Saturday, October 13, 2007

`Cheerful, Hardy, Ingenious'

Self-assessments are always dubious but I conclude that no writer has influenced me so significantly, especially when I write about books and music, as the late jazz critic Whitney Balliett. In today’s climate, “critic” is misleading, suggesting, as it does, wet blankets and jargon. I don’t think of myself as a critic – more as an essayist whose subject is the intersection of books and life -- and I don’t go to Balliett primarily for his critical assessments, though they are almost invariably reliable. The best reason for reading Balliett is the joy of his prose and the way he impressionistically yet with great detail renders the lives of musicians and their music. I have been rereading Alec Wilder and His Friends (1974), a collection of profiles from The New Yorker of the composer and his informal circle, a group Balliett (after E.M. Forster) calls a “small aristocracy.” As always, Balliett is generous with quotations from his subjects, who are often world-class talkers. The quotes sometimes go on for pages and are never too long. Referring to his method, he writes in the introduction:

“Different technical approaches, governed by the situation and subject, have been used in the book. In all cases, though, the subjects’ words and voices rightly carry their narratives. There is no New Journalism; Boswell invented modern literary reporting, and we have all been improvising on him ever since.”

So far, that’s Forster and Boswell, and off the top of my head I can remember Balliett likening a Bill Evans performance to Henry James, and Art Pepper’s oral autobiography to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor. There’s nothing show-offy about Balliett’s approach. He was a deeply literate writer, never afflicted with snobbery or reverse-snobbery, for whom the only critical standard that counted was excellence. It had nothing to do with high culture or low culture, only good culture. The first piece in the collection is “The Key of D is a Daffodil Yellow,” a profile of Marian McPartland. Here’s a sample, which characteristically opens with a parenthetical phrase:

“(Her sheer inventiveness is frightening; her ceaseless ideas sometimes trample one another.) Her slow ballads suggest rain forests. The chords are massed and dark and overhanging, the harmonies thick and new and almost impenetrable. And her slow blues are much the same: the tremolos are mountainous, the arpeggios cascades, the blue notes heavy and keening. But her slow blues also have a singular Celtic bagpipe quality. Her foliage is thinner at faster tempos. There are pauses between the stunning, whipping single-note melodic lines, and her chords, often played off beat, are used as recharging way stations. Her notes have room to breathe, and her chordal passages are copses rather than jungles.”

In the spring of 1998, I spent more than an hour with McPartland, while her piano was being tuned, in a jazz club in upstate New York, where she would perform later that evening. I found her intelligent, imperious and in a mood to celebrate Balliett. When I mentioned I had just reread his profile of her, she said, “It’s still amazing. He saw things I never saw, and heard things I never heard, and when I read it I knew he was right. I envy him as a writer.”

Balliett also profiles the late Ruby Braff, whom he calls “the most intense, inventive, and eloquent trumpeter/cornetist we have,” adding, “This is not to displace [Bobby] Hackett, whom Braff admires enormously; Hackett’s beauties are mathematical and reflective. He is a Pope, and Braff a Blake.”

A computer scientist whose office is down the hall from mine is the nephew of Braff, who died in 2003. Last year, I loaned him a copy of Alec Wilder and His Friends after learning of their relation. He returned it a few days later and said, “Yeah, he captured Ruby, all right. Except he forgot to mention he was an asshole.”

Now Balliett is dead and so are most of the people he writes about in Alec Wilder and His Friends. The survivors are McPartland (now 89), Tony Bennett (81) and Bob Elliott (84) of the great comedy team Bob and Ray. Probably the least-known figure in the collection is Marie Marcus, a pianist and protégé of Fats Waller. She died in 2003 at the age of 89. Balliett begins his profile of Marcus, “In the Wilderness,” with a beautiful, extended paean to small-time jazz musicians, people who never make it big, perhaps never record, whose followings end at the town limits. I’ve known many of them, often superb players, and Balliett does them great honor:

“The number of jazz musicians in this country who piece out their lives in the shadows and shoals of show business has always been surprising. They play in roadhouses and motel lounges. They play in country inns and small hotels. They appear in seafood restaurants in ocean resorts and in steak houses in suburban shopping centers. They play in band shells on yellow summer evenings. They sit in, gloriously, with famous bands on one-night stands when the third trumpeter fails to show. They play wedding receptions and country-club dances and bar mitzvahs, and they turn up at intense Saturday night parties given by small-town businessmen who clap them on the back and request `Ain’t She Sweet,’ and then sing along. Occasionally, they venture into big cities and appear for a week in obscure nightclubs. But more often they take almost permanent gigs in South Orange and Rochester and Albany. There is a spate of reasons for their perennial ghostliness: The spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak; their talents, though sure, are small; they may be bound by domineering spouses or ailing mothers; they may abhor traveling; they may be among those rare performers who are sated by the enthusiasms of a small house in a Syracuse bar on a February night. Whatever the reasons, these musicians form a heroic legion. They work long hours in seedy and/or pretentious places for minimum money. They make sporadic recordings on unknown labels. They play for benefits but are refused loans at the bank. They pass their lives pumping up their egos. Some of them sink into sadness and bitterness and dissolution, but by and large they remain a cheerful, hardy, ingenious group who subsist by charitably keeping the music alive in Danville and Worcester and Ish Peming.”

The celebratory yet elegiac tone sustained throughout this passage is ubiquitous in Balliett’s work, like blue notes and a minor key. He died in February but his books, to our good fortune, remain “cheerful, hardy, ingenious.”


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