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Whitney Balliett (4.17.26 – 2.1.07)

I can’t help thinking Whitney Balliett deserves tribute from someone better than me, by which I mean someone more in his image. He was certainly an influence on me, though my prose style, my taste in music, and my social world are so different from his that I doubt even he spotted it. And he was never a conscious influence, in the different ways Pauline Kael, Martin Williams and Norman Mailer were. It was just that even when I was still contributing to jazz magazines, the dormant novelist in me wanted to write about musicians in a way that went beyond having them blab about their latest recording and Where Jazz Is Heading, and give a sense of their complexity as people. Nat Hentoff had done something like this in his pieces from the 1950s and early 1960s collected in The Jazz Life, and in the 1940s, The New Yorker had a generalist named Richard O. Boyer who wrote perceptively and at length about Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. But by the time I started publishing in the early ’80s, who besides Balliett was still doing this? Who else was there to embrace as a model? Then, when I started writing for The Atlantic in 1984, and came under the tutelage of Bill Whitworth, who had once been Balliett’s editor at The New Yorker, perhaps a certain unconscious influence began to creep into my sentences.

I’ve never imitated him, though, and I pity those writers who do, because it results in stock similes and metaphors they delude themselves into thinking resemble his, which were totally unique to him and totally felt. A good rule regarding metaphors is never use one you need to sweat over to have it make sense; go only with those that spring to mind fully formed (the more peculiar, the better) and can be expressed quickly and effortlessly. At least that’s how Balliett’s read—and if that was merely an illusion, all the more praise to him as a stylist. Though Balliett was like no one else who has ever written about jazz, in raising plain speech to the level of eloquence—the aspect of his style most worthy of emulation—he was the quintessential New Yorker writer (New Yorker writing is hard-boiled writing with more money, likewise descended from Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, which ultimately means from The Great Gatsby).

The problem was that many of Balliett’s subjects came off speaking as eloquently as he wrote, which simply couldn’t be. My only real conversation with him, at a cocktail party honoring the editor Sheldon Meyer in 1988, began acrimoniously. “I don’t use a tape recorder,” he said, when I told him my name and offered my hand.

It took me a long second to catch on that he was referring to my review of his American Musicians.

“You mean I said you ‘cooked’ quotes?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “and I’ve never heard that word used that way before.”

Explaining to him that I believed the usage derived from Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter forced to give back a Pulitzer for having put words in the mouths of composite characters, only made matters worse—until the sainted Dan Morgenstern, sensing friction between us, interrupted to ask if Whitney had heard a certain young musician from Chicago whose work both Dan and I held in high regard.

From Bill Whitworth, I know that musicians didn’t just sit down with Balliett and dictate their life stories to him. Those matchless long profiles of his were usually the result of many meetings over several days, weeks or even months. No editor today, apparently including David Remnick at The New Yorker, is willing to allow a writer all the time in the world to report on—and write about at such length—a figure whose name in the table of contents doesn’t figure to sell very many magazines. This alone guarantees we’ll never again be privileged to read anyone who writes about jazz quite as well as Whitney Balliett did—as if anyone could.

Originally Published