Full disclosure: I work for the press that published the book that will be mentioned below.
Regular readers know that this blog celebrates its anniversary on 29 March, and that I choose that time to honor the spirit of New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett. I was so busy preparing for the Crossroads Film Festival that I let the date zip by. That’s a shame, as this year is the first anniversary that occurs without Balliett’s graceful prose—he died in February.
His final book was New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits, a collection of ten profiles of people who, in his words, have “enriched, complected, and glorified New York City life during the past fifty years… All have tempered their skills with improvisation and even bravura. Indeed, they have made works of art out of their professions.”
For the most part, the book doesn’t focus on the famous—with the exception of Jackie Mason (and perhaps Bob and Ray, for those born pre-1960), the names aren’t familiar at all. Balliett, here, isn’t interested in the onstage movers and shakers of cultural life, but instead the backstagers who built the stage, and made the onstage life possible. They are the nightclub owners, obscure librarians, art historians and collectors, impresarios, and underground geniuses upon which New York culture—and, by some extension, American culture—was founded.
Those profiled have certain things in common, things that I suspect were true of Balliett as well. 1. They’re all journeymen (or journeywomen), coming to those chosen profession/s after kicking through several others. 2. They all seem to make up their lives as they go along, improvising and bluffing their ways through and to careers that they never imagined for themselves and, in some cases, basically inventing professions that hadn’t existed beforehand. John Gordon, the American folk art collector, is one of the first of his kind, and clearly one of the best. Daphne Hellman is one of the few jazz harpists around, and her swinging trio might have been the first of its kind. Julius Monk, Max Gordon, Barney Josephson, and Bradley Cunningham practically created what we think of as the modern live-performance nightclub, and collectively provided jazz and cabaret artists with their first regular venues outside of the vaudeville circuit. 3. All are polymaths, with their minds, money, and hearts in several artistic pies. Jean Bach doesn’t really have a career in the traditional sense, but she’s been a award-winning documentary filmmaker, an ardent jazz lover and promoter, a radio-show producer, and a self-help writer. Jackie Mason’s made his living as a standup comedian, gag writer, actor, and monologist. 4. The people here are streetwise—they make good, slangy, sharp conversation; their bullshit detectors have been honed by years of travel and dealings with shysters; they move fast and strive to get ahead, even if (as is often the case here) they don’t know exactly what they’re getting to. And, finally, 5. most of them aren’t originally from New York, which makes the book’s title ironic and charming. The people who’ve made New York—okay, okay, Manhattan; Balliett’s focus is chauvinistic in this sense—what it is are, by and large, outsiders who’ve come there because they couldn’t find what they were looking for anywhere else, and who seem to understand and realize the city’s potential better than the natives.
New York Voices is nostalgic, sometimes to a fault. The opening of “Régisseur,” about nightclub owner/showbiz impresario Julius Monk, opens this way:
Manhattanites didn’t stay home much at night fifty years ago. The streets were safe, and things were cheap. If they didn’t take in a play or a movie (sometimes with its own stage show), they went night clubbing. An astonishing number of night clubs came into being in the city between the end of Prohibition, in 1933, and the fatal entrenchment of television.
For the most part, the collection’s cultural interest halts at about 1950, even if the profiles extend into the present day. Balliett observes well the good old days, and those who made them interesting. But the book’s prose has an unfortunate patina of mothballs, as if it’s not quite up to addressing the present—and how these people are making their way in it. The book has the aura of a preservation piece—the above quote continues on with a page-long listing of bygone clubs, music halls, owners, and hotel rooms, and it reads with the pizzazz of an encyclopedia entry. Too many of the essays descend into mere transcription of their subject’s words, without the careful, quick counterpoints and subtle phrases that Balliett inserts into his best pieces. He observes but doesn’t often critique; he tells us what he sees, but not how he sees it. The stylistic verve he brings to album and performance reviews, and to his criticism in general, is curiously flat, or at least muted. The two pieces on comedians, “Their Own Gravity” (on Bob and Ray) and “The Casualness of It” (on Jackie Mason), should capture the quick flashes of wit and sparkle that comedians have in spades. Instead, the pieces are dry—if I hadn’t heard a Bob and Ray radio routine before, I’d have little sense (despite Balliett’s gushing) of why so many people find them hilarious. Some of these loquacious people—and they’re all big talkers—needed to have their conversations streamlined and sharpened further by Balliett. In New York Voices, though, he often seems less interested in directing the talk (and thus the pieces) towards anything meaningful than in cataloguing their every word. Like Lola Szladits, the curator of the New York Public Library’s Berg collection of rare books and manuscripts, Balliett here is more an archivist than a critic.
Of course, even dull prose couldn’t make Szladits boring, nor can he fully diminish firecrackers Jean Bach and Daphne Hellman. Their passions rise above the pages; generally, the women in New York Voices are more dazzling and hardscrabble—I’d love to share drinks with any of them. “Jazz Clubs,” a collective profile of three of New York’s most prominent and innovative club owners, is essentially a 50-page capsule history of the city’s nightlife, and is more heartfelt than most of the pieces. This shouldn’t be a surprise—Balliett probably spent half his adult life in jazz clubs. He can make the music resonate, and he knows the ins and outs of the club scene—its audiences, performers, owners, bartenders, aromas, and atmosphere—so well that he can make us dream about it.
So, it’s obvious that the best essay here focuses on a musician. In “Goodbye Oompah,” Balliett writes about tuba player Harvey Phillips, who’s striving to make the tuba respected by jazz and classical audiences, and to singlehandedly broaden the instrument’s repertoire. The job is rough going. But Balliett nails Phillips’s near-obsession—he’s basically the only one-track-mind person in the book—and his love of the instrument:
Phillips’s five recitals at Carnegie Hall could be considered a bust. They were, with the exception of the last one, poorly attended (there was no Phillips money for publicity), and they were given just two short notices in the Times, neither of which said anything about Phillips’s extraordinary playing. On top of that, Newsweek ran a “funny” tuba piece and interview with Phillips in conjunction with the series, and that almost unhinged him. Nonetheless, there was a triumphant air about the concerts. Most tubas engulf their players, but Phillips holds his so that it looks no bigger than a flügelhorn or a French horn. He rests it easily on his right thigh, its bell up, and he secures it with his left hand, which he flops casually over the top tubing. He plays effortlessly, and the only indication that he is maintaining his breath support is the sharp, windy intakes of air at the end of his capacious phrases. He is a magisterial yet invariably accessible player. At slow tempos, his timbre is soft and smoky and somewhat like Tommy Dorsey’s trombone, which is held in high esteem by brass men. At greater speeds, his playing hardens in a muscular, singing way, but he is never brittle. His tone is light and direct, whether he is hitting a C above middle C or whether he is rummaging in the huge lower register—an area where the finest tubist can grope, his candle blown out by his own bearish notes. Phillips’s sound is unique. His tuba suggests a graceful trombone, or a horn minus its nasal quality, or a baritone saxophone of the most velvet persuasion. His technique is astonishing. His arpeggios are glassy and clean, the alarming intervals he sometimes has to play are deft and exact, and his staccato passages are cream. Most of the composers who write for him purposely include passages of such complexity that it is possible no other tubist could maneuver them.
“Goodbye Oompah” is New York Voices’s one true triumph, the piece in which we see the old Balliett, the best Balliett, the writer whose sharp observational eye and ears meets his acute critical mind. I wish more of the book had been like it—that would have been the swan song the critic deserved.