Whitney Balliett, 1926-2007

In a 1987 Rolling Stone with P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson said, “I have a theory that the truth is never told across a desk, or during the nine-to-five hours. Even on the telephone, I call people at night.” In journalistic temperament and aesthetic style, Whitney Balliett was probably the exact opposite of Thompson, but I suspect Balliett would agree with the sentiment. He wrote primarily on jazz, a music that’s played mostly at night, that best evokes the after-hours interstices between dream and wakefulness, by night creatures. (That phrase is even the title of one of his books.) His musical prose, filled with the wild conversations of musicians and nightclub owners talking as if they were still soloing onstage, has the seemingly improvised air of a master trying out riffs. Balliett’s truths lie in his “sound of surprise,” in the whispers and braying jokes that get told after the nine-to-five grind, between the sheets, or over lunchtime cocktails.

Longtime Quiet Bubble readers know that the site is in part dedicated to Whitney Balliett’s presence in the world, and that the New Yorker jazz critic is a hero of mine. Nearly two years ago, this blog opened with a quote from a Balliett profile of Bobby Short, and an indication that you should read the piece. My plan was always that I’d invoke Balliett’s name on each anniversary of this site.

And now he’s gone. Whitney Balliett died on February 1st. I read the news at Terry Teachout’s site on Thursday, but I didn’t get other confirmation (and so refused to fully believe it) until Friday’s obituaries began to appear. Adam Gopnik, writing in the magazine that published most of Balliett’s stuff, writes a terrific obituary that closes with:

…he believed in the swinging, witty sounds [jazz musicians] made, and kept a faith, both mystical and defiant, that their work mattered as much as that of any novelist or painter, that the air they set vibrating in a room somewhere at night would go on resonating long after the room was gone. He made sure that it did. Delicate poets of deep emotion, he preserved their sound, and ended as one of them.

Will Friedwald also writes a good tribute:

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.

Balliett brought those skills to subjects other than jazz. He wrote book reviews, profiles, and journalistic snapshots, too. On jazz or not, his pieces often—by his own admittance—circled around the subject, letting the person under consideration talk about anything under the sun. Balliett’s page-long, semicolon-laden paragraphs—like Stephen Dixon’s, but more voluptuous—felt like mere transcriptions until, with a decisive snap or a concise, precise image, he would bring us back to the point. Often, it just happened that the point would be a different one—more surprising, less common-sensical, less easily summarized—than the one we thought was being made.

His final book, in fact, concerns New Yorkers who aren’t jazz musicians at all. New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits gives profiles of the head librarian of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, three stand-up comedians, three jazz club owners, a radio and film producer, and others who enriched New York City’s life in some way. Although not jazz musicians exactly, they each lead jazz-like, sidewinding lives in which they find themselves soft-pedaling—unexpectedly, even to themselves—into their given, perfect professions.

They all share the gift of being great conversationalists—or, at least, great monologuists. Balliett lets them talk. Again, this may seem like he’s just an unusually good note-taker, but it’s instructive how good his pacing is, how he interjects telling details in the moments between conversational gambits. (In his profile of the Berg Collection’s Lola Szladits, he deftly intersperses his interview with Szladits with snippets from her unpublished autobiography.) He was a terrific listener, but it’s less apparent (but obvious, when you think about it) that he must have been a great questioner as well. As great as his style is, Balliett’s truest grace is how unobtrusive his voice is.

The night after I’d confirmed that Balliett was indeed dead, I went to a jazz concert was my old alma mater. I’d planned to go anyway, but this seemed as good a way to celebrate Balliett as any I could think of. The UNCG Faculty Jazz Trio—John Salmon on piano, Steve Haines on bass, Thomas Taylor on drums—played two swinging sets. The setup wasn’t great for a jazz performance—the school’s recital hall is intended more for symphony orchestras and large choral groups; the trio seemed swallowed-up by the large stage and its distance from the audience—but the professors were good. Led by Salmon’s glissando-strewn piano runs and anchored by Taylor and Haines’s witty, lyrical conversations, the trio ran through a diverse mix of genres—Cole Porter, “Moon River,” bossa nova from Antonio Carlos Jobim, a gospel rave-up, a solo piano fusion of two Dave Brubeck pieces. Salmon is a Brubeck devotee, so it’s no surprise that the band was rhythmically very tight, or that they delighted in odd time signatures.

The musicians silently joked around onstage, and were animated in the way that only old friends can be around each other. In particular, Haines—a boyish-looking man in a suit and floppy hair that were both too big for him—seemed to bounce off the walls. His round, expressive, open face radiated good cheer. The audience giggled sometimes at his mere presence. Clearly a decade or so younger than his comrades, Haines looked like a kid overjoyed to be sitting at the adults’ table.

After the concert, C. and I chatted with Haines. I noticed from the program that he matriculated at the University of North Texas, in Denton, about 40 minutes north of Dallas, my hometown. I told him so.

He grabbed me excitedly. “Man, Dallas!” he shouted. “How can I describe that place?”

I offered, “Shiny, glassy, metallic, lots of money?”

“Yeah, exactly— Exactly! One of my worst stories is about Dallas!” What follows is that story. I didn’t have a notepad, so the quotes aren’t exact. I hope, however, that Steve’s voice comes through.

“So I was at UNT until 1999. Around 1997, I’m looking in the school newspaper, right?, and I see this classified ad by this piano player who needs a bass to accompany him. $100 a week, five days a week, at this fancy restaurant in downtown Dallas. I’m thinking, ‘hell, yeah!’, but what’s the catch? So I call this guy and we talk, and the gig sounds so good. If I have to call in sick or I’ve got a class assignment that I just can’t miss, whatever, it’s fine. I just need to arrange for a replacement for that night, but I’d be free to come back the next night, no questions asked. ‘The only stipulation,’ Dave says, Dave Williams is his name”—he puts his finger to his lips, like a kid who just sneaked out a dirty word—“I really shouldn’t say his real name, the only thing is that whatever we get in the tip jar is his and his only. So I think, fine, $500 a week is too good to pass up. So I show up, we play standards and shit, everything’s going great. And this place is classy, like it’s millionaires in there and everything. In the middle of the first set, he says, ‘ladies and gentlemen, give it up for my man Starvin’ Steve Haines. He’s a student, everyone, and whatever you can give will help the poor boy out. So give a little, y’all!’ Sure enough, people start coming up to the piano and putting fuckin’ hundred-dollar bills in the tip jar, nodding at me, saying, ‘Tuition.’ Fifties, hundreds, you name it. Everyone’s coming up with ‘good luck, kid’ and ‘tuition.’ And I’m draggin’, because Starvin’ Steve Haines ain’t getting a dime of that. ‘Tuition.’ By the end of the night, Dave’s made about $500 or $600 off of me.”

“That’s horrible. No wonder he placed an ad in the student newspaper.”

“I know. We probably had ‘sucker’ marked on our foreheads. Anyway, I lasted about a week and a half with him, but I just couldn’t take it after that.”

Somehow, I think Whitney Balliett and Steve Haines would have gotten along just fine. In any case, it’s a story Balliett would have liked.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Whitney Balliett, 1926-2007

  1. Michael says:

    A great post, Walter — and a thoughtful appreciation of Balliett.

  2. I agree – a great post. Thank you.

  3. Emdashes says:

    What’s The New Yorker’s Munch-munch ratio?

    By legend, the factual infallibility of The New Yorker is both assumed and presumed. Its fabled team of fact-checkers—16 of them at present—vets every detail of the magazine before it reaches the reader. And if the errors that get through are …

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