In jazz, more than any other form of music, the personality of the performer is the substance of the art. For this reason, a collage of anecdotes, loosely strung on a skeletal framework of biography and flavored with a bit of musical analysis or description, is a particularly apt way of writing about jazz.
Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker magazine's jazz specialist, has demonstrated a special aptitude for this kind of writing in a long series of books, and he demonstrates it again, informatively and enjoyably, in "Jelly Roll, Jabbo, and Fats," a series of 19 personality profiles that run through the entire history of jazz, from the semi-legendary origins in New Orleans to the present age of amplified instruments and declining standards.
This form is imposed by his basic occupation; a magazine writer usually approaches his subject in bite-size chunks, and leaves the "definitive" statement, the exhaustive study, for those who have more time and less wide-ranging interests. Balliett's job is to be entertaining as well as illuminative and not to take too long about it. He does it superbly.
What he does most superbly (and most appropriately for a book about jazz) is put the reader face-to-face with a unique personality--usually first in anecdotes and thumbnail biography, then in a discussion of the music produced by this personality, and frequently with a statement in the subject's own words. It works best with living musicians, or at least those he has known personally: Ornette Coleman, for example--proud of his art to the point of seeming arrogant, but also quixotically generous; a man who speaks as he plays, in elliptical phrases packed with many layers of meaning.
At the other extreme are semi-anonymous players with rich memories that go far back in time. A drummer, for example, who remembers rent parties in the 1930s where he would play for a dollar and something to eat, learning music in an orphanage and running away in his teens to enjoy the high life in the big cities, playing in dime-a-dance joints, rubbing elbows with some of the great men in the profession, recording anecdotes and impressions and what he learned from them about his art.
Balliett's musicology is largely impressionistic, descriptive, and focused on such points as the textures and rhythms of the sound, looseness or tightness of structures, and above all on what the music is saying. He covers the whole field, though his personal taste seems to find the most enduring satisfaction in earlier styles.
In an age when the study of jazz has become an academic discipline, Balliett sometimes may seem a bit sketchy and superficial, but he does give the reader a fair impression of whether he might want to go elsewhere and learn more. Balliett has a good eye for the subjects that are most important and interesting for readers with a nonspecialized interest in jazz and how they can be presented in a manner that will pique curiosity. His little essays are often a model of music-writing for a magazine, the form in which they originally appeared, and for those who want a light, panoramic introduction to the subject, they stand up quite well in book form.