By now Whitney Balliett’s tenure as jazz critic at The New Yorker has lasted nearly 40 years, and in all that time he has hardly changed his methods of portraiture. I suppose you could accuse him of succumbing to a formula—but when the formula is this effective, why bother tinkering with it? The classic Balliett piece opens with a thumbnail sketch of the subject. Often this is a physical description, and a lively one, but Balliett inevitably slips across a series of metaphorical stepping stones and ends up discussing the subject’s music. (Pee Wee Russell, for example, strikes him as “unique—in his looks, in his inward-straining shyness, in his furtive, circumambulatory speech, and in his extraordinary style.”) And once Balliett sets off in pursuit of a player’s style, he seldom slides a particular solo under the microscope (in the manner of, say, the late Martin Williams). He is instead a marvelous generalizer, noting the “expansive cave of sound” that Ruby Braff explores in the lower register, or the way that Charlie Parker’s “runs exploded like light spilling out of an opened doorway.” His lyricism is elegant, unforced, and always accurate.
And that’s only the half of it. For the classic Balliett piece also includes a monologue—a highly compressed slice of the subject’s life, packed with autobiographical details, one-liners, philosophical ramblings, and some very, very sharp observations about the nature of jazz. Clearly Balliett has a gift for eliciting this stuff. No doubt he does a major nip-and-tuck on the raw material, but each and every monologue is stamped with the subject’s voice, in all its idiosyncratic glory. And many of them, like John Lewis’s rumination about pianistic Zen, take the reader into the inner sanctum of the improviser’s art: “When I take a solo, I try not to look at my fingers. It distracts me from music-making. And after I learn a piece, I stop thinking about the rules—the bars and the harmony and the chords…If you break through those mere rules, destroy them, that’s good, and it can become quite a marvellous experience. It’s not just sadness or joy, it’s something beyond that, perhaps exhilaration, but that’s rare.”
Occasionally Balliett has been tweaked for his mouldy-fig tendencies, and it’s true that he took a long time to warm up to the post-Coltrane era. But when you look at the sheer breadth of American Musicians II, the author’s tastes seem catholic to a fault. He sings the praises of Sidney Bechet and Cecil Taylor, Benny Goodman and Elvin Jones, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman and Mary Lou Williams. He grinds remarkably few axes in the course of more than 500 pages. And while Balliett never pretends to completeness, his book does indeed function as “a sort of highly personal encyclopedia,” as eloquent and irresistible as the music it describes.
(Editor’s note: In this book, fifteen chapters are added to the original edition published in 1986.)