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The True Poet of Jazz

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The True Poet of Jazz

Legendary New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett captured the magic of the music. Summer 2020
Arts and Culture

When people ask how I became a jazz pianist and an authority on the music, I’m almost embarrassed to answer. They have heard so many colorful stories about jazz pros who learned their craft at bordellos and speakeasies, accompanied by various illegal vices. My story is far less glamorous.

I learned about jazz at my local public library in Hawthorne, California.

Even a library in a working-class neighborhood can be a magical place, and it certainly was for me during my teen years. In those pre-Internet days, the local library was my worldwide web of wonder. There I found my future vocation on a corner of a shelf marked 781.65, the Dewey Decimal classification for books on jazz and the numerical homeland where much of my life’s work was destined to reside. Here lay a whole education in a mysterious music genre, which I could supplement with jazz vinyl—also kept in the library, available for checkout and home listening—as well as enticing stacks of Downbeat and other music magazines.

In my mid-teens, long before I dared enter a jazz club, these were my humble equivalents of Birdland and the Village Vanguard. And it was here I discovered the true poet of jazz, the writer who could capture the music and put it down on the printed page, turning a library into a portal on the jazz scene. His name was Whitney Balliett.

Balliett was different from the other jazz writers I was discovering back then, whose quirks and personalities I gradually picked up from the printed page. In my library retreat, I became familiar with all of them. At one extreme were cozy insiders like Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff, and Leonard Feather, who hung out with the musicians, called them by their first names, and treated them as close friends—Feather, for example, enlisted Billie Holiday as godmother to his daughter and was a pallbearer at Charlie Parker’s funeral. He even wrote a book called Inside Jazz, almost a taunt at his peers, who would never be as much inside as he. At the other extreme were the musicologists and analytical critics such as Gunther Schuller, André Hodeir, and Martin Williams, who maintained more distance in their writings, aspiring to a kind of academic objectivity. They proved invaluable guides, teaching me about the rigorous rules and steely discipline that underlay this seemingly most spontaneous of art forms.

Balliett didn’t belong in either of these camps—or in any camp, as far as I could tell. He retained the enthusiasm of a fan, but it was married to the expressive virtuosity of a master writer who could extract from his typewriter something akin to what others drew from their saxophones and trumpets. It was almost as if he were a jazz musician himself, but one who wrote essays for The New Yorker instead of soloing over “I Got Rhythm” chords.

In fact, Balliett had been a jazz musician, but only on the fringes of the music. In his school days at Phillips Exeter Academy, he had apprenticed as a drummer in a traditional Dixieland jazz band and was soon gigging at a yacht club. In the rough-and-tumble world of 1940s jazz, where you made your name at Harlem jam sessions and in road-weary traveling bands, this was not a promising start. But Balliett was destined for a different path, and almost immediately after his time at Cornell, which had been interrupted by military service, he took a job at The New Yorker.

Balliett had just married his first wife, Elizabeth Hurley King, and the couple had moved to Manhattan, settling in a small Stuyvesant Town apartment. Hired by Katherine White, The New Yorker’s fiction editor from 1925 to 1960, Balliett started at the bottom, proofreading and undertaking other low-level editorial and production jobs. Before long, he was contributing unsigned pieces to the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine—a fitting start for a writer who later tried to remove any trace of his own presence from his writing. He began publishing jazz articles in a competing periodical, Saturday Review; when these came to the attention of New Yorker editor William Shawn, the boss decided to give Balliett his own column.

The year was 1957, and jazz was about to enter its most tumultuous period. The next decade would witness the rise of modal jazz, free jazz, soul jazz, fusion jazz, and a host of other subsidiary and conflicting styles. Balliett was ready to match this profusive music with his own prodigious gifts. His articles didn’t run in every issue of The New Yorker, but sometimes it seemed that way. One year, only two issues lacked his byline. He didn’t write tiny reviews—the kind you see nowadays in most newspapers, where a few hundred (or even dozen) words of cursory judgments suffice—but large-scale profiles and blow-by-blow accounts of live events.

No one did these in-depth pieces better than Balliett; they remain the gold standard for stylish and penetrating jazz writing. Decades after they were written, music lovers return to them—not only because they are often the best source of information ever published about many jazz legends but also for the sheer delight of Balliett’s prose. I have never read a jazz writer with a more assured command of the English language. It’s a testimony to his precision of expression that the Merriam-Webster dictionary changed its definition of that ineffable jazz word “swing,” based on Balliett’s feedback. But you didn’t need to be a lexicographer to appreciate his virtuosity. Oral historian Studs Terkel, another master of the journalistic profile, lauded him as “one of our most trustworthy guides.” Taking a different tack, poet extraordinaire (and fellow jazz critic) Philip Larkin declared that “Balliett is a master of language” who brought “jazz journalism to the verge of poetry.” In fact, the surest way to assess Balliett’s stature was to gauge the stature of those who praised his work. He was the artisan whom other artisans admired.

And these typewriter pyrotechnics were targeted at more than just music. Balliett had a novelist’s eye for detail. He noticed everything in his orbit, which he would describe with a diamond-cutter’s accuracy. Often praised for his metaphors, he deserved just as much credit for his meticulousness. “He seemed to know interiors as well as a decorator and wardrobe styles like a designer,” notes Dan Morgenstern, a jazz sage who frequently crossed paths with Balliett on the New York scene. “He brought people, environments and events to life with a few well-chosen verbal brushstrokes. In those things his taste was as good as in music.” Fellow critic Gary Giddins relates a commonly held view on Balliett, stating that “you can read him even if you don’t care for jazz.”

At first glance, the details in a Balliett portrait might seem pointillistic or mere scene-setting—until you realize how much they had a bearing on music and artistry. In his profile of pianist Dorothy Donegan, for example, he points out how she answers the phone with a “Hello” that hits the note C on the first syllable and rises to a D on the second. It’s something that few other journalists would catch, and it immediately conveys the subject’s round-the-clock musicality. When Balliett wrote up his encounter with Henry “Red” Allen, he described the trumpeter’s apartment in a yellow-brick building on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, and walking up five floors with him to the family residence, noting that when they reached the top, Allen wasn’t winded—once again, a detail others might miss, but signaling in this coy manner that the portly 58-year-old trumpet player had lost none of the wind power necessary to his vocation. After Balliett enthused over the extraordinary view from Marian McPartland’s Manhattan apartment, he made sure to note that the piano was placed so that she wouldn’t face the window. Again, few writers would pay attention to such a small point, but it conveys the sober austerity that the often-freewheeling McPartland adopted when banter ended and the music began.

Balliett profiles always offered information that I’d never come across elsewhere. As a pianist, I took note when I learned that Jimmy Rowles applied a strange substance called Tacky-Finger (used by bank tellers to ensure accuracy in counting cash) to his hands before each performance. As a lover of European jazz, I delighted in learning that violinist Stéphane Grappelli always kept his watch set to London time, even when gigging day after day in New York; I pondered whether this was laziness or an assertion of cultural independence. As an inquirer into the sources of creativity, I marveled over Mary Lou Williams’s inventing a new song to the rhythm of her windshield wipers while driving with Balliett during a rainstorm.

The whole effect resists summarizing, but for a taste, check out Balliett’s description of a dinner with Charles Mingus:

We met late on a Sunday night in a restaurant on West Tenth Street, a week or so before his book was published. Mingus was dressed in an unusually conservative dark suit and tie. . . . Mingus talks in leaping slurs. The words come out crouched and running, and sometimes they move so fast whole sentences are unintelligible. It is an obstacle he is well aware of, for, later in the evening, he delivered a lightning two- or three-sentence volley and asked, “Did you understand what I just said?” I admitted that I had got about sixty per cent of it. Slowing to a canter, he repeated himself and I got almost a hundred per cent. Mingus finished his Ramos fizz and ordered a half bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and some cheese. He pronounced the name of the wine at a dead run, and it came out “Poolly-Foos.”

A few minutes later, Mingus expresses dissatisfaction with the menu and insists on trying a different restaurant across the street, where another bottle of “Poolly-Foos” is summoned from the cellar. Soon the table is covered with lobster tails, hearts of lettuce, and other delicacies. But this hardly holds Mingus in place, and before long they have returned to the first bistro for more wine. As the clock approaches 1 AM, the festivities are still in high gear.

Balliett’s profile of Charles Mingus captured the unpredictable jazz aesthetic of the larger-than-life bassist. (PHOTOFEST)

It might seem that none of the details here has anything to do with music, but on closer consideration, the reader detects crucial elements of Mingus’s jazz aesthetic at every step—you get a sense of the larger-than-life bassist who shifted tempos and styles mid-song, sometimes hiring and firing people on the bandstand with the same alacrity that he changed restaurants in mid-meal. And Balliett has caught everything—the banter with the waitress, unexpected phone calls with Mingus’s manager, and—the evening’s highlight—the moment when the famous jazz bassist “reached into a coat pocket and took out a big East Indian knife and, removing its scabbard, held it at the ready in his left hand.” Before proceeding, Mingus explained to the startled New Yorker columnist: “This is the way I walk the streets at night around here.”

No one else in jazz was writing at this level. But the most cherished characteristic of a Balliett profile often came when the author himself disappeared from view and let the artist speak directly to the reader. Like a shrewd police interrogator, Balliett knew when to hold his tongue and let the witness talk. In many instances, the finished pieces in The New Yorker would include dramatic monologues of a thousand words or more, all delivered unfiltered, seemingly as spontaneous as jazz itself.

Here, for example, is trumpeter Doc Cheatham—76 when Balliett wrote about him and treated by most members of the jazz establishment in the 1980s as a relic, put on stage more for perfunctory veneration than active emulation. But a cardinal rule of Balliett’s craft was that the elders have wisdom worth heeding. “Taking a solo is like an electric shock,” Cheatham tells him, proving that his gift for unexpected similes is as good as his interlocutor’s. He continues:

First, I have no idea what I will play, but then something in my brain leads me to build very rapidly, and I start thinking real fast from note to note. I don’t worry about chords, because I can hear the harmonic structure in the back of my mind. I have been through all that so many years it is second nature to me. I also have what I think of as a photograph of the melody in my head. I realize quickly that there is no one way to go in a solo. It’s like traveling from here to the Bronx—there are several ways and you must choose the right way immediately. So I do, and at the same time I never forget to tell a story in my solo. I have always listened for that in other horn players, and it’s the only way I know how to play. I’m not a high note player generally, but sometimes the things I’m playing run me up there, and it frightens me a little. But I get down all right. . . . When I’m gone, it’ll be just about over, my kind of playing. It will be as if it hadn’t existed at all, as if all of us hadn’t worked so long and hard.

Balliett’s interview technique broke all the rules. Even after almost every other music writer had started taping interviews on portable cassette players, he stuck with his time-honored tools—in the words of his daughter, writer Blue Balliett, “his old Cross pens, one of those he pulled out of his inside jacket pocket while working.” His ability to listen, remember, and jot down everything became legendary in jazz circles. Just as the subjects of his profiles had a musical ear, Balliett had an ear for the spoken word, retaining it with uncanny tenacity.

As I look back on those classic profiles today, I am struck by aspects of Balliett’s modus operandi that I hardly noticed when I first read them. Perhaps most striking is how often he found time to interview the musicians’ spouses. These observations from the “better half” are so casually inserted that they seem haphazard at first, but when you see them in the aggregate, you realize that this offhand interrogation was part of his police-investigator technique. The same is true of observations from other musicians and a litany of other asides, so artlessly stitched into the essays that it’s only after reading a dozen or so at a sitting that I grasped how much planning went in to the seeming spontaneity—the same quality, I note, that Balliett admired in his interviewees’ music-making.

Even as Balliett flourished as a jazz writer, he often seemed miscast for the role. From his earliest upbringing, he was raised for more respectable pursuits. Late in life, he recounted an “indelible conversation” with his mother, whose love of music centered on highbrow fare at the symphony:

ME: Ma, I have a new book out. Would you like a copy?

SHE: Is it about jazz?

ME: Yes.

SHE: No, thank you.

In his demeanor, as well, he exhibited a quiet, stay-at-home personality seemingly at odds with the demands put on a chronicler of late-night, nomadic improvisers. Balliett liked to cook, read, listen to the radio, and pursue the other responsibilities of domestic life, first with Betsy King and then with second wife (of 41 years), Nancy Kramer. For recreation, he would play touch football in Central Park, or go roller-skating, and seemed hardly the type to wander from club to club in the wee small hours. Gary Giddins, the other presiding jazz tastemaker on the New York scene at the time—his essays in The Village Voice offered younger and hipper takes on the same art form—notes that he never once saw Balliett inside a jazz club. When he did show up at a concert or festival, he rarely had much to say, taking notes and already focusing his attention on how he might translate the experience to the printed page.

For all his stylistic panache, no jazz writer was less inclined to boast. The introductions to his books often read like apologies, even attempts to discourage potential readers. “That jazz should be written about critically is doubtful,” is his opening sentence for Dinosaurs in the Morning (1962), a follow-up to his successful The Sound of Surprise (1959), where Balliett started even more woefully, with an admission that 90 percent of jazz writing is bad and that we shouldn’t expect much more from a “lightweight” idiom marked by “unbalanced admiration.” Fifteen years later, on the opening page to New York Notes, he is no more confident, admitting his tendency “in a workaday record of this kind to repeat oneself and commit other blunders.” At the outset of his final compendium, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954–2001, he dismisses much of it as “learning on the job.”

This unwarranted humility came to a head in mid-career, when Balliett’s personality and opinions vanished almost completely from his writings—a disappearing act unusual for any essayist but especially for a music critic. “Sometime during the seventies,” Giddins observed, “Balliett made the draconian decision to remove all the I’s from his writing. He not only eschews the pronoun in his current work, but has expelled it when revising his older pieces.” I daresay no one else in the jazz-reviewing trade had ever made such a move, or perhaps even considered it.

Did this peculiar retreat make his jazz writing less authoritative—removing all those judgments and verdicts, the very essence of authority—or did they give it even greater force, turning his perspectives into part of the fabric of the art form, natural laws instead of subjective opinions? You could argue the point endlessly. In any event, the final result of this shift was to create a shimmering translucency to his music writing, a new effect in an old trade. Sometimes you even walked away with the impression that the musicians and the music had spoken for themselves. Whether they actually did, or if it were merely a prestidigitator’s effect created by the critic-behind-the-scenes, is almost irrelevant. Oz remains a magical place, even after you find out how the Wizard’s been doing it.

But far more controversial than his prose techniques was the growing perception, during the 1970s and 1980s, that Balliett was a bit of a curmudgeon. For many jazz partisans of the period, he was seen as a champion of the music’s past, not sufficiently aggressive in promoting its future. Yes, his critics admitted, no one was better at describing the artistry of trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen or drummer Sid Catlett—to name just two of Balliett’s favorites—but these musicians were born in 1908 and 1910, respectively. Why wasn’t Balliett in the frontlines in the loft scene or at the Knitting Factory, charting the shape of jazz to come? In the overheated environment of the era, marked by so-called jazz wars between hostile camps, Balliett had committed the most egregious sin of all: he wasn’t even a combatant.

The accusations weren’t entirely fair. Balliett’s first column for The New Yorker, back in 1957, had focused on pianist Cecil Taylor, as avant-garde as they come, and sooner or later almost every flavor of New York jazz found its way into his articles. But no reader could doubt that he loved, above all, the origins and traditions of the music. This was an era when critics in all fields were enjoying lionization and hero status never before seen—mostly because they were practitioners of theory. Balliett, in contrast, had no theory. He was merely a connoisseur with a formidable pen.

After the departure of editor William Shawn in 1987, Balliett’s role at The New Yorker grew smaller and smaller, though he hung on for more than a decade. His last essay ran in 2001, ending a marvelous run of a half-century with the same magazine. For a while, it seemed as if Gary Giddins would take over the column—and if anyone had the gravitas to fill that role, it would have been Giddins—but eventually, the magazine decided that it did not require a specialized jazz writer on its staff.

I lamented that decision, just as I grieved Balliett’s retirement, the final vanishing act of that elusive poet, whose acquaintance I’d made in the public library decades before. But the audience for jazz had diminished markedly—if not disappeared—over the course of those years. And even many jazz fans had decided that Balliett wasn’t up-to-date enough for their flavor-of-the-month tastes. When he died at 80, in 2007, Balliett was feted and mourned, but for many of his most loyal fans, it seemed that not only a towering jazz writer, but also a whole era and aesthetic, had passed on.

But did it really? An emerging consensus has tended, if anything, to validate Balliett’s approach. Those postmodern theories of the late twentieth century now look threadbare, and the critics who brandished them have lost their allure. Meantime, the jazz world itself has embraced the celebration of its heritage—almost as if Jazz at Lincoln Center, Berklee, SF Jazz, and the other rising institutions of the art form were finally dancing to Balliett’s own irresistible beat.

Above all, Balliett’s writing has held up—more than 500 essays on jazz, and enough books to fill up a shelf labeled with Dewey Decimal number 781.65. They call it “long-form journalism” nowadays, and we’re told that it’s coming back—though, judging by the constant news of laid-off critics and downsized arts coverage, I’m skeptical. But if it does come back, the blueprint for how to do it is waiting in the books and essays of Whitney Balliett. We would all benefit if the magic in those pages came back in style. Our vanishing wizard of jazz writing hasn’t really disappeared; he’s just waiting us out behind the curtain.

Top Photo: In a career spanning five decades, Balliett wrote more than 500 essays, covering the entire range of jazz music. (Illustration by Keith Henry Brown)

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