Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Critics: Otis Ferguson and Whitney Balliett

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“A critic has two functions: (1) to spread knowledge and appreciation of his subject among those who don't know but might learn about it; (2) to encourage those who are doing the work and tell them how it is "coming over," with as little bias and as much understanding as possible. And that is quite a task, requiring a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done; and just as steady a passion for learning how to explain this so that it will somehow mean something to the performer and his audience alike. The best people I have discovered to learn about music from are the musicians, who would not be found dead in the kind of talk generally used to describe their work. The task of describing and estimating their work is not impossible. The main trouble is, it isn't even being attempted.”
- Otis Ferguson

"Most Jazz critics would rather catch another Jazz critic in a minor mistake than bring Bix back from the dead."
- Grover Sales, Jazz author, critic and educator




I knew I had it somewhere; “it” being the best analysis I’d ever read of of what made Whitney Balliett an exceptional writer on the subject of Jazz.


But where?


I seemed to recall, too, that the essay in question reviewed another writer who wrote about Jazz and other topics, the obscure Otis Ferguson.


I had given up looking for it when it literally fell between my feet while I was moving some Jazz books to a new location at the editorial offices of JazzProfiles.


The source for both reviews was a 1983 edition of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter which I had folded and put between the books by Otis Ferguson and Whitney Balliett.


By the way, both the Ferguson and the Balliet books are available in inexpensive used editions from Amazon.com.


Jazzletter
Gene Lees
March 15, 1983




“In his new book, Jelly Roll Jabbo and Fats (Oxford University Press), Whitney Balliett considers the work of two jazz critics, both French, Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay. In the cause of symmetry, I would like to consider the work of two jazz critics, both American, Otis Ferguson and Whitney Balliett.


Panassie's Le jazz hot was published in 1934 in France. Its English translation was published in the United States in 1936 — the year Ferguson began writing about jazz for The New Republic. He had been writing about books for that publication for three years, and had reviewed a Gershwin concert for his college paper as far back as 1930. Panassie, however, is considered the pioneer of jazz criticism, the man who, as Balliett puts it, "put jazz on the map in Europe and in its own country."


There are probably two reasons for this. One is that Panassie was the first to get out a book — we are very impressed by books — of jazz criticism in the United States. Ferguson, who became a merchant seaman and was killed off the Salerno shore in a German bombing attack in 1943, never saw a book of his work. Indeed his writings on jazz have not been bound between two covers until the present volume, The Otis Ferguson Reader, published by December Press, 3090 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois, 60035. It contains as well his writing on many other subjects, including the sea. Since the same gang that controls the television, movie and record industries has now devoured book publishing and distribution, it would not have been published at all but for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The great corporations have effectually destroyed free enterprise in the arts.


The second reason Panassie had more impact than Ferguson is that he was a European and Americans were prone to abject genuflection toward the Old World. The cultural establishment still is, which is seen in the fact that only one or two important American symphony orchestras have American conductors. A resentment of the American need for European approval, now echoed in the Canadian need for American validation, is no doubt the inspiration for Eddie Condon's famous wisecrack about Panassie: "I don't see why we need a Frenchman to come over here and tell us how to play American music. I wouldn't think of going to France and telling him how to jump on a grape."


One of the values of Ferguson's work is that he was writing about the music when it was young and thus it is a record of the times. Born in 1907, he was coeval to Louis Armstrong (1900), Duke Ellington (1899), and Bix Beiderbecke (1904), about whom he wrote with insight, admiration, and passion. Ferguson entitled one of his articles about Beiderbecke Young Man with a Horn, a phrase that has retained a curiously haunting quality in jazz ever since. His girlfriend, Dorothy Baker, wrote the novel of that name "inspired by" Beiderbecke's music.


Ferguson was perceptive to the point of prescience. He saw the worth of Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and conveyed his admiration persuasively. He correctly took the measure of Jess Stacy, Teddy Wilson, Ziggy Elman. A portrait of John Hammond is etched in acid. Ferguson is to this day one of the few writers who has ever had the courage to question Hammond's legend, self-written with the assistance of power, family, money, and connections, though the number of musicians who question it is considerable. He writes:


‘Somewhere a long way back, probably — somewhere it wasn't done because he had the inside rail and the silver spoon and the velvet cushion — John Hammond should have been taken in hand and had his ears beaten down a little, and he should have been made to write out five thousand times over, for his eventual good, the sentence: CRITICS OUGHT TO LEARN HOW TO TAKE THEIR TIME.’


Ferguson goes overboard in his praise of Hammond's brother-in-law, Benny Goodman, whose band in the RCA days I found stiff, although it developed fluidity later on when Charlie Christian and Mel Powell were in it. But Goodman did open the door for other and better bands, and Ferguson understood Goodman's impact on the American culture.


Ferguson was not the writer Balliett is, though they take similar follow-your-man-and-listen approaches to character portraiture. The dust jacket of almost every book by Balliett (this is the eleventh) presents Alistair Cooke's statement that he is, "without a rival in sight, the most literate and knowledgeable living writer on jazz." One must of course raise an eyebrow at a man who sets himself up as a judge of literacy and then uses the word "knowledgeable". And Cooke hasn't read every living writer on jazz, assuredly including the Japanese. But Balliett is certainly one of the most graceful essayists in the English language on any subject, even if in this book he does slip into the use of one of those fad words ("arguably" and "thrust" are very popular these days) that sweep through journalism from time to time. In his case, the new word (watch for it; it's cropping up in criticism) is "layered" or "layering". He uses it twice. He also uses "into" at one point. But we must forgive him. These things are insidiously pervasive and insinuate themselves into one's thought; I almost said "hopefully" the other day. For the rest of the course, Balliett's language is fresh, his own, and always arresting in its imagery.


Balliett's pieces are peculiarly devoid of self. He is the invisible interviewer. I used to think he must use tape a lot. I was surprised to find that he simply takes notes, carefully and patiently. How he gets the subjects of his word pictures to be so self-revealing in the presence of a pencil is a bit of a mystery, for he is in person anything but invisible. Tall, almost white-haired, courtly, bespectacled, and notably handsome, he has presence. He would be intimidating were he not an apparently gentle man.


His essays are for the most part almost devoid of overt opinion. They have a cinema verite quality. He describes the music and the musicians so vividly that you can almost hear it and see its makers, even though much of the time you cannot tell what he actually thinks of either. Every once in a while, however, he hauls off and bangs you over the head with a baseball bat of opinion. One of the essays in this book begins, "Michael Moore is the best jazz bassist alive..." Well, okay. Maybe he is and maybe he isn't. He is one hell of a bass player, however, and after reading Balliett’s piece you will know a lot more than you did about both Moore and his playing. In another essay, Balliett says that after Sonny Greer left Duke Ellington, "the band never fully recovered.” A good many musicians would give him an argument on that point.


But that is neither here nor there. What Balliett is, more than a critic, and this makes him invaluable, is an enormously gifted chronicler of jazz, and one who seems to have listened to more music than any five of us put together.


Balliett is at his best describing drummers (he has been one). He says of Greer that he "showered everyone with cymbals." Of Freddie Moore, in a piece called New York Drummers, "You could build a house on his beat." Of Tommy Benford: "There is a metallic cast to him; if he were struck with one of his mallets, he would ring." He says Benford "surrounds his sentences with buffering silences, which give his speech a beneficent, upholstered air." He says that Sidney Bechet "used the chords of a song but also followed the melody, which kept reappearing, like sunlight on a forest floor.".His writing is full of such firefly phrases. But they are never merely cute and he knows enough not to overdo them. Writing that is too thick with imagery takes on an overripe quality, resembling fermenting peaches. His pacing is perfect and his ear unfailing — except for "layering" of course.


Ferguson's ear is not. He affects a hipness, and a common-man coarseness of language. "Terrific" is one of his pet adjectives for the admirable. Ferguson was a graduate — in English and history - of Clark University. He became known at The New Republic for his skepticism toward high art, his advocacy of popular art. His proletarian affectations produce such out-of-tune phrases as "because singing is music and music is such a wonderful thing..." Wow. At times one feels he has read too avidly Hemingway's mannered and all too imitable work. (Incidentally, at one point Ferguson uses the expression "where they're at." I was surprised to learn that this deliberate solecism was in circulation in the jazz world as far back as the mid-1930s.) Nonetheless, Ferguson's observations of the music and its makers and milieu are dead on. For example, he says of jazz critics, "The accepted way of writing about a jazz hero is to put in apocryphal details, such as he thought he heard Buddy Bolden play at the age of two and fell out of his crib at the same time; and the next thing he knew he was seven and one-half years old and really carving all the boys at funeral marches in New Orleans with a cornet he'd made out of the plumbing in a condemned WC in Storyville, after which he quickly went to Chicago to make one of the hottest records in the world, of which I own the only copy personally; and then he went to pieces and made some records even you can buy, only they're no good." In one essay he devastatingly satirizes the kind of language in which jazz was being discussed at Down Beat (or Dead Beat, as Don DeMicheal and I used to call it behind its back). And then elsewhere he commits hippy-dip sins of his own, referring to Jack Teagarden as "Big Gate" and "Mr. T.", and so forth.


But what is chiefly wrong with Ferguson's essays on jazz — and those on books and movies, too, which fill about half this volume — is not his fault. It is the fault of space restrictions in The New Republic. Most of those pieces are short, and though he sometimes treats the same subject in several essays, the effect is a fragmented one. No writer about jazz has ever had the luxury of space, excepting Balliett who, because of the character and editorial attitude of The New Yorker, seems able to explore a subject to whatever length it requires.


For all the skilled complexity (dare I say "layering"?) of Balliett's writing, his approach is essentially simple. He is an unseen emcee, reading an introduction to the act to give you a sense of its value. Then he falls silent and lets the artist speak in lengthy direct quotation, telling you about his work and himself. When you are through, you have grasped the artist's intent, which is crucial to any understanding of art. No one does this better than Balliett and too many writers don't do it at all. After reading Balliett's piece on Ornette Coleman, it is hard to tell whether he likes the music or not, but one certainly understands Coleman better --as one does Jelly Roll Morton, Jabbo Smith, Doc Cheatham, Fats Waller, Dick Wellstood, Vic Dickenson, Dave McKenna, and other subjects of these sixteen essays.


Ferguson annoys you at times by talking down to you. Balliett never talks down. He treats his subjects and the reader with respect and the implicit assumption that anyone who appreciates good music has the wherewithal to appreciate good writing. His tone is Brahminical, elegant, and unselfconsciously poetic. He writes the way Nathan Milstein plays fiddle, the way Benny Carter plays alto. He is the aristocrat unaware of it, who, showing you the beautifully furnished town house of his mind, assumes you are accustomed to drinking from Spode. And when he enters your terrain to interview you, he seems oblivious to the fact that your teacups are chipped. And that is possibly how he gets those interviews.

The good in Otis Ferguson's work far, far outweighs his lapses, and it is clear that the man deserves a monument of some kind, if only in our minds. And he left a sound definition of the function of criticism.


‘A critic has two functions: (1) to spread knowledge and appreciation of his subject among those who don't know but might learn about it; (2) to encourage those who are doing the work and tell them how it is "coming over," with as little bias and as much understanding as possible. And that is quite a task, requiring a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done; and just as steady a passion for learning how to explain this so that it will somehow mean something to the performer and his audience alike. The best people I have discovered to learn about music from are the musicians, who would not be found dead in the kind of talk generally used to describe their work. The task of describing and estimating their work is not impossible. The main trouble is, it isn't even being attempted.’


It is now. Whitney Balliett is the fulfillment of Otis Ferguson's prophecy.”

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