Sunday, February 11, 2007


"Trying to put music -especially improvisatory music-into words is somewhat like trying to bottle an ocean breeze. Yet it's not entirely impossible, as Whitney Balliett...demonstrates".
-Nat Hentoff

There are some specialist writers who are just so good, that you can appreciate them even if you don't give a damn about their subject. Philip Larkin summed it up well:

"There is a kind of imaginative journalism that one suspects has its roots in Wilde's 'The Critic as Artist'. When Cardus writes 'During his first few overs , Grace's bat was like a stout door bolted against evil', or Liebling reports a boxer throwing a right 'like an old woman throwing a pie', Wilde's sentence about the relationship of the critic to the work of art being precisely that of the artist to the visible world comes irresistably to mind".

What Neville Cardus was to cricket and A.J. Liebling to boxing, Whitney Balliett (who died 1 February 2007), was to jazz. There is a further connection with Liebling: both wrote for the 'New Yorker' magazine, and both -inevitably-came under the influence of the great 'New Yorker' writers James Thurber and S.J. Perelman. Unlike Liebling, Thurber and Perelman, Balliet was not a deliberate humourist, but his jazz writing nevertheless contained the wit and peception of his great predecessors.

Doug Ramsey has commented that jazz writing "generally takes one of two paths, analysis or appreciation. Whitney Balliett was not a musicologist, but one of the field's most gifted appreciators". Ramsay goes on to cite the following example of Balliett's brilliance - a passage about Thelonious Monk:

"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".

As Ramsey coments: "Musicians and academic analysts often found more poetry than accuracy in some of Balliett's lyrical descriptions ..."

However, I would defy anyone to fault Balliet's ability to describe the great personalities of jazz - their sounds, and their characters: Billie Holiday, Henry 'Red' Allen, Mary Lou Williams, Pee Wee Russell, the Count Basie rhythm section ("its ball-bearing motion through an almost Oriental casualness and indirection, as if the last thing in the world it wanted was to supply the rhythm for a jazz band), ... right up to Ornette Coleman.

Balliet's ability was to both describe the individual (often in great physical detail), and his/her music. He was especially good with drummers, Big Sid Catlett being a particular favourite. Here's Balliett's description of the man:

"Catlett was nobly constructed. He was six feet three or four inches tall, and everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannon-ball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist and columnular 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 to drive a car".

Now here's Balliett's desciption of a Catlett drum solo:

"There is a section of his long and empyrean solo in "Steak Face" on the Decca "Satchmo at Symphony Hall" album in which he plays a repeated figure with a loose, and then increasingly complex, arrangement of rim shots, and it is astonishing. It makes you want to dance and jig and shake. Its timing and taste and impetus are such that the passage stands at the very heart of rhythm. One of his simpler solos might start with unbroken, surging, snare-drum rolls, whose volume rose and fell sharply, and whose wavelike patterns became more and more intense before suddenly exploding into rim shots. Then a stunning silence-followed by lightening shots delivered all round his set, by another silence and several choked-cymbal beats, and the solo was over"... (this description of Catlett's playing, by Balliett, continues and intensifies - see "American Musicians"- Oxford, 1986).

...If anyone knows of a better written description of a drum solo, I'd like to hear of it.

The only complaint about Balliett that holds any water, IMHO, is that of Philip Larkin (who very much liked Balliett's writing style): " None of the complimentary remarks about Balliett...uses the word 'critic', and that may be significant...(since criticism) is alien to Balliett's purpose".

Larkin had earlier commented;

"His chief characteristic, as a critic, is that he has virtually no characteristics: in a potted biography published in 1959 it was said that Balliet 'professes equal interest in all types of jazz'."

In fact, Balliett did once come close to expressing a clear-cut opinion, about the avant garde jazz of the sixties (and it was an opinion with which Larkin would most certainly have agreed, had he known about it):

"At its worst, then the new thing is long-winded, dull and almost physically abrasive. At its best - in the hands of Ornette Coleman or (Cecil) Taylor - it howls through the mind and heart, filling them with an honest ferocity that is new in jazz and perhaps in any music".

But back to Balliett's amazing ability to capture in words, both the sound of a musician, and their personality. I think the best example of both is his description of the eccentric, alcoholic clarinet genius, Pee Wee Russell. First, Pee Wee's sound:

"In his final chorus, he moves snakily up towards the middle register with a series of tissue-paper notes and placid rests, adopting a legato attack that allows the listener to move back from the edge of his seat".

...Now, Pee Wee's personality:

(From his wife, Mary, describing to Balliet a time when Pee Wee left her and then came crawling back): "Once when Pee Wee had left me and was in Chicago, he came back to New York for a couple of days . He denies it. He doesn' remember it. He went to the night club where I was working as a hat-check girl and asked to see me. I said no. The boss's wife went out and took one look at him and came back and said 'At least go out and talk to him. He's pathetic. Even his feet look sad.'"

That's why I miss you already, Whitney.


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