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Curves of Melody: Whitney Balliett, 1926—2007

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Curves of Melody: Whitney Balliett, 1926—2007

When I learned that Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of The New Yorker, had died at age 80, the first person I thought to call was my dad, Dave Zoller, a Dallas-based jazz pianist and composer who introduced me to Balliett’s writing when I was in college. At the time, I complained to my dad that although I’d found plenty of film, book and TV critics worth reading (even emulating), I found most music criticism awful. Much of it fell under one of two headings: Mad Lib adjective-noun combos (“straight ahead jams,” “fat basslines,” “mournful piano”) or descriptions so bloodlessly technical that any reader who wasn’t a trained musician would be bored blind. There had to be a middleground, I told my dad—a way of writing vividly and informatively about an art that lacked convenient anchoring elements (plot, characterization, visual composition and the like). Balliett, who I first read in my dad’s back issues of The New Yorker, wasn’t the only answer to that conundrum—but he was a great place to start.

Less a straight-ahead critic than a combination analyst, social historian, feature reporter and sketch artist, Balliett, who died in New York City Feb. 1 of liver cancer, described himself as an “impressionist” who, according to Adam Bernstein’s excellent Washington Post obituary,”...wrote about musicians because music is fleeting, so ’transparent and bodiless.’” This was a neat trick, because in describing the personalities, body language, performance tics and chosen environment of musicians, Balliett quite naturally found ways to describe their music.

Bernstein writes:

“Whitney Lyon Balliett, the son of a businessman, was born April 17, 1926, in Manhattan. While attending the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he began what he called his “erratic noncareer as a drummer” after hearing a jam session on a Sunday afternoon at Jimmy Ryan’s club on New York’s West Side. After graduating from Cornell University in 1951, he wrote about jazz for The Saturday Review while working as a proofreader for The New Yorker, whose editor, William Shawn, gave the young writer a jazz column in 1957. The same year, he and jazz critic Nat Hentoff helped create the CBS-TV program The Sound of Jazz, an offshoot of the series The Seven Lively Arts.

The jazz show, hosted by New York Herald Tribune columnist John Crosby, brought to millions of homes such eclectic performers as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. Eric Larrabee wrote in Harper’s magazine that The Sound of Jazz was the “best thing that ever happened to television.” Columbia Records produced an album of the show’s performers, and a video of the program was released in the mid-1980s. Jazz critic John S. Wilson, writing in The New York Times in 1985, said that ’putting Monk on national television at a time when, to the extent the general public knew of him at all, he was apt to be considered weird and possibly menacing, was a courageous and positive act.’

Balliett contributed short articles for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section as well as book, film and theater reviews. He also wrote poetry. He left the magazine staff in 1998. Collections of his New Yorker writings were published frequently over the years. His books included American Singers and American Musicians. One massive volume, subtitled A Journal of Jazz, came out in 2000.

Reviewers noted that Balliett’s taste was more traditional than avant-garde, and he tended to overlook more contemporary players, but he liked to approach all music with a degree of curiosity. He also had a reputation for writing sympathetically about his subjects, often letting them speak for paragraphs at a time to convey their rhythm and personality.”

And here’s my dad, doing just that.

* * *

MZS: Do you remember the first time you discovered Whitney Balliett’s jazz writing?

DPZ: It may have been when I was in high school. My dad, your grandfather, always subscribed to The New Yorker. I was into New Yorker cartoons in grade school. Once in awhile there would be a piece by Whitney Balliett. I started getting into jazz when I was about 14 or 15, and I would watch for him. Whitney Balliett had, I think, one of the most distinctive styles of any of the jazz writers.

MZS: What was distinctive about him?

DPZ: It’s actually easier to read short portions of what he wrote to give you an idea of his style. To me he was almost like a critic that’s a closet novelist. He had this way of describing things. Let me read you what he said about Max Gordon, the guy who founded The Village Vanguard.

“He is short and bent and gnomish. His hands and feet are childlike, and he is dominated by a large head which in turn is dominated by a broad brow and heavy white receding hair. His eyes are sad and prunelike wrinkles course down his face. When the comedian Joe Frisco visited Jordan’s first club, the Village Fair Coffeehouse, in the early ’30s, he pointed to Gordon and asked a friend, ’Who’s that miserable guy by the door? He looks like the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.’

But Gordon, like many hesistant, inward-gazing people, glows. His Solomon-like visage is constantly ruffled by smiles and laughter, and if he gets excited, his voice, which creaks when he breaks into one of his long occasional silences, booms. He is a funny, dreaming man who shrugs off victory and laughs at defeat, and who invariably treats the weaknesses in others with respect. One of his many admirers has said of him, ’If I had to spend the rest of my days on a desert island, and I could take just five people, Max would top the list.’”

He describes people almost like a novelist would, don’t you think?

MZS: Absolutely.

DPZ: Here’s what he said about Jim Hall.

“He is slim and of medium height, and most of his hair is gone. The features of his long, pale face are chastely proportioned and are accented by a recently cultivated RAF mustache. He wears old-style gold rimmed spectacles, and he has three principal expressions: a wide smile, a child’s frown, and a calm, pleased playing mask. Eyes closed, chin slightly lifted and mouth ajar, he could easily be the affable son of the stony-faced farmer in ’American Gothic.’”

One thing I think that is distinctive about Whitney is that almost all of his writing was for The New Yorker, and most of the books of his work that are out are compilations of pieces that originally appeared in The New Yorker. And of course, we’re talking about a backlog of pieces that goes back to the mid-’50s. I think the last time I saw a piece of his might have been two or three years ago. He wrote for The New Yorker off and on literally for 50 years.

MZS: What set him apart, not as a reporter or a historian, but as a critic of music?

DPZ: Well, he would take that same kind of narrative style to describe the music he had heard. He was also one of the few writers about jazz that I ever read that didn’t seem to have an agenda.

A lot of writers were trying to advance whatever happened to be their favorite kind of music. For instance, Stanley Dance wrote effusively about Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Louis Armstrong and people of that era, the Swing Era on up, and he didn’t take that kindly to bebop, though there were some modern things that he could like. He’s gone, by the way—we lost him some years ago. Dance had an underlying agenda, which was promoting the hardcore mainstream jazz that he loved—New Orleans Dixieland, swing, that sort of thing, and more conservative modern stuff. And there were always little gibes about how corrupt the industry was, and all that kind of shit, which of course still goes on. Nat Hentoff was a quintessential liberal, and a lot of that would go into his writing about jazz. When he wrote about anybody at length, particularly when he was writing about a black player, he always got into how the industry mistreated black players and how society mistreated black people in general. That didn’t dominate his writing, but it popped up enough that you knew that you knew it was an issue for him.

Leonard Feather, of course, was an actual, stone musician. In fact, he and his wife wrote one of B.B. King’s hits.

MZS: Really, which one?

DPZ: “How Blue Can You Get.” That’s the one where he’s got the stop time chorus that goes, “I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give ’em back.” Leonard and his wife Jane wrote that. Feather was one of the few music writers that actually knew music. He played competent piano and he could read a score. That was unusual. Most of the jazz writers were not musicians, with the exception of guys like Martin Williams, who was a musicologist, and took a music historian’s tack toward everybody he wrote about.

All of them did interviews. But Whitney and Gene Lees, I think, were the most successful interviewers. One of the differences between the two of them was, Whitney would just let his subjects talk and talk and talk and talk, whereas Lees would interject his own comments, and they would end up in print.

MZS: When you talk about the idea of Balliett not necessarily trying to advance a particular agenda—if he wasn’t a writer who had particular hobby horses that he felt obligated to saddle up every time he was in print—what would you say were his areas of interest? What floated his boat? What artists or movements was he particularly into, or was he excited by everything?

DPZ: He seemed to be excited by everything. I saw him write great pieces on Duke Ellington, and he wrote one of the best pieces on Joe Lovano that I ever read—it appeared in The New Yorker in, I think, 1996, when Joe was finally starting to hit, and had a couple of albums out on Blue Note and was getting booked regularly at the Village Vanguard. Whitney wrote him up and did it good. He also wrote a very good piece for The New Yorker on the pianist Bill Charlap, who’s one of my favorites. That guy is an oustanding player by any yardstick. Whitney was a versatile writer. He could take a reporter’s approach to a story, he did interviews beautifully, and he did commentaries on music beautifully. He would describe what he heard in terms that average people could relate to, but at the same time it was accurate—it described the music he was listening to very well.

He did have one minor agenda: any time he did any pieces on drummers—it didn’t make any difference what era they were—he always managed to work in some kind of comparison to the late Sidney Catlett. Sidney Catlett was one of the great drummers of the swing era, a great, big black guy. Whitney Balliett did one of the best descriptions of Catlett—dig this:

“Sidney Catlett was nobly constructed. He was six feet three or four inches tall and everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms, the giant tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn door chest and the tiny waist and columar neck. Big men are often more graceful than small men, and Catlett was no exception. He could swim, play football and basketball, and dance beautifully, but he never learned how to drive a car.”

Big Sid, as he was called, was one of the most admired and respected drummers of the ’40s. He was like Buddy Rich and Jo Jones. He was a role model—he was that good. He was so good that other drummers invariably ended up getting compared to him. Martin Williams, a very talented writer, once did a very funny piece where he tried to write in the style of other jazz critics, and when he got to Whitney Balliett’s style, he was talking about the Beatles, and he had Whitney figuring out a way to make a comparison between Sid Catlett and Ringo Starr. “When his high-hat goes, ’Shhhh…’ it faintly echoes Sidney Catlett.”

MZS: Were there any albums, movements or artists about which you feel Balliett wrote the definitive piece, or pieces?

DPZ: He did one of the two best pieces I’ve read on Joe Lovano. The other one—and I shouldn’t leave this writer out because he’s very, very good—was by [Village Voice writer] Gary Giddins. But that’s a difficult question. With Whitney, it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ve read him almost since he started at The New Yorker. I don’t know what else to say about the guy except that he was one of the major writers about American music and musicians in the last century. There were people who did quite well by classical music, though I haven’t read that many of them. But if you were to ask people who are knowledgeable about jazz to name the five best writers on jazz, I bet you Whitney would make everybody’s list.

* * *

I’ll close with a couple of excerpts from Balliett the critic. First up: the opener of his 1970 profile of singer and pianist Bobby Short, included in New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits by Whitney Balliett:

“It is quite possible that when the century is over, live entertainment—real people singing, acting, dancing, playing, reciting, and clowning in front of real people—will have disappeared in this country or become an anachronism. (The very existence of the phrase “live entertainment” is ominous; the term would have struck the Victorians as a puzzling redundancy.) Concert halls and opera houses are no longer full. The theatre appears static beside the fluid drive of film. (At that, even movie houses, which have always seemed like arenas of live entertainment, are rarely sold out.) The circus and rodeo are obsolescent, night clubs are dwindling, and such diversions as band concerts and the straw-hat circuit are almost at an end. When this decline is complete, something essential will have gone out of human experience. In-the-flesh entertainment at its best is one of the most complex, delightful, and inventive forms of communication. It is a mutually beneficial intercourse between the performer, who plays a god, and the audience, which allows this pretension, knowing delightedly all the while that the performer, beneath the skin of his skills, is human, too. Simply by doing what he is doing where he is doing it, the performer demonstrates great courage, and the audience experiences this courage vicariously. The performer is flattered by the attention of the audience, and the audience congratulates itself for having the intelligence and sensitivity to admire the performer. But electronics is closing off this invaluable two-way street. The performer can no longer play his changes on an audience, gauging his abilities in the mirror of its faces, and the audience can no longer manipulate the performer with cheers and tears. Yet decline and flowering often occur simultaneously; the form dies and its final moments are phoenix-brilliant. I have in mind the brave excellence of Bobby Short, the forty-six-year-old singer and pianist, who, one of the last examples (and indubitably the best) of the café singer or the supper-club singer or “troubadour,” as the late Vernon Duke called him, practices what is probably the most intimate and delicate form of live entertainment extant. It is the art of singing (and often accompanying oneself on the piano) witty or ironic or sad but never sentimental songs in a small room to a small group of people, and in such a way that the performer and his audience, generally only a few feet away, become almost one. (Mabel Mercer, the great doyenne of the form, often sits at her listeners’ table and sings to them, and she remembers long ago carrying this attention to its ultimate in the noisy Parisian boîte by singing into her customers ears through a small megaphone.) Every member of the audience comes to believe that a song is being sung to him, and the performer, who can look directly into his listeners’ eyes, feels that he is singing only to the listener he happens to look at. The songs are as important as their delivery. They are, as often as not, out-of-the-way tunes by the likes of Cy Coleman or Ivor Novello or Noël Coward or Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. They may have a small but steady currency, they may have long since been forgotten, they may never have been known at all because of having been dropped from a movie or Broadway show before it opened, or they may have been written only for the performer who is singing them. They must be sung immaculately, in an offhand, transparent way, so that the singer, his diction clean glass, lights up his materials with meanings their composers may never have thought of. Café singing, or at any rate Bobby Short’s way of singing, is unencumbered by the theatrics of opera or rock, by the quaintness of folk singing, by the confinements of jazz singing, and by the mealiness of old-style pop singing. It is singing stripped to its essentials—words lifted and carried by the curves of melody.”

We’ll end this obituary with an obituary—the one Balliett wrote for Thelonious Monk in 1990, collected in the Balliett anthology, Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981 - 1990:

“The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who died last week, at the age of sixty-four, was an utterly original man who liked to pretend he was an eccentric. Indeed, he used eccentricity as a shield to fend off a world that he frequently found alien, and even hostile. A tall, dark, bearish, inward-shining man, he wore odd hats and dark glasses with bamboo frames when he played. His body moved continuously. At the keyboard, he swayed back and forth and from side to side, his feet flapping like flounders on the floor. While his sidemen soloed, he stood by the piano and danced, turning in slow, genial circles, his elbows out like wings, his knees slightly bent, his fingers snapping on the after-beat. His motions celebrated what he and his musicians played: Watch, these are the shapes of my music. His compositions and his playing were of a piece. His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations. His medium- and up-tempo tunes are stop-and-go rhythmic structures. Their melodic lines, which often hinge on flatted notes, tend to be spare and direct, but they are written with strangely placed rests and unexpected accents. They move irregularly through sudden intervals and ritards and broken rhythms. His balladlike tunes are altogether different. They are art songs, which move slowly and three-dimensionally. They are carved sound. (Monk’s song titles—“Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Epistrophy,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Well You Needn’t,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Hackensack”—are as striking as the songs themselves. But none beat his extraordinary name, Thelonious Sphere Monk, which surpasses such euphonies as Stringfellow Barr and Twyla Tharp.) His improvisations were attempts to disguise his love of melody. He clothed whatever he played with spindly runs, flatted notes, flatted chords, repeated single notes, yawning silences, and zigzag rhythms. Sometimes he pounded the keyboard with his right elbow. His style protected him not only from his love of melody but from his love of the older pianists he grew out of—Duke Ellington and the stride pianists. All peered out from inside his solos, but he let them escape only as parody.

Monk hid behind his music so well that we know little of him. He was brought from North Carolina when he was little, but eventually settled in the West Sixties, and he lived there until his building was torn down. He married the Nellie of his song title, and he had two children, one of whom became a drummer. he began appearing in New York night clubs around 1940, but he achieved little recognition until the late fifties. (He was often lumped with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, however, he did not have much in common with them outside of certain harmonic inventions.) Part of the reason for Monk’s slow blooming was his iconoclastic music, and part was the fact that he was unable to perform in New York night clubs from 1951 to 1957—the time when Charles Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gerry Mulligan were becoming famous. (The police had lifted his cabaret card, because he had been found sitting in a car in which narcotics were concealed.) But when he returned to the scene, he suddenly seemed to be everywhere—on record after exceptional record, at concerts and festivals, at the old Five Spot and the Vanguard and the Jazz Gallery. He filled us with his noble, funny, generous music.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger. To read Balliett’s Bobby Short profile in full, click here. For his “Talk of the Town” piece on Sonny Rollins, click here.