Whitney Balliett

Jazz critic for 'The New Yorker'


Whitney Lyon Balliett, writer and journalist: born New York 17 April 1926; married first Elizabeth King (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second 1965 Nancy Kraemer (two sons); died New York 1 February 2007.

Humorists such as James Thurber and S.J. Perelman established the remarkably high literary standard for The New Yorker during the Thirties. Whitney Balliett picked up the torch when they left. He was not a humorist but his pieces on jazz for the magazine were the most vivid and perceptive ever to be written on the subject.

Periodically he collected them all into books with wonderful titles such as The Sound of Surprise (1959), Dinosaurs in the Morning (1962) and Goodbyes and Other Messages (1991). Like Thurber and Perelman he was part of that banquet of literature from which the magazine was made and it was sad that he had to stay there as it dwindled to become a packet of sandwiches.

More than anyone else he was able to recreate on the page the feel and sounds of jazz and it was he who so memorably described the music as being "the sound of surprise". He wrote for The New Yorker from 1957 until 1998. In his last years he wrote occasional pieces for other magazines and contributed some good essays to The New York Review of Books.

Philip Larkin described Balliett as "a writer who brings jazz journalism to the verge of poetry". Balliett was memorably at his best with the great jazz characters like Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday. But he also wrote essays that perfectly defined the life and work of Duke Ellington and other giants from Sidney Bechet to Ornette Coleman.

Of Monk he wrote: "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 the 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."

Balliett suggested that the singer Blossom Dearie had a voice so small that "without a microphone it would not reach the second floor of a doll's house". And of the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, in a profile entitled "Even His Feet Look Sad", he wrote:

"A tall, close packed, slightly bent man, Russell had a wry, wandering face, dominated by a generous nose. The general arrangement of his eyes and eyebrows was mansard, and he had a brush moustache and a full chin. A heavy trellis of wrinkles held his features in place. His grey-black hair was combed absolutely flat...

"Russell spoke in a low, nasal voice. Sometimes he stuttered, and sometimes whole sentences came out in a sluice-like manner, and trailed off into mumbles and down-the-nose laughs. His face was never still. When he was surprised, he opened his mouth slightly and popped his eyes, rolling them up to the right. When he was thoughtful, he glanced quickly about, tugged his nose, and cocked his head. When he was amused, everything turned down instead of up - the edges of his eyes, his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth."

Of Russell's playing Balliett wrote,

"No jazz musician has ever played with the same daring and nakedness and intuition. His solos didn't always arrive at their original destination. He took wild improvisational chances and when he found himself above the abyss, he simply turned in another direction, invariably hitting firm ground. By this time his first chorus is over, and one has the impression of having just passed through a crowd of jostling, whispering people.

"In his final chorus, he moves snakily up toward 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 . . ."

The brilliant style of Balliett's journalism carried with it immense wisdom. The very fact that he didn't have a great understanding of the music's technical aspects made him invaluable to the generations of readers he drew to jazz because he approached it from the same angle that they did. He appreciated and loved the music and didn't want to criticise it - except perhaps when frustrated on encountering the black avant-garde jazz of the Sixties:

"It depends not on mere emotion but on an armoured passion . . . 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 honest ferocity that is new in jazz and perhaps in any music."

Balliett, the son of a New York businessman, was educated at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. It was whilst there that he went with friends to hear a Sunday-afternoon jam session at Jimmy Ryan's, a famous New York jazz club. Here he was inspired by the playing of the New Orleans veteran Zutty Singleton to begin what he described as "my erratic non-career as a drummer".

He graduated from Cornell University in 1951 and got a job as a proofreader for The New Yorker and began writing about jazz for The Saturday Review. At The New Yorker William Shawn, himself a jazz enthusiast, gave Balliett his own column in 1957.

It was in that year that he and the jazz critic Nat Hentoff helped to create The Sound of Jazz for CBS. This was probably jazz's finest hour on television, a live programme that featured Billie Holiday, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and many other jazz giants.

Balliett flowered under the distinguished New Yorker editor William Shawn until the magazine changed hands in 1987 when the new owners forced Shawn out. They undervalued Balliett's work and he became dispirited as he was given fewer column inches and forced to devote what space he did have to thumbnail sketches of people he didn't care for, like Barbra Streisand.

He published 16 books. The last of them, the 850-page Collected Works: a journal of jazz, 1954-2000, appeared in Britain in 2001.

Steve Voce

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