Wednesday, October 29, 2014

`Prose and Perception'

When a writer we admire takes on the work of another we comparably admire, it’s like introducing our dearest old friends. Our hopes are elevated, but there are risks. What if one disapproves of the other? Must we choose sides? Does one turn Solomonic and brandish a sword? What are the ethics of neutrality? Here is Philip Larkin on Whitney Balliett: “He will visit a player, tape what he says, and carefully interweave large stretches of this vernacular with his own studied narrative, achieving what in the trade is called a profile but is really a Van Dyck portrait.” Larkin wisely begins by focusing on what Balliett, long-time jazz writer for The New Yorker, does best: assemble portraits of musicians generously laced with the players’ own talk. Balliett’s prose is elegant and impressionistic, free of hipster posturing. When woven through with the musicians’ often salty conversation, the high-and-low effect is richly Elizabethan. 

Less than four years before his death and more than a decade after he published All What Jazz, Larkin reviewed Balliett’s Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975-1980 in the spring 1982 issue of The American Scholar, then edited by Joseph Epstein. Larkin writes: “The fascination of a Balliett collection lies in watching his hypersensitive technique (a combination of Leica and lapel mike) receive and transmit so many various musical experiences.” Not that Larkin is uncritical of Balliett. He suggests that the jazz writer’s painterly prose may compromise his critical chops: 

“And indeed there comes a point when Balliett’s role as pure sensibility, proposing nothing and imposing nothing, starts to drag a little. None of the complimentary remarks about Balliett and his other books reproduced on the jacket of this one uses the word `critic,’ and this may well be significant. For a critic, after all, is a man who likes some things and dislikes others, and finds reasons for doing so and for trying to persuade other people to do so. This is altogether alien to Balliett’s purpose. He wishes, or so it seems, to transmit, to reproduce, and so to preserve, knowing that anyone who writes down what he sees and hears for twenty-five years will in spite of himself become a historian of different, and perhaps rarer, quality than the term usually implies.” 

Larkin goes on to cite some of Balliett’s harsher critical judgments, including an amusing précis of Sarah Vaughan’s singing – “no more intelligible than moos.” Balliett’s gifts were unorthodox, combining a documentary instinct for capturing personality with a poetic flair. His first profile, “Even His Feet Look Sad,” devoted to the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, appeared in The New Yorker in 1962. Here he is on Russell’s appearance: 

“A tall, close packed, slightly bent man, Russell had a wry, wandering face, dominated by a generous nose. The general arrangement of his eyes and eyebrows was mansard, and he had a brush moustache and a full chin. A heavy trellis of wrinkles held his features in place. His grey-black hair was combed absolutely flat.” 

And here is Balliett on Russell’s playing: 

“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. By this time his first chorus is over, and one has the impression of having just passed through a crowd of jostling, whispering people.” 

You can see why this would irk musicologists and please readers. Balliett’s work in the profile form is collected in American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz (1996) and American Singers: Twenty-seven Portraits in Song (1988). Much of the rest can be found in Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2000). Larkin asks at the conclusion of his review: 

“Can the answer be that as long as any jazz player is being filtered through the transcendence of Balliett’s prose and perception, he is as good as any of his predecessors?” 

And there’s a bonus: On the bottom of page 289 in The American Scholar, in the middle of Larkin’s review, is an ad for the Penguin paperback edition of Joseph Epstein’s Ambition: The Secret Passion – an unrepeatable bargain at $4.95. According to the blurb from Forbes: “Should be must reading in executive suites as well as college classrooms.”

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