Balliett, Whitney 1926-
BALLIETT, Whitney 1926-
PERSONAL: Born April 17, 1926, in New York, NY; son of Fargo and Dorothy (Lyon) Balliett; married Elizabeth Hurley King, July 21, 1951; married Nancy Kraemer, June 4, 1965; children: (first marriage) Julia Lyon, Elizabeth Erving, Will King; (second marriage) Whitney Lyon, Jr., James Fargo. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1951. Politics: Democrat.
ADDRESSES: Office—New Yorker, 20 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036. Agent—Harold Ober Associates, Inc., 40 East 49th St., New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: New Yorker, New York, NY, collator, proofreader, then reporter, 1951-57, staff writer, 1957—. Originator of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television show "Sound of Jazz," 1957; writer and broadcaster of two segments of National Educational Television series "Trio," 1962. Military service: U.S. Army Air Corps, 1946-47; became sergeant.
MEMBER: Delta Phi.
AWARDS, HONORS: Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1996.
The Sound of Surprise: Forty-six Pieces on Jazz, Dutton (New York, NY), 1959.
Dinosaurs in the Morning: Forty-one Pieces on Jazz, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1962.
Such Sweet Thunder: Forty-nine Pieces on Jazz, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1966.
Super-Drummer: A Profile of Buddy Rich, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1968.
Ecstasy at the Onion: Thirty-one Pieces on Jazz, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1971.
Alec Wilder and His Friends, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1974.
New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz, 1972-74, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1975.
Improvising: Sixteen Jazz Musicians and Their Art, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977.
American Singers, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1974-1980, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Jelly Roll, Jabbo, and Fats: Nineteen Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1983.
American Musicians: Fifty-six Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1986.
American Singers: Twenty-seven Portraits in Song, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Barney, Bradley, and Max: Fifteen Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz, 1981-1990, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1991.
American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2000, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of articles and reviews to Atlantic, New Republic, Reporter, and Saturday Review; contributor of poetry to Atlantic, New Yorker and Saturday Review.
SIDELIGHTS: "Whitney Balliett has covered jazz for the New Yorker since 1957; he has done so with taste, knowledge, consistency and splendid skill as a writer," Don Gold once stated in the New York Times Book Review. Gold continued, "It is not easy to communicate what jazz sounds like to people who weren't there. Balliett masters it better than anyone else writing about jazz today." Considered informed about his subject and gifted in his presentation by most reviewers, Balliett writes both substantive studies of jazz artists and short, impressionistic articles likened to diary entries by several critics. According to Joseph McLellan in the Washington Post, "Balliett's job is to be entertaining as well as illuminative and not to take too long about it…. [He] does it superbly…. [His] musicology is largely impressionistic, descriptive, and focused on such points as the textures and rhythms of the sound, looseness or tightness of structures, and above all on what the music is saying." Echoing American critics' praise for Balliett's treatment of an American genre, Bill Luckin concluded in the Times Literary Supplement that "Balliett is among the most stylish and perceptive of living jazz writers."
American Musicians: Fifty-six Portraits in Jazz is a compilation of biographical profiles that Balliett wrote for the New Yorker from the early 1960s to 1985. In the New York Times Book Review, John Litweiler remarked that "of Mr. Balliett's 11 previous books—mostly shorter collections—'American Musicians' makes at least three entire volumes plus hunks of several others obsolete. His biographical articles are his best, so this is his most valuable book." According to Litweiler, Balliett had personally interviewed all but fifteen of his subjects, and "the quality of his portraits depends on his subjects and his patience. He says he generally chose his subjects because they were 'irresistible.'" In his Washington Post Book World assessment, David Nicholson likewise commented about the book's interview format: "When the musicians were alive to be interviewed, Balliett—for the most part—allowed them to speak for themselves. Thus we get a sense of each person, as well as insights into the personal connections between musicians and the evolving of musical eras and styles…. There are also telling (and sometimes amusing) details of the rigors of musicians' lives." With respect to overall style, Nicholson maintained that Balliett "writes with grace, style and insight. While reading, one wishes for a complete record collection so that one could listen to samples of each musician's work: Balliett is unmatched at describing how a particular musician sounds."
A flaw that some critics detected in this work is Balliett's omission of many of the more contemporary artists in the field of jazz. "He leaves unexplored so many mansions in the house of jazz," stated Nicholson. "Apart from anecdotes included in other essays, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the co-founders of bebop, go unacknowledged, as do Miles Davis and, more important, John Coltrane, for many the greatest jazz musician of all time." Francis Davis noted in Times Literary Supplement that Balliett presents studies of only two contemporary jazz artists under fifty years of age, which he felt is "in no way indicative of current directions within the genre." Nevertheless, Davis concluded that "the musicians on whom Balliett lavishes his attentions emerge as unique, and that, one suspects, is what has drawn him to them, regardless of their musical style. One is drawn to Whitney Balliett for much the same reason. Say what one will about his profiles, there is no mistaking them for the work of anyone else."
A massive volume of Balliett's work was published in 2000 under the title Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2000. The book begins with the first piece Balliett wrote for New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn—a 1957 essay about pianist Cecil Taylor and baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan—and ends with reflections on gypsy guitarist Django Rheinhardt, published in the year 2000. Collected Works is undoubtedly the essential volume of Balliett's writing, according to many reviewers. In it, one senses that the author is aware of his own talent and significance, stated Keith Bruce in a Glasgow Herald review of Collected Works. According to Bruce, "Whitney Balliett is an immodest man with much to be immodest about. His introduction makes clear that he sees posterity valuing his collected works." Bruce observed that Balliett's high opinion of himself is borne out in a reading of his works, for he "does what few critics and commentators in the arts have the skill to do. He describes precisely what it is he is writing about and in the course of conveying that accurate impression through his words he assesses its value. And—like the best musicians—he makes it sound simple." Ken Gallacher, also writing in the Glasgow Herald, commented that Balliett "never wrote with anything less than elegance." His style is an impressionistic one that "brings the music to life," stated Gallacher. Balliett has a unique voice of his own, and he reveres most highly those musicians who also have this gift. "Balliett's work celebrates them and their sometimes wayward solos and helps ensure that they will not be forgotten. He captures them so brilliantly because he has much in common with them."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scholar, spring, 1982.
Booklist, October 1, 2000, Ted Leventhal, review of Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2000, p. 311.
Down Beat, August, 1997, Paul de Barros, review of American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz, p. 65.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), March 7, 2001, review of Collected Works, p. 15; October 13, 2001, review of Collected Works, p. 12.
Library Journal, September 15, 2000, James E. Perone, review of Collected Works, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1981.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 24, 1983.
Music Educators Journal, May, 2001, review of Collected Works, p. 55.
New Republic, May 5, 1979.
New York Review of Books, February 12, 1987; February 8, 2001, David Hajdu, review of Collected Works, p. 31.
New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1976; April 1, 1979; July 19, 1981; December 21, 1986; April 6, 1997, Devra Hall, review of American Musicians II, p. 20.
Tampa Tribune, February 25, 2001, review of Collected Works, p. 4.
Time, March 19, 1979.
Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1978; May 4, 1984; April 1, 1988.
Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2001, Tom Nolan, "A Half-Century Chronicle of America's Music," p. A20.
Washington Post, June 4, 1981; July 19, 1983.
Washington Post Book World, December 21, 1986, David Nicholson, review of American Musicians.
Jerry Jazz Musician, http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/ (August 26, 2004), interview with Whitney Balliett.*