Whitney Balliett, 19262007
Whitney Ballietts synesthetic metaphors and similes defied imitation (I learned the hard way), but not parody: In Donald Barthelmes The King of Jazza 1977 short story that I doubt I was the only person to read as one New Yorker lifers inside joke on anothera character likens a trombones roar to polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans, a herd of musk ox in full flight, male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea, and on and on for a few paragraphs. Along with Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams, Balliettwho died from cancer on February 1reinvented jazz journalism starting in the 1950s. Hentoff introduced a sociopolitical element, whereas Williams brought to the subject an analytical rigor borrowed from Edmund Wilson and the New Critics. Ballietts contribution was his shapely prose style, his concern for poetic image and cadence. When he and Pauline Kael happened to appear in the same issue of The New Yorker, the magazines back pages whistled with tension. In Kaels case, the tension was between the magazines genteel sense of itself and its readership on the one hand, and the unruliness of the movies she championed and her perceptions about them on the other. Balliett on jazz was as perfect a match for the magazines sensibility as Herbert Warren Wind on golfbut as with Roger Angellon baseball, the tension resulted from taking such a mannerly (and mannered) approach to a music born on the wrong side of the tracks. Even so, coming out from under the influence of Ballietts exquisite word-pictures of a typical (or maybe just idealized) Ben Webster or Doc Cheatham solo has been a rite of passage for all of us forced to write about music impressionistically, from a laymans perspective. And those of us also hoping to detail musicians lives have no better model than his flinty profiles. In his own way, he was as imposing and grand as Coleman Hawkins or Art Tatum, as peculiar and sui generis as his beloved Mabel Mercer and Pee Wee Russell.
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