JELLY ROLL, JABBO AND FATS: Nineteen Portraits in Jazz by Whitney Balliett

JELLY ROLL, JABBO AND FATS: Nineteen Portraits in Jazz

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Brief profiles, mostly from The New Yorker--as the ever-elegant Balliett portrays jazz musicians of the past and present in a mixture of biography (usually through interview material) and informal esthetic appreciation, Three legendary figures appear, with no new insights but with chunks of detail and slivers of fine Balliett evocation: there's Jelly-Roll Morton, who, in one recording, ""establishes a monochromatic, metronomic air in the first chords and spends the rest of the record slowly breaking it down with affecting melodic breezes, loose, ambling ensembles, and the lyrical, summer-evening exchanges between him and the guitar""; Sidney Bechet, whose improvisations followed the melody, ""which kept reappearing, like sunlight on a forest floor""; and Fats Waller--in an undistinguished overview. Balliett pays persuasive tribute to trumpeter Jabbo Smith, often called a second-rate Louis Armstrong, ""which is like calling Scott Fitzgerald a follower of Hemingway."" There's a valuable assessment of Erroll Garner--who, ""like all great primitives, was trapped inside his style, but he never allowed it to harden into self-parody. He kept reaching farther and farther into the mysterious area where his uniqueness had come from."" And there are somewhat formulaic interview/profiles of Dick Wellstood, trombonist Vie Dickenson, Ellis Larkins, Dave McKenna, Michael Moore (""the best jazz bassist alive""), alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and Ornette Coleman--though the format is given periodic lifts by Balliett's always-surprising adjectives (Dickenson's style is ""wasteless and lyrical and funny"") and by glimpses of everyday musician life. (A charming rehearsal with Anita Ellis and Ellis Larkins, whose style ""gives the impression of continually being on the verge of withdrawing, of bowing and backing out."") As usual, one regrets that Balliett rarely pushes his uncommon critical talent beyond the slight profile pattern--but, complete with an opening essay on pioneering French jazz writers PanassiÉ and Delaunay, this is a welcome addition to the inimitable Balliett-on-jazz shelf.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press