Monday, January 16, 2023

'The Expressive Virtuosity of a Master Writer'

A friend in Washington, D.C. last week visited that city’s Second Story Books and found a large collection of volumes about jazz for sale. They came from the library of the jazz writer W. Royal Stokes, who died in 2021. “Is there any particular jazz book you've been wanting to read?” my friend wrote, and I replied without having to think about it, “Whitney Balliett,” the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker who has been one of the two or three most lasting influences on my writing and thinking. On Saturday a box holding three books arrived in the mail: 

The Otis Ferguson Reader (eds. Dorothy Chamberlain and Robert Wilson, December Press, 1982)


Balliett’s American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1986)


Balliett’s Barney, Bradley, and Max: 16 Portraits in Jazz (Oxford, 1989)


Ferguson (1907-43) is best known as a movie critic. See The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, published in 1971. He wrote about movies and jazz as a staff writer for The New Republic beginning in 1935. The Reader collects Ferguson’s writings on jazz, film, radio, theater and other subjects. After Pearl Harbor, Ferguson joined the Merchant Marine. On September 14, 1943, he was killed when a German bomb exploded on his ship anchored in the Gulf of Salerno. Included in the Reader is a previously unpublished piece titled “Louis Armstrong and ‘Shine’”:


“Art is most poorly served by those who, conscious that they have to make a living by talking about it, talk always with a dogmatic but uneasy impulse for what there is that could be talked. This little notice is not a talking-about; it is merely a transcription of the (personal) fact that I heard Louis Armstrong’s ‘Shine’ and was instantly moved by it, into a mixture of sadness, pride, and consciousness of other people outside myself; that I have heard it since a thousand times; and that it is still true and good, moving a person to sadness, pride, etc.”


The first essay collected in Barney, Bradley, and Max is “Fan,” devoted to Jean Bach. In 1958, the photographer Art Kane gathered fifty-seven jazz musicians, and took their group portrait, “A Great Day in Harlem,” for Esquire. The photo captures a narrow sliver of time when prominent musicians from several generations were still working. Seven months later, for instance, Lester Young was dead. In 1994, Bach released a documentary about the photo, also titled A Great Day in Harlem. Balliett describes Bach as a “pretty, witty, quick, indefatigable woman,” and writes:


“She is a Boswell, for, not widely known herself, she spends much of her time cosseting and studying the great and near-great, the famous and almost famous. She does this in two ways, both of which Boswell would have admired, for each smooths egos and stays vanity . . .”


Be sure to read Ted Gioia’s essay on Balliett, “The True Poet of Jazz”: “He retained the enthusiasm of a fan, but it was married to the expressive virtuosity of a master writer who could extract from his typewriter something akin to what others drew from their saxophones and trumpets. It was almost as if he were a jazz musician himself, but one who wrote essays for The New Yorker instead of soloing over ‘I Got Rhythm’ chords.”


Harmon said...

Ted Gioia has a Substack called the Honest Broker which I follow and is well worth the time.

Baceseras said...

I lost my copy of the Otis Ferguson in a house move years ago and should replace it. He is a most companionable critic. Look and see if there's a review of The Captain Hates the Sea: unless I'm mistaken, it was Ferguson who alerted me to this movie, which has become a favorite of mine. You've probably heard the story how the silent film star John Gilbert left the pictures after sound came in because his voice recorded squeakily unsuitable. Well, in Captain his voice is just fine; the old story was just an excuse. Maybe Gilbert, having aged past his young romantic lead in roles (with Garbo and other beauties for co-stars), didn't want to make a spectacle of his further aging. If that's so and if it is vanity, I wouldn't charge it as a fault. Anyway, playing on the young side of middle age in Captain Hates the Sea, he's still a formidable actor, and shows a nice comic touch. His role here is a writer who takes a sea cruise to escape the distractions -- night clubbing, and Hollywood quick-work for easy money -- that keep him from writing the long-promised great novel. Of course he gets involved with the other passengers and finds shipboard life just as distracting. Victor McLaglen's essential hamminess beams forth wonderfully as an ex-cop -- "I'm a private agency now," he says, sticking out his chest which might as well have "Flatfoot" printed on it in big letters. Many plots swirl around. The Captain, who has good reason to hate the sea, is Walter Connolly in keen peeve. The film reminds us how long was the era (beginning with the Edwardians) of revulsion against Victorian solemnity and its masculine trademark massive beards. (The cat-call "Beaver!" was the '30s more-than-equivalent of "Okay, Boomer.")

Lewis Milestone, seems to me, directed comedy better than his more well known serious "prestige" classics (Mutiny on the Bounty etc.). Not that those weren't good, but his comedies have a surprising inventiveness that never tires. The Captain Hates the Sea even manages some emotional clenchers, unsentimental and serious; they don't clash with the comedy, they harmonize. It could stand as a model of comic form and style for filmmakers in our time; how I wish they'd take it to heart.