Whitney Balliett’s synesthetic metaphors and similes defied imitation (I learned the hard way), but not parody: In Donald Barthelme’s “The King of Jazz”—a 1977 short story that I doubt I was the only person to read as one New Yorker lifer’s inside joke on another—a character likens a trombone’s 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, Balliett—who died from cancer on February 1—reinvented 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. Balliett’s 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 magazine’s back pages whistled with tension. In Kael’s case, the tension was between the magazine’s 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 magazine’s sensibility as Herbert Warren Wind on golf—but 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 Balliett’s 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 layman’s 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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2007