The Music Critic Who Tried to Disappear

I'm sharing the essay that won the 2021 Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Music Criticism (announced yesterday by ASCAP)

I’m deeply gratified to receive the 2021 Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Music Criticism—announced yesterday by ASCAP. But it’s especially pleasing to get this award for an essay celebrating one of my heroes and role models, music critic Whitney Balliett. I’d like to think that the judges are honoring Balliett as much as me in making this move.

I’m sharing the piece below, with the permission of City Journal, where the essay first appeared. This also gives me a chance to thank Brian Anderson and Paul Beston, who commissioned the article, and helped with editing and in other ways. I also want to acknowledge the generous assistance of Whitney’s children Blue and Jamie, as well as Gary Giddins and Dan Morgenstern, who graciously shared their insights and perspectives.

The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and contemporary culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.

The Music Critic Who Tried to Disappear

A look back at magical vanishing act of jazz writer Whitney Balliett

by Ted Gioia

When people ask how I became a jazz pianist and authority on the music, I’m almost embarrassed to answer. They have heard so many colorful stories—about jazz pros who learned their craft at bordellos and speakeasies, accompanied by various illegal vices. My story is far less glamorous.

I learned about jazz at my local public library.

But even a library in a working-class neighborhood can be a magical place. And it certainly was for me during my adolescent and teen years. In those pre-Internet days, the local library was my information superhighway, my world wide web of wonder. And there I found my future vocation on a corner of a shelf marked 781.65, the Dewey Decimal classification for books on jazz, and the numerical homeland where much of my life’s work was destined to reside. Here lay a whole education to a mysterious music genre, which I could supplement with jazz vinyl­—also kept in the library, available for checkout and home listening—as well as enticing stacks of Downbeat and other music magazines.

In my mid-teens, long before I ever dared walked inside the door of a jazz club, these were my humble equivalents of Birdland and the Village Vanguard. And it was here I discovered the true poet of jazz, the writer who could capture the music and put it down on the printed page, turning a library into a portal on the jazz scene. His name was Whitney Balliett.

Balliett was different from the other jazz writers I was discovering back then—whose various quirks and personalities I gradually picked up from their books on that cherished shelf. In my library retreat, I became familiar with all of them. On one extreme, were cozy jazz insiders like Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather, who hung out with the musicians, called them by their first names, and treated them as close friends—Feather, for example, enlisted Billie Holiday as godmother to his daughter, and was a pallbearer at Charlie Parker’s funeral. He even wrote a book called Inside Jazz, almost a taunt at his peers, who would never be as much an insider as him. At the other extreme, were the musicologists and analytical critics such as Gunther Schuller, André Hodeir, and Martin Williams, who maintained more distance in their writings, aspiring to a kind of academic objectivity. They also proved to be invaluable guides, teaching me about the rigorous rules and steely discipline that underlay this seemingly most spontaneous of art forms.

But Balliett didn’t belong in either of those camps, or any camp as far as I could tell. He somehow retained the enthusiasm of a fan, but married to the expressive virtuosity of a master writer, one who could extract from his typewriter something akin to what others drew from their saxophones and trumpets. It was almost as if he were a jazz musician himself, but one who wrote essays for The New Yorker instead of soloed over “I Got Rhythm” chords.

In fact, Balliett had been a jazz musician, but only on the uttermost fringes of the music. In his school days at Phillips Exeter Academy, he had apprenticed as a drummer in a traditional Dixieland jazz band, and was soon gigging at a yacht club. Needless to say, in the rough-and-tumble world of 1940s jazz, where you made your name at Harlem jam sessions and in road-weary traveling bands, this was not a promising start. But Balliett was destined for a different path, and almost immediately after his time at Cornell, interrupted by military service during World War II, he took a job at The New Yorker.

Balliett had just married first wife Elizabeth Hurley King, and the couple had moved to Manhattan, settling in a small apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Hired by Katherine White, fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1925 to 1960, Balliett started at the very bottom, proofreading and undertaking other low-level editorial and production jobs. Before long he was contributing unsigned pieces to the ‘Talk of the Town’ section of the magazine—an unfair imposition of anonymity, but somehow a symbolic start for a writer who would later try to remove any trace of his own personality and presence from his writing. On the side, he published jazz articles in a competing periodical, Saturday Review, and when these pieces came to the attention of The New Yorker editor William Shawn, the boss decided to give Balliett his own column.

The year was 1957, and jazz was about to enter its most tumultuous period. The next decade would witness the rise of modal jazz, free jazz, soul jazz, fusion jazz, and a host of subsidiary and conflicting styles. And Whitney Balliett was ready to match this mercurial music with his own prodigious gifts. It’s not true that his articles ran in every issue of The New Yorker, but sometimes it seemed that way. One year, there were only two issues that didn’t feature his byline, and these weren’t tiny reviews—the kind you see nowadays in most newspaper, where a few hundred (or even dozen) words of cursory judgments suffice—but large-scale profiles and blow-by-blow accounts of live events which almost seemed more like immersive experiences than music journalism.

No one did these in-depth pieces better than Whitney Balliett. In my mind, they remain the gold standard for stylish and penetrating jazz writing. Decades later, music lovers return to them—first, because they are often the single best source of information ever published about many jazz legends, but also for the sheer delight of Balliett’s artful prose. I have never read a jazz writer with stronger sentences, or a more assured command of the English language.  It’s a testimony to his precision of expression that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary even changed its definition of that ineffable jazz word “swing” based on Balliett’s feedback.

But you didn’t need to be a lexicographer to appreciate his verbal virtuosity. Oral historian Studs Terkel, that other master of the journalistic profile, lauded him as "one of our most trustworthy guides."  Taking a different tack, poet extraordinaire (and fellow jazz critic) Philip Larkin declared that “Balliett is a master of language” who brought “jazz journalism to the verge of poetry.” In fact, the surest way of measuring Balliett’s stature was to gauge the stature of those who praised his work. He was the artisan that other artisans admired.

And these typewriter pyrotechnics were targeted at more than just music. Balliett had a novelist’s eye for detail. He noticed everything in his orbit, which he would later describe with a diamond-cutter’s precision. He was a writer often praised for his metaphors, but deserved just as much credit for his meticulousness. “He seemed to know interiors as well as a decorator and wardrobe styles like a designer,” notes Dan Morgenstern, a jazz sage who frequently crossed paths with Balliett on the New York scene. “He brought people, environments and events to life with a few well chosen verbal brushstrokes. In those things his taste was a good as in music.” Fellow critic Gary Giddins relates a commonly-held view on Balliett, stating that “you can read him even if you don’t care for jazz.”

At first glance, the details in a Balliett portrait might seem pointillistic or mere scene-setting—until you realized later how much they had a bearing on music and artistry. In his profile of pianist Dorothy Donegan, he points out how she answers the phone with a “Hello” that hits the note C on the first syllable and rises to a D on the second—something no other journalist would catch, but immediately conveys the subject’s round-the-clock musicality. When Balliett wrote up his encounter with Henry ‘Red’ Allen, he described the trumpeter’s apartment in a yellow-brick building on Prospect Avenue, and their walking up five floors to the family residence, noting that when they got to the top, Allen wasn’t in the least winded—once again a detail others would miss, but signaling in this coy, indirect manner that the portly 58-year-old horn player had lost none of the wind-power necessary to his vocation. After Balliett enthused over the extraordinary view from Marian McPartland’s New York apartment, he made sure you knew that the piano was placed so she wouldn’t face the window. Again, no one else would be paying attention to such a small point, but it conveys in an instant the sober austerity with which the often free-wheeling McPartland (very different in private life from her public persona) adopted when banter ended and the music began.

There was always information in a Balliett profile that I’d never heard about elsewhere. As a pianist, I took note when I learned that Jimmy Rowles applied a strange substance called Tacky-Finger (used by bank tellers to ensure accuracy in counting cash) to his hands before each performance. As a lover of European jazz, I delighted in learning that violinist Stéphane Grappelli always kept his watch set to London time, even when gigging day after day in New York, pondering whether this was laziness or an assertion of cultural independence. As an inquirer into the sources of creativity, I marveled over Mary Lou Williams inventing a new song to the rhythm of her windshield wipers while driving with Mr. Balliett during a rainstorm.

The whole effect resists summarizing, but for a taste, check out Balliett’s description of a dinner with Charles Mingus.

“We met late on a Sunday night in a restaurant on West Tenth Street, a week or so before his book was published. Mingus was dressed in an unusually conservative dark suit and tie…Mingus talks in leaping slurs. The words come out crouched and running, and sometimes they move so fast whole sentences are unintelligible. It is an obstacle he is well aware of, for, later in the evening, he delivered a lightning two-or-three-sentence volley and asked, “Did you understand what I just said?” I admitted that I had got about sixty per cent of it. Slowing to a canter, he repeated himself and I got almost a hundred per cent. Mingus finished his Ramos fizz and ordered a half bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and some cheese. He pronounced the name of the wine at a dead run, and it came out ‘Poolly-Foos.’”

A few minutes later, Mingus expresses dissatisfaction with the menu, and insists on trying a different restaurant across the street, where another bottle of “Poolly-Foos” is summoned from the cellar. Soon the table is covered with lobster tails, hearts of lettuce and other delicacies. But this hardly holds Mingus in place, and before long they have returned to the first bistro for more wine. As the clock approaches 1 AM, the festivities are still in high gear.   

It might seem that none of the details here have anything to do with music, but on closer consideration the reader detects crucial elements of Mingus’s jazz aesthetic at every step—you get a sense of the larger-than-life bassist who shifted tempos and styles mid-song, sometimes even hiring and firing people on the bandstand with the same alacrity that he changed restaurants in mid-meal. And Balliett has caught everything—the banter with the waitress, unexpected phone calls with Mingus’s manager, and—the evening’s highlight—the moment when the famous jazz bassist “reached into a coat pocket and took out a big East Indian knife and, removing its scabbard, held it at the ready in his left hand.” Before proceeding, Mingus explained to the startled columnist for The New Yorker:  “This is the way I walk the streets at night around here.”

Every sentence is precious, and no one else in jazz was writing at this level. But the most characteristic moment in a Whitney Balliett profile often came when the author himself disappeared from view and let the artist speak directly to the reader. In time, this effacement would become the most cherished characteristic of a Whitney Balliett profile. Like a shrewd police interrogator, Balliett knew when to hold his tongue and let the witness talk. In many instances, the finished pieces in The New Yorker would include dramatic monologues of a thousand words or more, all delivered unfiltered and seemingly as spontaneous as jazz itself.

Here, for example, is trumpeter Doc Cheatham—76-year-old at the time, and treated by most members of the jazz establishment in the 1980s as a relic of an earlier age, put on stage more for perfunctory veneration than active emulation. But a cardinal rule of Balliett’s craft was that the elders have wisdom worth heeding:

“Taking a solo is like an electric shock,” Cheatham tells him, proving that his gift for unexpected similes is a good as his interlocutor. And then continues:

“First, I have no idea what I will play, but then something in my brain leads me to build very rapidly, and I start thinking real fast from note to note. I don't worry about chords, because I can hear the harmonic structure in the back of my mind. I have been through all that so many years it is second nature to me. I also have what I think of as a photograph of the melody in my head. I realize quickly that there is no one way to go in a solo. It’s like traveling from here to the Bronx—there are several ways and you must choose the right way immediately. So I do, and at the same time I never forget to tell as story in my solo. I have always listened for that in other horn players, and it’s the only way I know how to play. I’m not a high note player generally, but sometimes the things I'm playing run me up there, and it frightens me a little. But I get down all right. . . . When I’m gone, it’ll be just about over, my kind of playing. It will be as if it hadn’t existed at all, as if all of us hadn’t worked so long and hard.”

In just one paragraph, Balliett presents biography and elegy, poetry and a pointed music lesson. And he did this again and again in his profiles. Yet his interview technique broke all the rules. Even after almost every other music writer had started taping interviews on portable cassette players, Balliett stuck with his time honored tools. That would be in the words of his daughter, writer Blue Balliett, “his old Cross pens, one of those he pulled out of his inside jacket pocket while working.” His ability to listen, remember and jot down everything in real time became legendary in jazz circles. Just as the subjects of his profiles had a musical ear, Balliett had an ear for the spoken word, hearing and retaining it with uncanny tenacity.

As I look back on those classic profiles today, I am struck by aspects of Balliett’s modus operandi that I hardly noticed when I first read them. Perhaps most striking is how often he found time to interview the spouses of the musicians profiled. These observations from the “better half” are so casually inserted into the finished article that they seem haphazard and unplanned at first reading, but when you see them in the aggregate you realize that this offhand interrogation was part of his police investigator technique. The same is true of the observations he inserted from other musicians and a litany of other passing asides. They are so artlessly stitched into the published essay that it’s only after reading a dozen or so at a sitting that I grasped how much planning and effort went into this seeming spontaneity—the same quality, I note, that Balliett admired in his interviewees’ music-making.

Even as Balliett flourished as a jazz writer, he often seemed miscast for the role. From his earliest upbringing, he was raised for more respectable pursuits. Late in life, he recounted an “indelible conversation” with his mother, whose love of music centered on highbrow fare at the philharmonic.

Balliett once recounted this succinct convesation with his mom:

ME: “Ma I have a new book out. Would you like a copy?”

SHE: “Is it about jazz?”

ME: “Yes.”

SHE: “No, thank you.”

In his demeanor, as well, he exhibited a quiet, stay-at-home personality seemingly at odds with the demands put on a chronicler of late-night, nomadic improvisers. Balliett liked to cook, read, listen to the radio, and pursue the other responsibilities of domestic life, first with Betsy King and then with second wife (of 41 years) Nancy Kramer. For recreation, he would play touch football in Central Park, or go roller-skating, and seemed hardly the type to wander from club to club in the wee small hours. Gary Giddins, the other presiding jazz tastemaker on the New York scene at the time—his pieces in The Village Voice offered younger and hipper takes on the same art form—notes that he never once saw Balliett inside a jazz club. And when he did show up at a concert or festival, he rarely had much to say, taking notes and already focusing his attention on how he might translate the experience on to the printed page.

For all his stylistic panache, no jazz writer was less inclined to boast than Whitney Balliett. The introductions to his books often read like apologies, perhaps even attempts to discourage potential readers. “That jazz should be written about critically is doubtful,” is the opening sentence of Dinosaurs in the Morning (1962), a follow-up to his successful book The Sound of Surprise (1959), where Balliett started even more woefully with an admission that 90% of jazz writing is bad, and that we shouldn’t expect for much more from a “lightweight” idiom marked by “unbalanced admiration.”  Fifteen years later, on the opening page to New York Notes, he is no more confident, admitting his tendency “in a workaday record of this kind to repeat oneself and commit other blunders.” At the outset of his final compendium, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001, he dismisses much of it as “learning on the job.”

This unwarranted humility came to a head in mid-career, when Balliett’s personality and opinions vanished almost completely from his writings—a disappearing act unusual for any essayist, but especially for a music critic. “Sometimes during the 70s,” Giddins wrote back in 1983, “Balliett made the draconian decision to remove all the Is from his writing. He not only eschews the pronoun in his current work, but has expelled it when revising his older pieces.” I dare say no one else in the jazz reviewing trade had ever made such a move, or perhaps even considered it.

Did this peculiar retreat make his jazz writing less authoritative—removing all those judgments and verdicts that are the very essence of authority—or did they give it even greater force, turning his perspectives into part of the fabric of the art form, natural laws instead of subjective opinions? You could argue that point endlessly. In any event, the final result of this shift was to create a shimmering translucency to his music writing, a new effect in a very old trade. Sometimes you even walked away with the impression that the musicians and music had spoken for themselves. Whether they actually did (perhaps doubtful), or if it were merely a prestidigitator’s effect created by the critic-behind-the-scenes, is almost irrelevant. Oz is still a magical place even after you find the Wizard hiding behind the curtain.

But far more controversial than his prose techniques was the growing perception, during the 1970s and 1980s, that Balliett was a bit of a curmudgeon. For many jazz partisans of the period, he was seen as a champion of the music’s past, and not sufficiently aggressive in promoting its future. Yes, his critics admitted, no one was better at describing the artistry of trumpeter Henry ‘Red’ Allen or drummer Sid Catlett—to name just two of Balliett’s favorites—but these musicians were born, respectively, in 1908 and 1910. Why wasn’t Balliett in the front lines in the loft scene or at The Knitting Factory, charting the course of jazz to come? This was hardly a time for him to vanish from his writings, or so it seemed back then. In the over-heated environment of the era, marked by so-called jazz wars between hostile camps, Balliett had committed the most egregious sin of them all: he wasn’t even a combatant. 

The accusations weren’t entirely fair. Balliett’s very first column for The New Yorker, back in 1957, had focused on pianist Cecil Taylor, as avant-garde as they come, and sooner or later almost every flavor of New York jazz found its way into his articles. But no reader could doubt for a second that he loved, above all, the origins and traditions of the music. This was an era when critics in all fields were enjoying a lionization and hero status never before seen, but mostly because they were practitioners of theory. Balliett, in contrast, had no theory. He was merely a connoisseur with a formidable pen.

After the departure of editor William Shawn in 1987, Balliett’s role at The New Yorker grew smaller and smaller, although he hung on for more than a decade. His last piece ran in 2001, ending a marvelous run of a half-century with the same magazine. For a while, it seemed as if Gary Giddins would take over the column—and if anyone had the gravitas to fill that role after Balliett it would have been Giddins—but eventually the ruling regime decided that The New Yorker did not require a specialized jazz writer on its staff.

I lamented that decision—even in an age of clicks and tyrannical metrics, jazz ought to be part of the life blood of The New Yorker, no?—just as I grieved Balliett’s retirement, the final vanishing act of that elusive poet of the art form whose acquaintance I’d made in the public library so many decades before. But the audience for jazz had also, if not vanished, at least diminished markedly over the course of those years. And even many jazz fans had decided that Whitney Balliett wasn’t hip or up-to-date enough for their fickle, flavor-of-the-month tastes. At his death at age 80, in 2007, Balliett was feted and mourned, but for many of his most loyal fans, it seemed that not only a towering jazz writer, but his whole era and aesthetic had passed away. 

But did it really? The emerging consensus of recent years has tended, if anything, to validate his approach. Those overheated postmodern theories of the late twentieth century now look pretty threadbare, and the critics who brandished them have lost almost all of their allure. Meanwhile, the jazz world itself has embraced the celebration of its heritage as a delectable dish, perhaps even the main course, in its own ongoing banquet—almost as if Jazz at Lincoln Center, Berklee, SF Jazz and the other rising institutions of the art form were finally dancing to Balliett’s own irresistible beat. 

Above all his writing has held up, more than five hundred essays on jazz and enough books to fill up a whole shelf labeled with Dewey Decimal number 781.65. They call it “longform journalism” nowadays, and I’m assured it’s coming back—although, judging by the constant news of laid-off critics and downsized arts coverage, I’m still a wee bit skeptical. But if it does, the blueprint for how to do it at its highest pitch is already waiting in those books and essays. No, our vanishing wizard of jazz hasn’t really disappeared; surely he’s just waiting us out behind the curtain. And I can’t help thinking we would all benefit if the magic in those pages came back into style.