My friend Fran Manushkin, a children’s book author living in New York City, made my morning when she passed along a link to one of the blogs maintained by Sam Stephenson, director of the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Don’t let the academic affiliation scare you away. Stephenson is obviously a bright, enthusiastic fellow with excellent taste in writing and music. Among the hobby-horses he rides are Whitney Balliett, Joseph Mitchell and Thelonious Monk – heroes all. He also possesses good common sense. Read this from a recent post on his personal blog:
“Balliett was one of the all-time great serial writers. How many MFA graduates would become great if they had regular serial outlets with hundreds of thousands of readers? We’ll never know, at least not for now. There’s nothing stopping any of us from churning out new writing on a weekly basis. But the days when it could be done on a regular paycheck, like Balliett, seem to be gone. Maybe that’s good in some ways. The writers who have something to say will find a way to say it. But I’d choose to be assured of a paycheck if I could.”
Balliett, of course, had a real and important subject, one he loved and understood like a scholar but without a scholar’s dry impersonality – namely, jazz -- and that gave him an advantage over most MFA graduates. For almost half a century, he covered his beat better than anyone and turned himself into one of the foremost American prose stylists, along with Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, his friends and teachers at The New Yorker. In the prefatory note to my favorite among all his books, Alec Wilder and His Friends (1974), Balliett writes:
“There is no New Journalism; Boswell invented modern literary reporting, and we have all been improvising on him ever since.”
On the Jazz Loft Project blog, Stephenson writes:
“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.”
If the Library of America can find room for H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick, surely they can wedge in two or three volumes of Balliett. Much of his work has never been collected in book form. I recall several reviews about a decade ago in The New York Review of Books – of God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church by Caroline Fraser and Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens – and even some scattered poems.
Thanks to Fran I’ve also picked up a copy of Stephson’s most recent book, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue 1957-1965 (2009). Fran adds in her e-mail: “His [Balliett’s] daughter, Blue, is a kids' novelist and I saw her signing her new book at the librarians' convention in D.C. a few days ago. I guess the name `Blue’ was good for her!”