Balliett was different from the other jazz writers I was discovering back then, whose quirks and personalities I gradually picked up from the printed page. In my library retreat, I became familiar with all of them. At one extreme were cozy insiders like Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff, and Leonard Feather, who hung out with the musicians, called them by their first names, and treated them as close friends—Feather, for example, enlisted Billie Holiday as godmother to his daughter and was a pallbearer at Charlie Parker’s funeral. He even wrote a book called Inside Jazz, almost a taunt at his peers, who would never be as much inside as he. At the other extreme were the musicologists and analytical critics such as Gunther Schuller, André Hodeir, and Martin Williams, who maintained more distance in their writings, aspiring to a kind of academic objectivity. They proved invaluable guides, teaching me about the rigorous rules and steely discipline that underlay this seemingly most spontaneous of art forms.
Balliett didn’t belong in either of these camps—or in any camp, as far as I could tell. He retained the enthusiasm of a fan, but it was married to the expressive virtuosity of a master writer who could extract from his typewriter something akin to what others drew from their saxophones and trumpets. It was almost as if he were a jazz musician himself, but one who wrote essays for The New Yorker instead of soloing over “I Got Rhythm” chords.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor