. He derailed me with kind words about something I had written. I managed to get back on track with praise that embarassed him. We had occasional encounters when I was in New York. After our last conversation, I had no doubt that The New Yorker’s rejection had done serious damage to his spirit.
Yesterday, I learned with sadness that Whitney Balliett was ill. Today, he died. He was eighty years old. I shall miss him.
j bonar dowd says
amen. wonderful writing, wonderful that it found an outlet. jazz has more or less disappeared from the new yorker, classical music, although brilliantly handled these days, a sometime thing, absurd post modern takes on hip hop taking precedence……..
Tim DuRoche says
And How!!! Thank you for this. Balliett was a vivid thinker and a daring prose stylist in the same pantheon with Liebling, Philip Wylie, Hazlitt, Otis Ferguson, Dwight Macdonald, Joseph Mitchell and Pauline Kael. . .a huge inspiration to me as a young writer (and still). We no longer have jazz writers of his ilk, literary grace, and savoir faire– only legions of record reviewers and dyspeptic critics and discographers. No one else could find so many ways to describe the muscle and poetry of Big Sid Catlett or refer to early jazz drumming as being surrounded with “Victorian clutter”. . .and then again we can all thank him for that most glorious of phrases: The Sound of Surprise.
He’ll be missed.
Peter Kountz says
Thank you..this time for remembering Whitney Balliett. His writing was so musical and he could see,hear, and describe unique elements in many musicians that other writers and critics often missed. I was especially touched by his writing on Alec Wilder. Very few people understood Wilder as Whitney Balliett did and very few were as tolerant of and compassionate toward Wilder in his worst times…
geoffrey james says
I arrived in New York by boat in summer of 1964, and the person I most wanted to meet, apart from Duke Ellington, was Whitney Balliett. So I phoned him up, and he invited me to lunch, and that was the beginning of a long friendship. I had reviewed his first collection of pieces while I was at Oxford, and I ended up playing sometimes with his rough and ready band in New York. I was a journalist at the time, but I took some pictures for his book, Alec Wilder And His Friends. Whitney was a lovely man, gentle, punctilious, with a marvelous musical laugh. His pieces will be read with pleasure as long as anyone likes jazz.
Jim Denham says
I know the phrase was a quote from someone else, but Balliet used it as the title of his essay on Pee Wee Russell and I love it: “Even his feet look sad”.
Jack Berry says
Strikes me as curious that in all the talk about Balliett, no one said anything about the current absence of jazz writing (with the exception of the calendar) in the New Yorker. Nat Hentoff’s republished WSJ piece dumped on Remnick for eulogizing someone who had been treated badly, but how about bad treatment of the music?
Dave Barber says
I recently read Adam Gopnik’s appreciation of the late writer Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker. Although Balliett’s role at the New Yorker extended beyond the coverage of jazz, his unique style blossomed under editor William Shawn, who clearly had an affinity for jazz. Why we didn’t hear more from a writer of Balliett’s skill and stature after Shawn’s departure is a question I don’t have all the answers for. What’s clearer is that coverage of jazz in the New Yorker has slowed to nothing since then. One of the only jazz features to run in the New Yorker over the past two years was a Stanley Crouch piece on Sonny Rollins. I remember seeing New Yorker editor David Remnick, publicizing that weeks’s issue on MSNBC’s Don Imus show commenting that jazz was dying but that Rollins possessed a vitality that was worth paying attention to.
The health of jazz has always been tied to its advocates both inside and outside the music. Jazz blogs, websites and print publications certainly play an important role in communicating inside this often insular world (check out the interview with pianist George Colligan in the February issue of Cadence, as revealing a look at current working conditions for New York-based musicians as I’ve read) and offer the potential to draw in new audiences. But as we close in on being a decade out from the mass-marketed Duke Ellington centennial and much-debated Ken Burns Jazz series, who are the advocates in the bigger bastions of media culture insuring that jazz gets attention and seeing that it gets stamped with credibility? Its encouraging to read the thoughtful coverage the New York Times has maintained beyond just listings and seeing Robert Levi’s Billy Strayhorn documentary on PBS. One of the music’s most important lifelines has been public radio, and though jazz seems to have a diminished presence on NPR and many stations have abandoned jazz for talk and information-based programming, strong advocate-driven stations such as Newark’s WBGO continue committed to the music.
If a magazine like the New Yorker provides thorough coverage of classical music, theatre, books, television, film and the visual arts, why not jazz? If one reason the New York Times covers jazz is its strong place and deep history in the city’s cultural life, why not the New Yorker? It would be interesting to hear a response from Remnick on why
The New Yorker has abandoned jazz as part of its wide-ranging arts coverage. The music does have a deep tradition at the magazine and at this point in time, jazz needs all the help it can get.
(Mr. Barber programs concerts for Cityfolk in Dayton, Ohio)
R. Branton says
You know, I have been reading the articles of Balliett and, as a musician, I am impressed with how he could get into the spirit of the music through words. If I have to read about music (which I hate to do), I would rather re-read his articles than what passes for writing nowadays.