Collected Works: A Journal Of Jazz 1954-2000
Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz: 1954-2001
by Whitney Balliett

St. Martin's Press, April 2002
ISBN: 0312270089
reviewed by W. Royal Stokes
copyright © 2002 W. Royal Stokes

The author of this monumental, and much welcomed, compilation says in his introduction to the volume that his use of "metaphor and simile and other such circumambulatory devices . . . caused the musicology boys to deride me as an 'impressionist.'" He concedes that indeed he is just that and further defends his practice as coming "closer to delineating the music than any notator" because "jazz, with its odd non-notes and strange tones and timbres, is almost impossible to translate into notes on paper." And he is right.

I have sometimes, when reading his descriptions of jazz performance, called to mind a passage in E. M. Forster's novel Howards End in which Helen, at a concert of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, responds to the music "as if the splendor of life might boil over . . . and a goblin . . . walked quietly over the universe from end to end." After all, how many listen to music in terms of harmonic progressions and time signatures? Clearly, no writer on jazz has so fully, and in such graceful prose, captured the "sounds of surprise" (a Balliett coinage) that grip us in all their splendor.

While about seven-eighths of the several hundred pieces contained in the collection have appeared in one or another of a half-dozen smaller volumes of Balliett's pieces in magazines (mainly the New Yorker), it is very handy to have them in a single volume and in chronological order. And the pieces from the final decade represented here have never before appeared in book form. Thus, as Balliett points out with justifiable pride, all of his jazz writings are now available in book form, i.e., in this volume, in his American Singers), and in his American Musicians II.

Balliett's fondness for the era of jazz that he came up in as a young man in the 1940s by no means hampers his openess to the ever-widening breadth of approaches to the art form that he observed the music incorporating in its canon, from bebop to hard bop to free jazz to what the young cats are doing down at the corner bar tonight. For example, a 1997 piece is on "progressive" drummer Leon Parker, whom Balliett checks out at Bradley's and afterwards introduces to the work of Sid Cattlett ("the greatest of jazz drummers"), whom the young Parker had not yet heard and is blown away by. He reports on all of it in a felicity of prose that is the envy of every jazz writer that this Balliett admirer knows. In fact, it has been said that many who confess to no interest in jazz read him simply for his way with the King's English.

The pieces range in length from page-and-a half club and concert reviews to extended accounts of Newport and other festivals, jazz parties, and jazz cruises. Nor are those scenes all that he writes on, for there are record and book reviews and tributes to deceased musicians (e.g., Duke Ellington and Pee Wee Russell).

The day-by-day diaries of the Newport festivals, of several week-long jazz cruises, and of Dick Gibson's 1969 Aspen jazz party and coverage of Richard Nixon's, Jimmy Carter's, and the Clintons' White House jazz gatherings are some of the longer articles. Others are of his visits to New Orleans in 1966 ("to gauge the health of the music in that haunted city") and to Mobile in 1970 (for a festival of high school and college bands), reviews of reissue projects like the Mosaic label's boxed sets, and a piece on Jelly Roll Morton that includes critiques -- the first withering and the second admiring -- of the Broadway production Jelly's Last Jam and dancer, singer, and raconteur Vernel Bagneris' show, Jelly Roll Morton: A Memorial.

Within the review pieces one frequently comes across mini-rosters (a Balliett stylistic device that is always rewarding) of an instrument's principal players, or a single-paragraph biography, e.g., of JATP founder Norman Granz, Commodore label owner Milt Gabler, Sidney Bechet, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Big Sid Catlett, and Jimmy Knepper. Or you might find yourself reading a capsule survey of the role of the arranger or of the history of the country blues, the latter in a piece that begins with a brief tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, who had died a short while before, the former in a review of recordings by Gil Evans and Gary McFarland. A perusal of the 14-page Index reveals that most of the artists who made up the jazz scene of the decades covered are mentioned in the book, many of them multiple times.

The historical context of the music is often succinctly alluded to by Balliett, as in his citing, apropos the stretch across the years of Coleman Hawkins' career, the great tenorist's beginnings "during the Harding administration as a member of Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds." Nor is his wit lacking, as in a description of a pair of Keith Jarrett "concerti grossi," in one passage of which the pianist, "a figure of ecstasy who often half stands and half sits, played jubilant chords, and we knew that the baby had been born and the mother would be all right."

Near the end of the volume Balliett concludes a piece on Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Fields with advice to the ubiquitous trumpeter and leader, to wit, to eschew the "adept mimicry, adept synthesis" that have so far characterized his compositional efforts and "go out into the jazz fields and listen to such contemporary voices as those of Kenny Barron and Roy Haynes and Tom Harrell, of Joe Lovano and Bill Charlap and Sean Smith, of Leon Parker and Brad Mehldau and Steve Wilson," who "have long since run with the past, and are now spreading their own singular organic beauties."

So put this volume by your reading chair and dip into it frequently, for Balliett can be read, and reread, for any number of reasons, among which are his erudition and perception, his polished language, and his talent for sheer entertainment.

W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.

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