BY WILL FRIEDWALD - Special to the Sun
February 2, 2007
Whitney Balliett, who died yesterday at 80, was the longtime jazz reviewer for the New Yorker.
A reporter, historian, and expert interviewer, Balliett's greatest gift was as an astute listener with the rare ability to capture the sound of the music in words. He wrote with a cadence and rhythm that mirrored the music itself, and was as witty and fun to read as he was serious and scholarly.
He wrote that Blossom Dearie had a voice so small that "without a microphone it would not reach the second floor of a doll's house"; he described another singer, Betty Carter, as being so far out that she "makes Sarah Vaughan sound like Kate Smith." He once compared the midperformance moaning of pianist Keith Jarrett to that of a woman giving birth. Balliett also likened jazz drumming to tap dancing: "a great drummer dances sitting down, a great tap dancer drums standing up."
Balliett's favorite kind of jazz was intensely melodic, the style he had grown up with in the '30s and '40s; he tended to favor the great swing players and their latter-day descendants. He also had a fascination for the Great American Songbook, and the more traditional singers of both the jazz and related pop variety who sang it.
Yet he also had a special proclivity for drummers and did not neglect the many equally essential modern and postmodern players who flourished in the decades of his tenure at the magazine. Some of his earliest columns focused on Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, and even the extremely avant-garde Cecil Taylor.
Balliett was raised in New York. Soon after graduating from Cornell University in 1951, he began submitting poetry and Talk of the Town entries to the New Yorker. After a four-year stint at the Saturday Review, he began writing a regular column on jazz for the New Yorker in January 1957. His last article in that magazine was published in 2001; he spanned an even half century at the magazine.
"I think the role of any critic is, first, to explain or describe what it is that he is criticizing, and then make his evaluation," Balliett said in one of his last interviews. He preferred to let the music come alive in the reader's head rather than dwelling on what he thought of it.
He continued, "I think you waste time by battling and sending out sharp opinions and dumping on people. It's a waste of effort and it's also destructive."
Although Balliett had been writing his column for a scant two years, his first book was published in 1959. Like most of the dozenplus books he produced, "The Sound of Surprise" collected his New Yorker columns.
Balliett's wrote in two modes, reviews and profiles, some of which were not, strictly speaking, on musicians, such as "Alec Wilder and His Friends" (1974) and "Barney, Bradley, and Max: Fifteen Portraits in Jazz" (1989).
In his profiles, Balliett let's subjects speak for themselves, at length. In his reviews, he offered witty, vivid verbal-paintings such as this typical description of Ray Charles in action: "One waits for the shout that falls in a beat to a whisper, the flashing falsetto, the pine-sap diction, the pained hoarseness, the guttural asides, the spidery staccato sprays of notes, the polysyllabic explosions, the faster-than-the-ear dynamics."
On the pianist Dave McKenna: "His eyes are deep-set and close together, and his wide face has eagle lines. His long arms end in banana fingers."
More than any other critic in the genre's history, Balliett captured the *feel* of jazz. He wrote of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell: "Russell's blues were an examination of the proposition that there must be a way to make sadness bearable and beautiful."
He was a profound influence on the next generation of jazz critics, including Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, and Stanley Crouch.
Apart from his writing, Balliett's other best-known achievement was serving as a musical consultant, alongside fellow reviewer Nat Hentoff, on the 1957 CBS-TV show "The Sound of Jazz." This program is among the finest hours of the music ever televised (and possibly ever recorded), but is also the most celebrated all-star gathering in the history of jazz. Indeed, Balliett would go on to write at length about such iconic figures as Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and many others who appeared on "The Sound of Jazz."
I once asked Balliett how he got so many jazz greats in a single production, and he answered, "Easy — they needed the gig!"
Born April 17, 1926, in Manhattan; died February 1 at his home in Manhattan; survived by his wife, Nancy Balliett, his children Whitney Balliett, James Balliett, Julie Rose, Blue Balliott, and Will Balliett, his seven grandchildren, and a brother, Fargo Balliett.
Not my favorite jazz writer. He was of the "old school" when it came to race relations. This old school perspective was obvious in his writing.
John H. Armwood