Back in 1962, when Whitney Balliett’s book, Dinosaurs in the Morning, was first published in the US, Jazz was serious stuff: an important part of life, and not just the musical side of life, but life, in fact it had become — with the arrival of machine-gun fast Bebop in the late 1940s — an art form, which took most of the older musicians a bit by surprise, having spent the last fifteen years or so playing in the well paid big Swing Bands. They also knew that playing in small groups (most of the swing bands had disbanded after the war) the money wasn’t going to be as good. The less imaginative began to change their playing styles, learning new techniques, new jargon, and the apparent necessity of wearing dark glasses, which was a bit precarious in ill-lit smokey clubs. The best embraced the changes, becoming damn near indispensable.
One of the best of these was the tenor sax player Coleman Hawkins, ‘Bean’, who never went in for dark glasses, preferring a rather classy trilby hat instead. Balliett, in a piece from 1957,writes:
“ Hawkins, in fact, is a kind of super jazz musician, for he has been a bold originator, a masterly improviser, a shepherd of new movements, and a steadily developing performer. A trim, contained man, whose rare smiles have the effect of a lamp suddenly going on within, he was the first to prove that jazz could be played on the saxophone, which had been largely a purveyor of treacle. He did this with such conviction and imagination that by the early thirties he had founded one of the two great schools of saxophone playing…”
Hawkins never stood still, creating new groups with such ‘modern’ musicians as Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Hawkins was shaping Modern Jazz.
The late English musician, critic and writer, Benny Green, wrote that Whitney Balliett had been performing:
“ …a unique and invaluable service to jazz. Through his coverage and criticism in The New Yorker…” . Which is the magazine from which the pieces in Dinosaurs in the Morning come from, pieces that create not only a clear and precise picture of the music and musicians, but also of the hip New York literary scene of which it was a part, and in one piece, ‘Daddy-O’, that of poetry and jazz that has a real feel of the period and the magazine:
“ Kenneth Rexroth, the fifty-two-year-old poet, translator (modern Greek, ancient Greek, Latin, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese), anthologist, painter (abstract), and critic (literary, music), who has also been a hobo, range cook, horse wrangler, cabdriver, and sheepherder, was born in South Bend, Indiana, but has lived for much of the past thirty years in San Francisco, where he has become a leader of that city’s boiling poetry revival. He has also helped found a poetry-read-to-jazz movement there, and the other day he opened in New York at the Five Spot Cafe, a Saroyan bar-and-grill at the south end of Cooper Square, for a couple of weeks of readings with the Pepper Adams Quintet. I had lunch with him on the day of his debut, and found him a nervous, medium-sized man with short gray hair, a moustache, a towering forehead, and eyes that slope like a sharply peaked roof when his face is in repose. He has a voice that is apt to move in mid-syllable from a whisper to a roar…”
Balliett is a writer of immediacy, a post Hemingway soloist of the first order who, in a few words, can paint superb pictures of musicians and places that, at its very best, can even give something of their sound and vibrancy, of their art. But it is a writing born out of the necessity to write a good story down in either five hundred or a thousand words.
I would suggest that Whitney Balliett is less known now for the simple reason that, as mentioned at the start of this piece, the great art form that is jazz has itself become diminished — as all great art forms must— over the last forty years through the loss of such players as Hawkins, and the rest. They, as with Picasso, Hemingway, Turner, Stravinsky, Tolstoy, David Lean, and so on, can never be replaced. But as with the paintings and the books, we have the recordings of all the musicians who made up that golden age of jazz that Whitney Balliett writes about: writing that belongs with the best of them.
Whitney Balliett was born on the 17th April 1926, in New York City, and died in the city on the 1st of February, 2007.