Synopses & Reviews
Jazz critic for The New Yorker
since 1957 and the author of some fifteen books, Whitney Balliett has spent a lifetime listening to and writing about jazz. "All first-rate criticism," he once wrote in a review, "first defines what we are confronting." He could as easily have been describing his own work. For nearly half a century, Balliett has been telling us, in his widely acclaimed pitch-perfect prose, what we are confronting when we listen to America's greatest—and perhaps only original—musical form.
Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001 is a monumental achievement, capturing the full range and register of the jazz scene, from the very first Newport Jazz Festival to recent performances (in clubs and on CDs) by a rising generation of musicians. Here are definitive portraits of such major figures as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Django Reinhardt, Martha Raye, Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Art Tatum, Bessie Smith, and Earl Hines—a list that barely scratches the surface. Generations of readers have learned to listen to the music with Balliett's graceful guidance. For five decades he has captured those moments during which jazz history is made.
Though Balliett's knowledge is an encyclopedic treasure, he has always written as if he were listening for the first time. Since its beginnings in New Orleans at the turn of the century, jazz has been restlessly and relentlessly evolving. This is an art form based on improvising, experimenting, shapeshifting—a constant work in progress of sounds and tonal shades, from swing and Dixieland, through boogie-woogie, bebop, and hard bop, to the "new thing," free jazz, abstract jazz, and atonal jazz. Yet, in all its forms, the music is forever sustained by what Balliett calls a "secret emotional center," an "aural elixir" that "reveals itself when an improvised phrase or an entire solo or even a complete number catches you by surprise." Balliett's celebrated essays invariably capture the so-called "sound of surprise"—and then share this sound with general readers, music students, jazz lovers, and popular American culture buffs everywhere. As The Los Angeles Times Book Review has observed, "Few people can write as well about anything as Balliett writes about jazz."
"One of the most stylishly graceful writers on the subject of jazz is Whitney Balliett, the critic for the New Yorker, and so it's fitting that a collection of his work has just landed in bookstores." (Martin Arnold, The New York Times)
"Balliett is one of those rare critics whose prose can be as much a work of art as what they write about."—The New York Times
"Studied, sparkling descriptions [that] bubble over with the qualities that make Mr. Balliett the most important chronicler of jazz ever—his ear for intense detail, his knack for rendering the mood of a performance, his love for the characters behind the music."—Dallas Morning News
"Balliett is the master mandarin stylist of all jazz critics, perhaps even of all critics . . . Savor this book for Balliett's elegant, even Ellingtonian-like verbal riffs filled with the sound of surprise."—The Hartford Courant
"This wonderful collection effortlessly teaches us the history of jazz and demonstrates again that Whitney Balliett is, like Updike and Nabokov, a miraculous writer, one who describes the indescribable."—William Whitworth, editor emeritus, The Atlantic Monthly
"Duke Ellington would say of a very few musicians that they were beyond category. Among those of us who write about jazz, so is Whitney Balliett."—Nat Hentoff
"Collected Works stands alongside Gary Giddins's similar book, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, as an invaluably cogent and forthright, self-assuredly individualistic history of jazz."—David Hajdu, The New York Review of Books
"Not only does Whitney Balliett know and love jazz, but he also possesses the poetic genius to champion it, riffing on language with all the fluency of the musicians whose praises he sings."—San Francisco Chronicle
"Whitney Balliett's words are magic. His descriptions of the music and musicians are very affecting and his love for jazz shines through with every elegant phrase."—Marian McPartland
"Balliett is a master of language."—Philip Larkin
"I am not really generous enough to tell you what I really think about how good you are. Let's say I'm flabbergasted. And that I think you are extremely important."—Harold Brodkey
A lifetime of writing from the dean of jazz writers--who has covered the major artists, recordings, and performances for "The New Yorker" for more than 40 years--this volume is the result of Balliett's lifelong love affair with the only music that is considered truly American.
About the Author
is jazz critic for The New Yorker
. He is married to the painter Nancy Balliett. They live in New York City.