Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, 1986

Among the dead of 2007 is Whitney Balliett, a longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker. When I read Adam Gopnik's obituary of Balliett, I remembered that I knew one of his sons, Jamie, at Hampshire College. Jackie Mason described the senior Balliett as "the Waspiest guy I ever met," and I'd say the same for Jamie, in the best sense. Born into privilege -- his wedding would make the NYTimes "Vows" column -- he responded to the world with quiet generosity and gentle curiousity. I don't think I realized before our fourth year of college -- we weren't friends, just passing acquaintances -- that through his father Jamie knew many, if not most, of the day's jazz giants, that as a boy he'd sat in on drums with musicians I was just learning in college to revere.

My reverence, though, was shallow -- I've never much felt jazz. I understand why the best of it is amazing, but "understanding" is not the stuff of a real response to music, and so my interests went elsewhere. Still, when I heard that Whitney Balliett had died, I decided to track down one of his collections. I could have bought it on Amazon, but I wanted to find it in a bookstore. That proved difficult, and soon I forgot about it.

Then I read in my alumni magazine that Jamie was very ill. That day, I walked into a used bookstore in Rochester, NY, and without looking for it found American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, by Jamie's father. At first I was disappointed -- the writing seemed hagiographic, too genteel, even, at times, trivial. Balliett doesn't begin his pieces as a critic but as a broad-minded fan, presenting facts he's learned about his heroes and long quotes from other sources. But that's all part of his polite style. When he finally comes to the music, he's astonishing. Here's a passage about trombonist Jack "Big T" Teargarden I liked so much I typed it out to get a better sense of Balliett's observational power -- unpretentious, precise, and driven by delight. I'm posting it in memory of a writer I've only just discovered and in the hope that his son's health returns.
Teargarden had several different tones: a light, nasal one; a gruff, heavy one; and a weary, hoarse one -- a twilight tone he used for slow blues, and for ballas that moved him. He had a nearly faultless technique, yet it never called attention to itself. Opposites were compressed shrewdly in his style. Long notes were balanced by triplets, double-time spurts by laconic legato musings, busyness by silence, legitimate notes by blue notes, moans by roars. Teargarden developed a set of master solos for his bread-and-butter tunes -- the tunes that his listeners expected and that he must have played thousans of times: "Basin Street Blues," "A Hundred Years from Today," "Beale St. Blues," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "St. James Infirmary," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "After You're Gone." Each time, though, he would make generous and surprising changes -- adding a decorative triplet, a dying blue note, a soaring glissando -- and his listeners would be buoyed again. Sometimes he sank into his low register at the start of a slow blues solo and rose into his high register at its end. Like his friend and admirer Bobby Hackett, he stayed in the bourgeois register of his horn, cultivating his lyricism, his tones, his sense of order and logic. Teargarded was a good jazz singer. His singing, a distillation of his playing, formed a kind of aureole around it. He had a light baritone, which moved easily behind the beat. The rare consonants he used sounded like vowels, and his vowels were all pureed. His vocals were lullabies -- lay-me-down-to-sleep patches of sound.