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Whitney Balliett: Virtuoso on Paper

The beauty and the biases of a legendary jazz critic

Whitney Balliett
Whitney Balliett in 1976 (photo: Waring Abbott/courtesy of the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies)

In its near-century of excellence, The New Yorker has been home to more than its share of tops-in-their-field contributors. There’s E.B. White, with his luminous short essays; S.J. Perelman, arguably the 20th-century American humorist, at least among highbrows; or Roger Angell, who moonlighted from his day job as fiction editor to roam America’s ballparks, the most incisive and trenchant of baseball scribes. But to my mind, and many others’, the New Yorker staffer who topped his field even more hands-down was Whitney Balliett, that rare music critic of real literary stature, who covered jazz for the magazine from 1957 until 2001. 

To categorize Balliett as a “jazz writer” is “as witless,” writes the pop/jazz historian James T. Maher, “as it would be to call St. Augustine a city planner.” Balliett—as famous, if not more so, for his profiles as for the reviews which, at his peak, he poured out almost weekly—was a master of physical description, able to capture a subject’s essence in a brushstroke or two. Buddy Rich didn’t merely exit a hotel elevator, “he shot out, spraying the lobby with early-morning glances,” the nervous, combative drummer to a T. 

Balliett was big on entrances. Ebullient Stephane Grappelli, on a midtown Manhattan shopping spree, “charged through the Herald Square doors at Macy’s and came to a stop ten feet inside,” the author wheezing to keep up with the septuagenarian fiddler. When the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, on whose hangdog looks and mien Balliett dined out often, “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, the corners of his mouth. Russell got up and walked with short, crabwise steps into the kitchen. ‘Talking dries me up,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have an ale.’” 

Moreover, Balliett was able to call on his vast reading to slip in references from far beyond jazz. Charlie Parker’s “all but interchangeable spiritual brother,” for instance, was Dylan Thomas, like Bird “presiding over the wreckage of his life.”

Balliett received little, if any, musical training—the peak of his playing career came as the teenaged drummer in, as he put it, a “baggy Dixieland” band—which bothered him not a bit; his lack of music-theory chops, he claimed, worked to his advantage. “Music is transparent and bodiless and evanescent,” he wrote late in life, “so I was forced to use metaphor and simile and other such circumambulatory devices, all of which caused the musicology boys to deride me as an ‘impressionist.’ They were right. I was and am an impressionist [and here the famously self-effacing Balliett, most zipped-up of well-bred WASPs, permitted himself for once to toot his own horn], and as such have been told that I come closer to delineating the music than any notator, that, anyway [reining himself back in], jazz, with its odd non-notes and strange tones and timbres, is almost impossible to translate into notes on paper.”

It got translated into words on paper instead, with élan. In his final New Yorker piece, for the August 20 & 27, 2001 issue, Balliett described how Ben Webster, one of his four tenor saxophone heroes—the others were Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Don Byas—“seemed to breathe rather than play his slow ballads; he’d start phrases with a whispering breath that would grow majestically into a full tone, then gradually melt back into breath.” Webster brought out the best in Balliett, who wrote elsewhere that “as the years went by, he would close certain phrase endings by allowing his vibrato to melt into pure undulating breath—dramatically offering, before the breath expired, the ghost of his sound.” Byas was “pillowy at slow tempos, demonic at fast.” Soloing, Pres “kept the original melodies in his head, but what came out was his dreams about them.” Here’s the swing-era drummer Sidney Catlett—“One was transfixed by the soaring of his huge hands, which reduced his drumsticks to pencils”—there, Balliett’s second-favorite drummer, Elvin Jones, whose cymbals, during one of his 20-minute solos, “exploded like flushed birds.” 

Out of Time
To the manner born, in 1926, in Glen Cove on “the Gold Coast,” as Long Island’s North Shore was then known, Balliett came of age just as swing was yielding to bebop, and his sympathies remained with the former, and with still-earlier Dixieland: essentially, white players emulating the black founding fathers. Balliett was in autobiographical mode when he wrote, in “The Westchester Kids,” a profile of the clarinetist Bob Wilber, that “every art needs its callow celebrants. In the early forties, those surrounding jazz often came from white middle-class families. Jazz loosed them from the neo-Victorian domestic regimens of their parents. … They teethed on Glenn Miller and Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and then one day, in a record shop or at the house of a slightly older acquaintance renowned for his record collection, they heard a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton or a Louis Armstrong Hot Five or an early Duke Ellington. The music sounded harsh and uneven and disturbing. But in six months they were also digging King Oliver and Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and a year later, they were into Ellington and Billie Holiday and Count Basie.”

Here arises the first of my two beefs with Balliett. “People tend to get locked into the music they grow up on,” he once wrote, again describing himself. “Whatever comes later is threatening and foreign.” I had a mentor, the novelist/essayist Albert Murray (to whose seminal 1976 study Stomping the Blues Balliett gave the back of his hand), for whom not a lot worth listening to happened after Ellington and Basie. Murray and I went around the block and back on that one, finally agreeing to disagree. Arguing with the intransigent old man, I couldn’t help but think of Whitney Balliett’s dogged devotion to the likes of Catlett, Dave Tough, Jess Stacy, Jack Teagarden, Mel Powell, or Art Hodes, all of whom had either had their say or were dead by the late ’40s.

The Balliett heroes—Armstrong, Bechet, Hawkins, Young, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington’s supernal altoist Johnny Hodges—were above all lyrical: great melodists, the Armstrong, say, whose opening cadenza to 1928’s “West End Blues” ushered in a new jazz species, the soloist. To Balliett, what defined the music’s heroic years were the night-after-night miracles that Armstrong, Hawkins, or Young miraculously pulled off, taking a Gershwin or Kern showtune and reimagining it on the spot (“the sound of surprise,” as the writer titled his first book), real-time composers of “a parallel song that both freshened and shadowed the original.”

Jazz waits for no one. While Bechet, Hawkins, and Young were (as Balliett neglects to point out) already improvising on a song’s chord progression, by the early-to-mid-’40s Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell were running the changes to the point of eliminating all trace of the melody. Balliett’s beloved music was now “a wilderness of chords, altered chords, expanded chords,” of “undanceable and largely unsingable” runs (never mind an aggregation like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, whose splendid game was to put words to a Bird or Horace Silver solo). As far as Balliett was concerned, jazz had lost its essence, the beautiful improvised melody, and lost it still further when Ornette Coleman dropped from the skies and “threw everything out, melody, chords, keys, choruses, and steady rhythms, [his acolytes making] any kind of noise on their instruments that entered their heads—barnyard sounds, jungle sounds, traffic sounds. This was called ‘free jazz,’ and for a long time it has laid a disquieting hand on the music.”

Thus Balliett’s History of Jazz. Which he did struggle, periodically and somewhat desperately, to update. In the 1985 profile “A True Improviser,” the critic claimed to see “a savior on the horizon—a fifty-seven-year-old tenor saxophonist named Warne Marsh, [who] is perfecting a kind of improvisation that draws on all jazz. … He has the whole tradition of jazz at the tips of his fingers.” Marsh, though a gifted improviser, far from lived up to such heavy expectations. No worries. A few years later, Balliett announced, again, that “a savior has been slowly materializing—the tenor saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano.” “Lovano the Great,” as Balliett called his piece, is indeed a master, but has never shown the least inclination to stem the tide of the still newer sounds that Balliett went to his grave bemoaning.

And yes, the writer made earnest efforts to praise Parker, Gillespie, Mingus, Coleman, and the immensely challenging Cecil Taylor, the subject of Balliett’s very first (1957) New Yorker column, as well as such younger modernists and postmodernists as Tom Harrell, the inventive drummer Leon Parker, and Bill Charlap. But that’s what these were: efforts, outweighed by a distaste for having his premises challenged, for being really surprised. 

Balliett’s tendency was to legitimize new sounds by hearing in them ties to, not breaks with, the past. “Every once in a while,” the late-period Coltrane “stopped screeching, and played a straightforward slow ballad or medium-tempo blues, and one suddenly understood what Coltrane was—the essence of good, old-fashioned lyricism.” 

Ben Webster 1946
Ben Webster—who brought out the best in Balliett—in 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

The Race Question
Balliett’s accomplishment can withstand a second criticism. A red thread runs through the oeuvre, to my knowledge never pointed out, but which made me uneasy the very first time I picked up his 1986 collection American Musicians, considered jazz writing’s gold standard, to find among the earlier chapters an unbroken string of profiles of Jimmy McPartland and the “Austin High Gang” (Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemacher, etc.), Dave Tough, Russell, Bobby Hackett, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, and Mel Powell, while later chapters saluted such largely mid-level players as Wilber, Joe Bushkin, Dick Wellstood, Dave McKenna (“Super Chops”?), Gene Bertoncini, Buddy DeFranco, and someone named Marie Marcus (subset: “Middle-Aged White People Who Live on Cape Cod”). Zero chapters on Clifford Brown, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Betty Carter, and everyone in Miles Davis’ valiant 1960s quintet except Miles: “Great Black Jazz Musicians Inexcusably Overlooked.”

Balliett’s canon, let it be said, contains a disproportionate number of white musicians. To bean-count, almost half of American Musicians’ chapters (22 out of 49) are devoted to white players. In the expanded second edition, the number increases to more than half, 33 of 64. American Singers, the writer’s third compendium, after American Musicians and 2000’s retrospective Collected Works, profiles 14 vocalists, nine white. Given the music’s origins and essential contributors (as Duke Ellington told Balliett in 1970, “Years ago, uptown, I tried to get the cats to call [jazz] American Negro music or Afro-American music”), attention must be paid. Putting Bobby Hackett’s solo in the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “A String of Pearls” on a par with Armstrong’s “West End Blues”? Hackett’s 12 bars are beautiful, but even he, who worshipped Pops, would have found the comparison absurd. 

Balliett’s blinkered perspective would never have been conscious, but reflected a, yes, structural racism many times harsher in his day than in ours. And credit where credit is due—he did attack jazz-world racism, if not very vigorously. The epochal 1938 and ’39 Carnegie Hall “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts, which introduced to white audiences a wave of Black players—the Basie organization, the piano giant James P. Johnson, the huge (physically and aurally) blues shouter Big Joe Turner, gospel greats Rosetta Tharpe and the Golden Gate Quartet, and the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (filling in for the first choice, Robert Johnson, who’d just been murdered)—“helped to loosen the bars that still prevented Negro jazz musicians from performing in the nation’s major entertainment outlets,” Balliett wrote, more than 30 years later. His comments, again at a 30-year remove, about one of the great missed opportunities of 1920s jazz began with what sounds like indignation only to trail off in a whisper, namely, that the great cornetist/trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke’s “failure to record with his peers … was apparently due to the rigid color line that prevented mixed sessions.” Apparently so.

What to say, finally, about Balliett and race? That his heart was in the right place but he grew up at the wrong time? I’m not going to let him off that easy. “From Spirituals to Swing” was dreamt up and organized by John Hammond, the talent scout, producer, and civil-rights activist, the latter at a time when it was enough to get you labeled a Red. (The Left, incidentally, saved the day when Hammond despaired of getting a financial backer for the shows, which he insisted be presented for integrated audiences; it was the far-left culture magazine New Masses that put up the bread.) For all his flaws, which may well have included instances of tacit racism, Hammond shook off a far more privileged and exclusive background—he was a Vanderbilt scion—to spend his best years scouring America in search of Black musical genius, finding it (Basie and band, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, etc.), and tirelessly promoting it. While Hammond was fighting to overthrow music-business racism, Balliett failed to keep his famous eye sufficiently trained on his heroes’ daily humiliation while his ears bathed in the sound they had invented.

Melting Back into Breath
William Shawn, the New Yorker’s longtime editor and a jazz lover himself, long shielded Balliett from the brickbats hurled by fans of bebop, then hard bop, then Coleman, then Coltrane’s screeching. Shawn was forced out in 1987 by the magazine’s new corporate ownership, and it was anything but blue skies from then on. Balliett’s output tailed off dramatically under Shawn’s successors Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. In one of his glory years, according to the writer Ted Gioia, Balliett placed a story in every New Yorker issue but two. For the entire ’90s, I count 46 pieces, many just a single column, many, if not most, about dead people. 

The hammer fell in 2001, when Brown’s successor, David Remnick, let Balliett go. Shortly, Remnick invited the jazz critic Gary Giddins, a maestro himself and the logical successor, “to write a few jazz pieces,” Giddins recalls, “saying that he was getting murdered by people furious with him for firing Whitney and hoped that this would placate them, though he also made it clear he saw no reason to have a jazz critic on staff. I didn’t last long. And I shared the anger about laying off Whitney. Why would they not want an occasional dose of Balliett, a unique stylist who represented a perspective you weren’t going to find anywhere else?”

No, you weren’t, but only in part because Balliett’s genius was irreplaceable. Time had passed him by. “What can I but enumerate old themes?” wrote a poet in his old age. Balliett was repeating himself well before he was old, ignoring the rise, while he still wrote, of Steve Coleman, the late Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes, Jason Moran, Brian Blade, Myra Melford, and Terri Lyne Carrington, who are themselves passing the torch to inheritor/innovators like Esperanza Spalding and Kamasi Washington, to pull two names from a big hat.

Balliett’s output was mostly elegies long before his New Yorker run ended (he didn’t survive his termination by much, dying in 2007 at 80). As early as 1986, in the introductory note to American Musicians, he held out at best a weak ray of hope, calling his great book “a series of close accounts of how a beautiful music grew, flourished, and (perhaps) began the long trek back to its native silence.”

Francis Davis pays tribute to Whitney Balliett in 2007

Taking Five with Whitney Balliett (2001)

Tony Scherman

Tony Scherman was a contributor and editor at Musician magazine from 1987 to the mid-’90s, and he co-edited The Rock Musician and The Jazz Musician (1994), collections of some of the magazine’s best material. From 1994 to 2001, he wrote about jazz regularly for the New York Times; he has also covered music of many styles for a variety of other periodicals, from Smithsonian to People. His first book, Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, won a 1996 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Deems Taylor Award in 2000.