It was Whitney Balliett who in 1999 finally moved me to read Guard of Honor (1948) by James Gould Cozzens, a novelist I had been told for most of my reading life was fatally middlebrow, middle-class and reactionary. Perhaps I had reached the proper age (forty-seven) to appreciate the greatest of all World War II novels (though set stateside), or maybe I had grown sufficiently confident to no longer swallow pre-digested, pre-approved opinions, and to at last trust my own judgment. One of Balliett’s lessons is that there is no progress in art and later is not necessarily better. No one has any business being arrogant about the past. Tradition keeps us humble. Modern Library had just reissued Guard of Honor and Balliett was reviewing it for The New York Review of Books. But more than forty years earlier, in 1957, he had reviewed Cozzens’ By Love Possessed for the Saturday Review. The odious Dwight McDonald, a flighty follower of fashion, famously demolished the novel (and Cozzens’ career) in Commentary, but Balliett’s review is a model of sanity:
“Cozzens, eschewing – indeed, even countering – any influence from his contemporaries, has stubbornly and ingeniously resurrected and remodeled the nineteenth-century moral novel.”
What writer of fiction wouldn’t wish to sustain the legacy of George Eliot, Tolstoy and Henry James? Donald Bathelme? The lesson was clear to this writer: Trust your judgment and trust time. I had been reading Balliett on jazz for decades, and should have known better. The critic who introduced me to Pee Wee Russell and Warne Marsh ought to be listened to when the subject was books. In a 2001 interview, Balliett voiced another dissenting opinion: “The real non-musical heroes came along later: Edmund Wilson, Joe Liebling, James Gould Cozzens, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Pritchett.” I can quibble with Wilson and especially with Salinger but Balliett’s taste bucks critical consensus.
Wednesday, damn it, was the ninth anniversary of Whitney Balliett’s death at age eighty. With Liebling, he is the writer I studied most seriously when it came to the nuts and bolts of sentences. I love his work but I also learn from it. Twenty years ago, when one of my jobs was writing about jazz for a newspaper in upstate New York, I tried not to write pastiches of Balliett’s prose. I got to meet and write about musicians Balliett had already profiled – Dave McKenna, Marion McPartland, Elvin Jones – and forced myself not to reread him or echo his words. Sometimes I succumbed not to anxiety of influence but seduction by influence. I knew his rhythms and could reproduce them so well I might have been arrested for counterfeiting.
Balliett’s first extended profile of a jazz musician was of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. This is from “Even His Feet Look Sad” (1962): “No jazz musician has ever played with the same daring and nakedness and intuition. His solos didn't always arrive at their original destination. He took wild improvisational chances and when he found himself above the abyss, he simply turned in another direction, invariably hitting firm ground.”