The best jazz writing, like the best jazz playing, has as much to do with the grace of individual style as with the extent of the writer's knowledge. Whitney Balliett, jazz critic at The New Yorker for almost a quarter of a century, is the Coleman Hawkins of the genre, and his third collection of pieces, "Night Creature," is typically enthralling. Balliett, who writes with the same rich rhapsodic insistence, bristling passion and spiritual integrity that Hawkins brought to the tenor saxophone, is the most lyrical writer jazz has had.
Like its predecessor, "New York Notes," "Night Creature" is fashioned as a diary, reworked or expanded from Balliett's original New Yorker articles. Writing about the people and the music that have moved him, Balliett chronicles the expansiveness of jazz, tempering a festive empathy with a sense of proportion and an insistence on the continuity of the jazz tradition. "Revolutions aren't hatched in vacuums," he observes at one point about the avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. "One hears the methods and voices of Sun Ra and be-bop and hard bop, which many of the older AACM members grew up with, and the receding sounds of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller."
Writing about Keith Jarrett, Balliett wryly notes that "in one passage, the strings went into crescendo seesaw passage while Jarrett, a figure of ecstasy who often half stands and half sits, played jubilant chords, and we knew that the baby had been born and the mother was all right."
"Night Creature" is part biography, part criticism and all passionate reporting. Though Balliett is most enamored of music rooted before the twin debilitators of commercialism and "outside jazz" in the '70s, he meets the innovators of the avant-garde honestly, impishly bursting bubbles by tracing their apparent advances and iconoclasm to often obscure elements of the tradition.
His portraits of older players like Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy McPartland, Pee Wee Russell and Mary Lou Williams chronicle not only the durability of jazz but its cyclical resurgence and resolution. When he writes about brilliant and underappreciated players, he makes you understand the nature of their virtuosity and the reasons for their neglect. When he provokes reminiscences or evaluations from the musicians themselves, they are invariably enlightening.
Best of all, Balliett humanizes not only the performers but their music. It's the rare writer who can make readers see his characters; it's the thoroughly unique writer who can make the sounds of music ring resoundingly from the page. Balliett eloquently evokes the jazz life; listening to Milt Jackson, he says, is "an exstatic experience." The same is true of reading "Night Creature."
Gary Giddins has been a critic at the Village Voice since 1973; "Riding on a Blue Note" collects and reworks essays from that magazine. Giddins is like Arthur Blythe or David Murray: the young player who is brilliant in the jazz idiom and equally comfortable in the rock and pop milieus. Like Balliett, his ongoing commentary consists of miniature biographies, analyses of records and performances and several extended interviews and several extended interviews (Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Taylor, Red Rodney).
Giddins peoples his book with artists who have somehow touched on that "illusory blue note . . . appreciable only in relation to another note." Once again, the writer examines relationships: Ethel Waters, whose "career was caught between two cultures" and who ended up as a "source of inspiration to black singers who had no inclination to the blues and to white singers who wished to sing jazz, blues and pop but lacked the burnished sonorities of Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey."
Giddins also writes intelligently about the difficult music of the avant-garde; poignantly about rock 'n' roll resources like Professor Longhair; insightfully about the commercial conflicts of jazzmen such as Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Sonny Rollins, and pop singers like Sinatra and Crosby. Like Balliett, Giddins doesn't waste phrases; his writing is lean, full of staccato outbursts and contrasts that succeed in overcoming the "semantic imprecision" of so much jazz writing. Gary Giddins is the best of the new breed, a young Balliett.