Whitney Balliett’s Studio

Last week a man named Frank Baker from Raleigh came over to my office at the Center for Documentary Studies to see the bowels of the Jazz Loft Project.  My older brother Steve, a business associate of Frank’s, introduced us by email a few weeks ago.  Frank runs a family roofing business that goes back a hundred years.  He helped grow it into the third largest roofing company in the nation, an indication of good management and the burgeoning New South.  But he was here to talk about jazz and literature.

Frank got hooked on jazz one night in 1976 when he wandered into Bradley’s on University Place at 11th Street, NYC, and Tommy Flanagan was playing.  I told him Flanagan at Bradley’s might have ruined things.  You can’t do much better.  I later learned that Frank was a student of Phyllis Peacock, the legend of Raleigh’s Needham Broughton High School, who taught Anne Tyler, Armistead Maupin, and Reynolds Price.  He knew how to find the good stuff.

Steve was with us and so was Frank’s son-in-law Sean Thomas, and while the three of us were jabbering, Frank gazed at our floor-to-ceiling case of books, mostly jazz history, New York, and photography.  He pulled two off the shelf and raved.  They were by Whitney Balliett and Joseph Mitchell, two longtime New Yorker magazine writers, two of my beacons.

There’s a decent chance that Balliett would have been at Bradley’s listening to Flanagan that night in 1976 (Balliett published a long piece about Flanagan in 1978).  Balliett’s listing for the gig in the New Yorker could have been what sent Frank there.

Meanwhile, Mitchell was probably in his home on 10th Street three blocks away, having spent another day collecting broken doorknobs and jars, rusty kitchen utensils, and vials of dirt and other strange objects around the city, his wife, photographer Therese Mitchell, shaking her head bemused.

I’ve written about Mitchell before and will again.  I’m tracing the shared roots of Mitchell and Thelonious Monk in North Carolina’s coastal plains, and their paths to NYC fame, looking for overlaps, even if random (Mitchell’s apartment was just a few blocks from both the Vanguard and Five Spot).  I might even work on a Mitchell biography if a promising one in the works by Tom Kunkel doesn’t get done.

Balliett is one connection between Monk and Mitchell; he loved Monk and Mitchell was a key literary influence.  But with him I’m pondering something else.

I’d like to see everything Balliett wrote published in chronological order, 1954 to 2001.  Most of his work, some seven hundred pieces, is collected in three books; his long profiles of musicians in American Singers and American Musicians II, and his shorter reviews and reportage in Collected Works: a Journal of Jazz.  These books are wonderful, but something more dynamic happens when you read his work in sequence as it was originally published in the New Yorker, rather than forked out and reassembled by topic and format in these books.  When his seminal long portraits are blended with his shorter album reviews and reports from gigs, concerts, and festivals, what unfolds is a panoramic, novelistic chronicle of post-War America.  Everything reverberates and gains value.  Fifty or a hundred years from now this new publication would be the most important single document of twentieth century American jazz outside of the recorded sound.

When Balliett died in February 2007 I wrote something similar to the last two sentences of the previous paragraph on an invitation-only jazz history listserv that includes many of the top jazz scholars in the world.  I was blasted by a few.  One said my comments were “offensive.”  It didn’t help my cause, I learned later, that Balliett once wrote, “jazz scholars are nonpareil at unearthing irrelevancies.”  (I believe jazz scholars are pareil: a few are great, some good, some not as good, like any group of scholars).

What Balliett did better than anyone is write about everybody, not just the iconic albums and bandleaders and superstars.  He wrote about bass players and drummers and forgotten singers and lost piano players, plus festival impresarios, bar owners, and tap dancers.  He even wrote, movingly, about Zoot Sims’ widow Louise, who wasn’t a musician but who had an intimate view of a quintessential one.

To indicate the vital variety of Balliett’s contribution, let’s look at some numbers:

In 1960 Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler published the second edition of their remarkable Encyclopedia of Jazz.  It contained biographical entries for two thousand working musicians, including their home addresses.  It’s as good a group portrait of the heyday as we’ll ever have.  I went through the book recently and here’s how it breaks down by the individuals’ primary instruments:

327 pianists

230 trumpeters

206 drummers

180 bassists

179 tenor saxophonists

171 vocalists

136 trombonists

111 guitarists

106 composers

97 clarinetists

88 alto saxophonists

69 various (harmonica, accordion, banjo, etc.)

55 band leaders

33 baritone saxophonists

28 vibes

It makes sense that there would be more pianists.  It’s the only instrument you can get a gig playing by yourself.  Plus, before television many households had pianos – including middle and lower classes, rural and urban – or there was one in the neighborhood or at church.  But look who comes in third and fourth on the list, drummers and bassists.  Almost every combo has one of each.  Yet, like catchers in baseball, they are under-sung in the annals, unless they happen to be rare iconic bandleaders like Charles Mingus or Art Blakey (for catchers the ones who hit 300 home runs make the Hall of Fame, not champions like Jason Varitek or Jorge Posada).

One of the most (rightfully) acclaimed writers in jazz history has a seven-hundred page opus with seventy-nine chapters focusing on eighty-nine different musicians but only two bass players (Mingus and Charlie Haden) and two drummers (Blakey and Chick Webb).

Flipping through Balliett’s work, these are just a few of the bassists and drummers that jump out:  Big Sid Catlett, Joe Morello, Jo Jones, Sonny Greer, Freddie Moore, Davy Tough, Zutty Singleton, Elvin Jones, Connie Kay, Jimmy Blanton, Eddie Gomez, Michael Moore, and Percy Heath.

Joseph Mitchell once said that the least interesting people to interview were business leaders, society women, and successful authors.  These types were required to talk so much that their stories inevitably became canned.  Miles Davis is going to tell you the same stories over and over; he’ll be bored stiff; and the stories probably won’t be true.

Figures such as Jimmy Rowles, Errol Garner, Marie Marcus, and Pee Wee Russell were portrayed in Balliett’s work, and Art Farmer, Jess Stacy, Dorothy Donegan, Ellis Larkins, Mary Lou Williams, Gene Bertoncini, and Vic Dickinson; not to mention club owners like Barney Josephson, Max Gordon, and Bradley Cunningham, and tap dancers like Baby Laurence.  Balliett wrote well about icons like Ellington and Armstrong and Bird (the Mount Rushmore of Ken Burns’ 20-hour PBS series), but his writing on neglected leaders and sidemen (and more women than any other male writer that I know of) makes his work soar.

Nobody on staff at the New Yorker wrote sentences more beautifully than Balliett, which Adam Gopnik confirmed in his 2007 obituary in the magazine.  Even so, Balliett regularly represented his subjects in their own voices, with quotations running in blocks of 1000 words, describing more than just the latest gig or recording but their personal lives, parents and childhoods, favorite foods.  He didn’t pepper his subjects with questions, he sat and listened.

In 1971 Balliett wrote a piece on the Modern Jazz Quartet in which he offered a 500-word introduction followed by 10,500 words of revolving quotations from the four musicians, talking about everything from their rural Southern church and Cherokee backgrounds to the most sophisticated techniques in jazz, which the quartet exemplified.  It is the greatest portrait of a working band in the literature.

Balliett learned his technique from Mitchell, who published masterful profiles of underground characters with quotations sometimes running two-thirds of the piece, and from Lillian Ross, another New Yorker writer who did the same thing with actors and actresses.

To give you one example of this style, here is a quotation from Balliett’s 1963 piece on trumpeter Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams, a career sideman:

“I was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1910 – not 1908 like the history books say.  My mother was a church organist, and my father ran a gambling house along with a man named Son Coin.  When I was around three or four, my parents too me to a band concert in the park, and on the way home they asked me what did I hear.  I said, ‘cootie cootie cootie.’  It stuck.  I took up the drums when I was about five, and later, in the school band, I wanted to switch to trombone.  But my arms were too short to reach the lowest position on the slide, so the bandmaster told me, ‘You play the trumpet.’  I said I didn’t like trumpet, so he gave me a whooping, and I played the trumpet.  Louis Armstrong has always been my idol, and I saw him first one summer when the school band went up to Chicago. A little kid, I stood outside the fence of the Oriental Garden, I think it was, and listened to Louis in King Oliver’s band.  When I got back that night, I got a whooping for that.  I worked around Mobile with Holman’s jazz band and Johnny Pope’s band, and then Edmund Hall, who was with Eagle-Eye Shields’ band in Jacksonville, Florida, told Shields about me.  Shields wanted to hire me, and Hall got hold of my father to see if it was all right.  Well, Son Coin had relatives in Jacksonville, so my father said OK.”

This two hundred and fifty-two word quotation, rich in character and American history, goes on for another eight hundred words in the published piece.  Balliett did this week after week.  It’s a bygone era when this kind of work could get published in a high profile magazine.  “Where’s the writer’s voice?” a flabbergasted editor screeched when I tried it once.  This spring the New Yorker and the Oxford American – two of our very best magazines – published competing profiles of a fascinating, nomadic Chinese chef who currently roams the South making whatever strip mall dive he chooses to work for the best Chinese restaurant in the region.  There wasn’t a single quote from the chef in either article.  It’s all about the writer now.

Some contemporary commentators tend to portray Balliett as a conservative traditionalist.  This is false.  Just because he loved Pee Wee Russell and Red Allen doesn’t make him conservative.  He embraced Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, and Cecil Taylor, often earlier than anybody else.  In 1959 when Ornette Coleman scandalized the jazz world, including many former bebop pioneers, Balliett wrote, “Listen to Coleman; he is unique, he is new.”  A year later he wrote this passage:

At first hearing (Coleman) sounds inflexible, crude, and even brutish.  His tone appears thick-thumbed and heavy.  He plays insane and seemingly purposeless runs.  His intensity is apoplectic.  But once Coleman’s ground rules have been absorbed, the strange timbres and dervish rhythms become less imperious and even tend to point up the blueslike passages and snatches of often beautiful melody that occur more frequently than one had first thought.  More important, Coleman’s work is bound tightly together by a passion associated more with the Romantic composers than with jazz.  However, his music is not Lisztian; rather, it falls in that zone where compassion is levelheaded and sound of heart.

This passage is a lesson in paying attention.  It transcends music.  When you have this kind of poetic writing in sequences with the oral histories, it rises to the level of our best documentary novelists, many of whom, like Dickens, originally published in periodical serial.

I don’t agree with everything Balliett wrote.  He wasn’t crazy about Coltrane, for example, and he dismissed one of my favorite musicians, Roy Haynes, as a “champion chatterer” on drums.  Also, there are a couple of gaps in his record.  He didn’t cover the drug scene (the elephant in the room) and he never wrote about race except by implication of the skin color of his subjects (which some think is the best way).  Two writers who come close to Balliett’s approach and who broach the tricky topics of drugs and race are Nat Hentoff and A.B. Spellman.  But these two greats weren’t as prolific in writing about jazz, didn’t create the kaleidoscopic chronicle that Balliett did.

One of Balliett’s secrets, shared by Hentoff and Spellman, is he didn’t rely on the recorded music.  Thus, the people who populate his work are living, working human beings.  Later in his career Balliett wrote more about musicians who had passed away – Ellington, Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Sims, Ella Fitzgerald – and such writing, poetic as always, wasn’t what made him unique.  He bumped up against the conundrum all documentarians eventually must solve:  What happens when you become older than your subjects?  If you count Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen as documentarians, as I do, this could explain why Goodfellas and Husbands and Wives were the ends of their primes (Scorsese’s Oscar for The Departed was a career award, he should have won three by then). It also may explain why Joseph Mitchell went silent at age fifty-six; he cherished subjects older than him, then he became their age.  It may explain why Nat Hentoff moved on to politics.

At his peak in the 1960s and 70s Balliett published pieces in the New Yorker every other week on average.  One year he had pieces in all but two issues.  By the 1990’s, however, he and the magazine were fading apart.  He felt unappreciated by Tina Brown and, in an inexplicable oversight, David Remnick didn’t include any of his work in a collection of New Yorker profiles spanning the history of the magazine.  Perhaps William Shawn would have encouraged Balliett to apply his gift to another realm, theater or art or classical music (he increasingly loved the Met Opera Orchestra’s straight concerts).  It wasn’t a proper ending to an extraordinary career.

A new opus – the Complete Works of Whitney Balliett – is called for.  It would be 1500-2000 pages and two or three volumes.  It would be financially risky, probably requiring a benefactor to get published.  It would stand the test of time.

Sometime after Balliett died in 2007 his widow, the artist Nancy Balliett, asked her sister’s husband, photographer Robert E. Klurfield, to come over to the East Side apartment she shared with Whitney and make a few pictures of his writing studio.  One of the resulting images is here.

Photograph by Robert E. Klurfield

Photograph by Robert E. Klurfield

-Sam Stephenson

Postscript:  The framer of Nancy Balliett’s paintings is David Rothman, whose father, collage artist and frame maker, Henry Rothman, employed original 821 Sixth Avenue jazz loft resident, painter David X. Young, in his shop around the corner.  David Rothman lived in 821 Sixth Avenue in the 1970s after W. Eugene Smith was evicted.  When Rothman attended the opening of the Jazz Loft exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in February he saw film footage of Smith working in the loft and he told me he recognized the kerosene space heater he inherited from Smith.  New York City is a wonderfully small world.


  1. Adam Gopnik Said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    I am so happy to see this page. No one has ever written more beautifully about anything than Whitney did about his music and musicians. I learned more about writing from him than any young editor could hope to learn from a writer, and I worry often that his perfect sentences will be overlooked. Every time his writing is praised, a standard is preserved.

  2. Jon Foley Said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    One night in the 1960s, I was hanging out at the Half Note – for my money, New York’s best jazz club ever. I was there to hear Clark Terry’s big band. As he was making a few announcements prior to the second set, he acknowledged the presence in the audience of a celebrity, and he introduced him – Whitney Balliett. He looked exactly as I always had imagined him – gray hair, glasses, tweed jacket, and I think even a bow tie. He stood up, shyly acknowledged the applause and sat down. In spite of the stars in the band – it featured players such as Phil Woods, Al Cohn and Ron Carter – I thought to myself, Now I’m in the presence of greatness.
    Whitney Balliett was, in my opinion, the greatest jazz writer who ever lived, and who ever will live. Anyone who deprives themself of the pleasure of reading his work is missing something very special.
    I’ve always liked this quote from the back of American Musicians II, by a reviewer from the LA Times Book Review: “Few people can write as well about anything as Balliett writes about jazz.”

  3. Eric Whittington Said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    Beautiful piece, Sam– and a beautiful subject. It’ll be a boon to us all if you can inspire someone to underwrite this modest project– which I don’t doubt you can. It’s a great path you’ve been strolling down since walking into that camera shop in Raleigh a dozen years ago… Thanks.

  4. Michael Steinman Said,

    June 26, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    How gratifying it is to see WB admired with such conviction and understanding! In the spirit of adding to the small chorus of voices, here’s something I wrote about him in 2008 — http://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/giving-thanks-to-whitney-balliett/. He was also most generous in person — the times we got to talk about Sid Catlett and our heroes stay in my memory.
    By coincidence, I just finished reading, savoring, and admiring THE JAZZ LOFT PROJECT — what a beautiful book! I haven’t paid a visit to the archives (but hope to): until then, I will strive for the ideal multi-media environment: looking at Smith’s pictures while playing the JAZZ LOFT CDs. It’s as close to time-travel as I expect to reach. Thanks for all your endeavors! (I’ve added this blog to my JAZZ LIVES blogroll.)

  5. Tom Reney Said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Thanks for this lovely tribute to Whitney Balliett, whose every word I’ve read and re-read over the past 40 years. I began reading Whitney when I was in my teens, and I have him to thank for fostering my appreciation for the entirety of jazz, not only giants ranging from Jelly Roll to Ornette, but the workaday players of lesser and sometimes only local renown. Balliett was also foremost among the guides who’ve kept me from getting too exclusive or too hip, qualities that would have been detrimental to my career as a jazz radio host for the NPR affiliate WFCR in Amherst, Mass. http://www.wfcr.org/programs/jazz.php

    Perhaps you’re aware of the terrible irony that occurred when David Remnick, who effectively ended Whitney’s days as a writer for The New Yorker, nonetheless eulogized him in the obituary that Newsday published.

    An edition of the kind you describe would be most welcome, but meanwhile let’s be grateful that so much of Whitney’s work has been anthologized. I understand he grew despondent in his final years that he’d be forgotten as a writer, but I’m confident that he’ll be read for as long as the music that animated him endures.

  6. admin Said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Tom, thanks for the note. We’ll definitely check out your radio show right away. Thanks for the link.

    I’m not aware of the ins and outs of Balliett’s last decade at the New Yorker. I do know that his output declined under Tina Brown. I have a lot of respect for David Remnick’s work. But I don’t understand why Balliett was missing from his collection of New Yorker profiles. Balliett was one of the standard bearers for an art that is disappearing in today’s memoir age, when it’s all about the narrator. Even in radio documentaries you find a preponderance of narrative voices setting up short, heavily edited clips from the subjects (WNYC’s Jazz Loft Project radio producer Sara Fishko is a tremendous exception. She once produced a brilliant one-hour piece on pianist Henry Butler in which her voice is almost never heard).

  7. Hal Espen Said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    Thanks so such for remembering and praising Whitney Balliett’s writing. Since almost everything he wrote appeared in The New Yorker, it’s possible to follow his complete works via The New Yorker’s complete archive on DVD. I think you have to be careful not to smooth over WB’s spikiness, difficulty, and antiquarian tendencies; coming to his work from a background of orthodox jazz history, you find yourself confronting a sensibility and a landscape of values at dramatics odds with the conventional jazz pieties and pantheons. But he’s worth the effort. I really loved that man.

  8. admin Said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    Thanks, Hal. I agree with your point about him being at odds with the conventional jazz pantheons. In the original version of my piece on this site I had a paragraph about his views on hard bop (that it was boring, formulaic, without the overall conception of a Monk or Mingus or Ornette, and it was adorned with cool album covers which assured a certain amount of sales at the time) but I took it out because it was controversial and complicated, worthy of a full post on its own.

    I’m so glad the New Yorker archives are all available. I have the DVD’s. I find them really difficult to navigate and read, and their online version is worse. But it’s still a tremendous service for the magazine to make these invaluable resources available to us. Balliett’s work deserves to be available in one volume or one set. It would do wonders for his appreciation, his legacy, in the same manner the Cheever and Mitchell collections did for those two great writers.

  9. Frederick Turner Said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I was fortunate to get to know Whitney Balliett & his wonderful wife Nancy around
    2000. What talent packed into one marriage! Whitney was the most genuinely
    modest writer I’ve ever known. But he knew perfectly well just how good he was—wch might explain that modesty. After all, if you know you are the best who
    ever lived, what wld be the point of endlessly saying so?