Whitney Balliett was the longtime jazz critic for the New Yorker, and he is among the most lyrical of music writers ever. While he no longer has an office at the New Yorker, he still contributes on occasion as a freelancer; he also writes for The New York Review of Books. His new book, the almost 900-page Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (St. Martin’s Press), compiles pieces from his entire career.
JazzTimes: What was your job when you started at the New Yorker?
I was on the News Break desk. They were funny quotations that readers sent in; they were mistakes, generally, in newspapers. They would come in and we’d go through them and pick the best ones and they’d be sent up to E.B. White and he’d write the tag.
JazzTimes: In preparing Collected Works, did you reread any of your early pieces from the ’50s and think “ugh!”?
Yeah, some needed a little polishing. I did a fair amount. As I say in the beginning of the introduction, [the book] is a distillation of my writing.
JazzTimes: Did you reread any critical pronouncements and wonder, “What was I thinking?”
In those cases, I did mention it, like the old Jimmy Giuffre trio, and that kind of stuff. I don’t think that stands up very well.
JazzTimes: Do you have a favorite piece in the book?
I don’t think so [laughter].
JazzTimes: Who was your favorite artist to cover?
My great favorite is Big Sid Catlett, the drummer. He was the greatest drummer who ever lived; he was fantastic.
JazzTimes: You quote a conversation with your mom in the introduction where she turns down a copy of your book. Your mom?
That’s an authentic conversation [laughter]. I don’t think she ever read anything I ever wrote. She thought [jazz] was a very strange, uncouth kind of music.
JazzTimes: Did you ever question your impressionistic approach to writing about jazz because of criticism from the musicologists out there?
It startled me when it first happened; it upset me at first. I felt that I was doing as much for the music as people like Gunther [Schuller] were doing. He was using musical notation, and everything else, but most people can’t even read musical notation. And you can’t notate much of jazz, because there’s no way to describe the sounds, the timbre. You can’t get the blue notes down on paper.