“Brilliant superficiality”: How does a reader react to so fruitful an oxymoron? One bounces from noun to modifier, weighing the emphasis. “Brilliant” is, presumably, an incontestably good thing, always preferable to “dull.” Can the same be said of “superficiality”? And who might be a writer we judge “brilliantly superficial”? Ronald Firbank? It’s a rare designation, in this case used by Philip Larkin to describe a writer he elsewhere praises unambiguously, Whitney Balliett, the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker. Three of Larkin’s reviews of Balliett’s books are included in Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-1984 (eds. Richard Palmer and John White, Continuum, 2004).
More than twenty year ago, when I was writing about jazz for a newspaper in upstate New York, I was a shameless Balliett impersonator. Pick up his books for the jazz, I told newspaper colleagues, but stick around for the prose. Balliett ably juggled music and musicians. Of Thelonious Monk as composer/improviser he wrote: “His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.” Here is Balliett on one of his heroes, the drummer Big Sid Catlett: “Everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist, his big feet, and the columnar neck.” And here on another drummer, Gene Krupa: “When he played, his hair fell over his eyes; he chewed gum; he hunched over his drums or reared back, his arms straight in the air, like a politician at a rally; he sweated; in his climactic moments he converted his arms and hands and drumsticks into sculpted blurs.” Balliett is not for stolidly musicological readers, though he has much to teach them. You need not be a seasoned jazz listener, any more than gluttony is a prerequisite for reading A.J. Liebling (another New Yorker writer whose style I abjectly cribbed).
“Brilliant superficiality” is from Larkin’s review of Balliett’s 1968 collection Such Sweet Thunder (a title borrowed from the name of Duke Ellington’s 1957 album). Citing the Krupa passage, Larkin writes: “The prose, it will be noticed, is literate without being literary” – a fine distinction that suggests artfulness without pretentiousness. Larkin goes on to observe that Balliett’s “chief characteristic, as a critic [as opposed to writer], is that he has virtually no characteristics.” Not quite true, but it is inarguable that Balliett was temperamentally not a caviler but a celebrator. Larkin writes:
“This is probably the only charge that can be levelled against him: he has no blind spots. As Arnold Bennett said of Eddie Marsh, he’s a miserable fellow, he enjoys everything. . . . one looks almost in vain for a barbed remark, much less for a hatred as vehement as one of his many delights.”
Balliett, in other words, was not Larkin. But Balliett’s job title is “jazz writer” (no one calls Liebling a “boxing critic”). He never stopped judging the quality of performances, but always in a larger context. In an interview shortly before his death in 2007, Balliett said: “I think the role of any critic is, first, to explain or describe what it is that he is criticizing, and then make his evaluation.” Larkin’s critical strategy was largely the reverse of Balliett’s. In a review of Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975-1980, written for The American Scholar in 1982, Larkin repeats the Arnold Bennett/Eddie Marsh remark and writes:"
“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."
In you have a copy of Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2001), look at the back cover and you’ll notice that Larkin posthumously supplied Balliett with a blurb: “Balliett is a master of language.”