Jazz has inspired some great writing. Whitney Balliett, who died in 2007, wrote on jazz for the New Yorker magazine for many years and bought real style to his writing. Here’s a couple of examples – the first on tenor sax player Ben Webster and the second some thoughts about pianist Thelonious Monk.
He would start a medium-slow blues solo very softly with a weaving five-note phrase, pause, play a high, barely audible blue note, and duck back to his opening phrase, still as soft as first sunlight. He would harden his tone slightly at the start of his next chorus, issue an annunciatory phrase, repeat it, insert a defiant tremolo. His tone would grow hard, he would growl and crowd his notes, he would shake his phrases as if he had them clamped in his teeth. As the years went by he would close certain phrase endings by allowing his vibrato to melt into pure undulating breath—dramatically offering, before the breath expired, the ghost of his sound.
His improvisations were attempts to disguise his love of melody. He clothed whatever he played with spindly runs, flatted notes, flatted chords, repeated single notes, yawning silences and zigzag rhythms. Sometimes he pounded the keyboard with his right elbow. His style protected him not only from his love of melody but from the love of the older pianists he grew out of – Duke Ellington and the stride pianists. All peered out from inside his solos, but he let them escape only as parody.
You can get more of Balliett’s brilliant writing in his book The Sound of Surprise. Amazingly, it now seems to be out of print – there’s a photo of the Pelican paperback version published in the 1960s below. Imagine this as a coffee table book with great black and white photos of jazz musicians…
To hear this writing in action, listen to Ben Webster’s Soulville or Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners.
As always, just listen and explore.
Now’s the time. Let your journey begin here.
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