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Whitney Balliett and 1960s Jazz Musicians

by John Cobley

Sunday Jan 13th, 2019




Recently I returned to Whitney Balliett’s 700-page Collected Works to see what wrote about Chick Corea. Balliett wrote regularly for The New Yorker from 1957 to the 1990’s; his columns were widely regarded as the height of jazz criticism. What I quickly discovered was that many of the major jazz musicians who like Corea rose to prominence in the 1960s were either ignored or deftly put down by Balliett. Index entries of these musicians generally referred only to mentions; rarely was their music discussed. Balliett frequently used lists in his columns to illustrate influence of style.


Balliett’s reluctance to write about young musicians of the 1960s is surprising. Surprising especially because he was based in New York where the majority of the new talented musicians were performing. He was a regular in the New York jazz scene, attending many live performances and always reporting on the annual Newport Jazz Festival. But Balliett did not cover much of the dynamic development of jazz in the 1960’s, the first decade of his tenure at The New Yorker. Instead much of his writing covered earlier jazz. He did write in depth about some of the jazz players of the 1960s, but there are many serious omissions.


Two examples. First, Herbie Hancock. He has only 15 mentions, appearing only in lists and receiving just one comment on his playing or composing: “polished hard bop.” (p. 313) It is worth noting that Hancock was at the forefront of jazz for most of the 35 years that Balliett wrote his columns. Second, Joe Henderson. He has just six entries, although like Hancock he was at the forefront of jazz for most of the years that Balliett wrote criticism. Henderson did get a little more attention than Hancock but they were all putdowns: “a quasi new-thing tenor saxophonist,” (p. 277) “a kind of secular Coltrane.” (p. 565) “a hard bop tenor saxophonist,” (p. 588) I regard the last label as a put down because it is dismissive in the context of the column.


Compare the Hancock and Henderson entries with some of the other jazz stars of this period: Jim Hall—34; Bill Evans—27. John Lewis—46; Ornette Coleman—65; Cecil Taylor—46; Sonny Rollins—43; Charles Mingus—84. Clearly Balliett appreciated some of the jazz played in the 1960s, even the avant garde.


Of course, Balliett also wrote extensively on some of the all-time jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet and Lester Young. But such a strong interest in the predecessors of 1960’s jazz doesn’t explain why Balliett ignored many of the emerging jazz players like Hancock and Henderson.


Here are a few more important 1960s musicians who were either ignored or disparaged by Balliett: Chick Corea (10 index mentions), Wayne Shorter (3), Freddie Hubbard (13), McCoy Tyner (11), Tony Williams (4), Oliver Nelson (0), George Benson (7), Bobby Hutcherson (1), Charles Lloyd (5). Corea has “popular electronic salad” (p. 502) and “florid” (p. 710) ascribed to him. All Balliett ever wrote about Wayne Shorter was that he had listened to Ornette Coleman (p. 275). Hubbard receives four negative comments in his 13 mentions: “still an overblowing admirer of Miles Davis,” (p. 197) “A vacuous set,” (p. 370) and “glassy vacuity,” (p. 586) “lyrical in his overblowing.” (p. 621) Tyner is only used for comparisons; nothing is said about his playing with Coltrane or his subsequent career. Tony Williams receives one comment: “kept up a steady swamping rush of cymbals.” (p. 273) Oliver Nelson never appears in Balliett’s collected works. Charles Lloyd receives one put-down: “admires Coltrane and Rollins.” (p. 273)


Having collected material on Balliett’s attitude to many 1960s musicians, I decided to check whether anyone else had detected this attitude. And yes, some of his contemporaries had noticed. Adam Gopnik, who still works at The New Yorker, wrote in his “Postscript” obituary of Balliett that “those of us who revered his writing sometimes wished that he could have discovered in himself a more sympathetic ear for the sounds of newer jazz.” (New Yorker, 12 Feb. 2007) And Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, somewhat tentatively, that “he tended to overlook more contemporary players.” (Washington Post, 2 Feb. 2007). 


So what was it about the jazz of many 1960s players that offended Balliett’s taste? It turns out that he disliked several aspects of their music. A clue to three of these aspects can be found in a review of the 1981 Newport Jazz Festival, where Red Norvo and Chick Corea were on the same bill. Balliett finds that although Corea was “meant to be the main draw,” the Red Norvo Trio, “close to perfection,” eclipsed the Chick Corea Quartet: the program began with Norvo’s trio and according to Balliett, “The evening, to all intents and purposes, ended with Norvo.” (p. 588)


So what was wrong with the Corea quartet? After his fulsome praise of Norvo’s trio, Balliett’s starts with this: “Chick Corea changes his musical address every year or so. Having abandoned Electronic Heights, in Fusion City, he introduced a group tonight that include a hard-bop tenor saxophonist (Joe Henderson), and aging avant-garde bassist (Gary Peacock), and a bebop drummer (Roy Haynes).” In the second sentence there are three words that indicate Balliett’s distaste: electronic, fusion, hard-bop. These three popular types of jazz emerged in 1960s jazz. Hard bop, of course, began in the late 1950s and matured in the 1960s. Electronic and fusion jazz came later in the 1960s. 


Balliett clearly disliked hard bop. In his critique of the Corea quartet he also wrote disparagingly of “acres of hard bop.” (p. 588) And in one of his few comments about Freddie Hubbard he wrote of  “that curious and lifeless extension of bebop known as hard bop.” (p. 370) Elsewhere he described the tenor of Eddie Harris, another popular musician of the 1960s, as “fashionably hard.” (p. 338) Perhaps the best statement of Balliett’s attitude toward hard bop was in a description of Woody Shaw’s conversion away from hard bop: “Shaw was a fancy player at first, but with the help of the unique Dolphy, he began to realize that ceaselessly running the chords of a tune was a form of imprisonment, that chords were commands as well as signposts.” (p. 529) 


Yes, Balliett didn’t like hard-bop-influenced jazz musicians playing too many notes—“running the chords.” He castigated Bobby Hutcherson because he “jammed 100 notes into each measure.” (p. 287) He explained John Coltrane’s style as being the result of his early hard bop playing: “He ran the chords, playing endless thirty-second notes.” (p. 290) And George Benson is criticized for playing “ten notes when one or two will do.” (p. 279) Finally, it should be mentioned that Balliett’s mind was not totally closed to hard bop; he admired Sonny Rollins, whom he called “the unofficial head of the hard bop school.” (p. 152)


Balliett’s review of the Norvo and Corea groups also referred to Corea’s previous “address” at Electronic Heights. As a guardian of the spirit of jazz, Balliett was uncomfortable with the introduction of electronics. So the electric piano did not please him. Hence his animus towards Corea and Hancock: “the popular electronic salads of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea.” (p. 502) And he made fun of George Duke, focusing on his “towering collection of electronic keyboards and synthesizers. (p. 473) 


The third type of jazz referred to in the Corea-Norvo piece is fusion. And many of the emerging 1960s jazz musicians utilized aspects of the hugely popular rock-and-roll music. Balliett distaste for rock-and-roll or fusion is not often openly stated. Rather he deals with it my ignoring it. Hence the paucity of mentions of 1960s jazzmen who are identified with fusion: Hancock, Corea, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams.


Balliett was 31 when he began at The New Yorker. He was clearly deeply committed to the jazz that had evolved since the 1920s. But this didn’t mean he avoided writing about the young players of the 1950s. Some of his first subjects were Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Giuffre, Teddy Charles and Charles Mingus. He was definitely not a moldy fig. However, he was not able to tolerate much of the developments of the 1960s, when experimentation and innovation was rampant. Rather than write scathing negative columns about these innovations, he tended towards ignoring the younger musicians he didn’t appreciate. The harsh words quoted so far were relatively rare.


Apart from hard bop, fusion and electronic jazz, there were other 1960s trends he disliked. Soul, for example: Les McCann was called “the Pasha of soul-soap music. (p. 338) Balliett also didn’t like any obvious commercialization of jazz. As well, loud drumming also came under attack: Art Blakey’s “toneless thunderclap drumming.” (p. 585) Sound was important to him. He writes of Pharoah Sanders’ “thunderous elephant shrieks,” (p. 9) of Hubbard’s “ overblowing” (197, 621) and of “the animal and traffic noises” from Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Coltrane. (p. 9) In the sleeve notes for John Lewis’s 2’ East 3’ West Balliett writes of ‘the hair-pulling, the bad tone or the ugliness that is now a growing mode, largely in New York, among the work of hard bopsters.” For Balliett, hard bop and offensive sound became close to synonymous.


It’s important to say however that on the whole Balliett was a positive jazz columnist, often to the point of being inspirational. Perhaps some of his negative feelings were the result of having to endure many live concerts and festivals, where the surplus of enthusiasm and over-amplification would have often assaulted his sensitive ears.


With his distaste for hard bop, electronic music, Fusion, as well as Soul, commercialization and harsh sounds, Balliett was clearly not the right person to be the jazz critic of a major New York magazine in the period from 1957 to the 1990s. However, he still wrote some of the best-ever jazz criticism and avoided writing negatively about the types of jazz he disliked. Avoidance was surely his best strategy. 


1 Comment

PATRICK SKINNER Wednesday 3rd April 2024

The last paragraph says it all. Yes, Mr Balliett made little secret of what he liked, or not. This didn't alter the fact that he was a brilliant writer, reporter and commentator -- his birth date may also have been a factor.. I am biased, perhaps, because when jazzers split the Fifth I left the hall.

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