Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Jazz Critic Whitney Balliett Dies at 80

“A critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste.” –Whitney Balliett

Whitney Balliett, 80, acclaimed jazz critic for The New Yorker, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan, N.Y.

Known for his ability to celebrate music and delineate character rather than tread through technical analysis, Balliett translated jazz into imagistic prose that echoed the art form he so admired. In his artist profiles, he preferred to let the musician speak for himself, often leaving large portions of the story to extended quotes.

His works have been most recently anthologized in American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz and Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001, but exist in many other volumes. In addition to his revered jazz writings, Balliett also contributed to The New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town section and The New York Review of Books.

Fresh out of college, Balliett got his start writing about jazz for the Saturday Review while proofreading over at the The New Yorker. Editor William Shawn, the same man who prompted Harold Ross to run John Hersey’s Hiroshima a decade earlier, recognized Balliett’s talent, assigning him a jazz column in 1957.

Despite seeing a marginalized role after a change in management in 1987, and departing from the magazine in 1998, Balliett submitted his final article to The New Yorker in 2001, cementing 50 years at work for the The New Yorker.

“Of all the people who write on music that I have read, Whitney was the best at getting the sounds of this music, jazz, into words,” said fellow jazz critic Nat Hentoff, adding that Balliett was also a “first-class interviewer.”

From his oft-quoted profile of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, Balliett wrote: “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.”

Describing the Count Basie Orchestra: “Although Basie’s musical changes were not always imitable, they were freely offered…Jazz rhythm sections had long been insistent, metallic, and inflexible; Basie’s was double-jointed and oblique. It swung with one hand behind its back. Page played an easy four-four beat (and the right notes), Green clocked the chords and made butterfly sounds in the background, Jones connected Page and Green with his swimming high-hat, and Basie added metaphor, impetus, humor, brevity, and direction. No one has explained how the Basie rhythm section evolved, and probably no one will.”

In 1991, Balliett eulogized Thelonious Monk, capturing the man and his music in the wake of his death: “A tall, dark, bearish, inward-shining man, he wore odd hats and dark glasses with bamboo frames when he played…His motions celebrated what he and his musicians played…His compositions and his playing were of a piece. His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.”

Though mainly acknowledged as a writer, Balliett helped create The Sound of Jazz, working as a musical consultant with Hentoff for the CBS-TV show in 1957. The one-night-only live program featured a rich cast of jazz musicians including Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Billie Holiday.

Other jazz critics occasionally chastised Balliett for favoring older, more traditional artists without embracing the newer, more modern players.

“I think as you get older, your tastes narrow,” Balliett told Jerry Jazz Musician in an interview after the release of his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001. “The great literary critic Edmund Wilson, whom I admired very much, just stopped writing about contemporary things when he got into his late 60’s and early 70’s. He spent all his time re-evaluating earlier writers like James Branch Cabell who were out of fashion. I find that that’s happened to me a little bit. I do try and listen to the young Turks, but it’s a struggle to keep your vision open and functioning.”

Born in Manhattan on April 17, 1926, Whitney Lyon Balliett graduated from Cornell University in 1951. He is survived by his wife Nancy; his children, Whitney, James, Blue, Will and Julie Rose; his brother Fargo; and his seven grandchildren.

Originally Published