Searching online, Marianne Mangan found something I treasure — Whitney Balliett’s January 1998 piece from The Atlantic, “Sitting In,” his recollection of playing drums on one of Hank O’Neal’s jazz cruises.
This semi-autobiographical piece was the only time I know that Balliett wrote about himself. True, it was possible to intuit his shadowy presence in the Profiles published in The New Yorker — after all, a human being was sitting with Ruby Braff in that coffee shop, a person was getting ready to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett. But Balliett was as far from a narcissist as it is possible to be without vanishing utterly behind the wallpaper, and he kept out of sight.
I told Balliett more than once that I loved this piece and thought he should be writing his autobiography. He only laughed and shrugged his shoulders. So “Sitting In” offers us glimpses of a young Balliett, sitting in for a brief hapless interlude at Sidney Catlett’s drums, losing his way with Hackett and Dave McKenna, then finally vindicating himself with pianist Bob Greene on the jazz cruise. I’m sorry that I never heard him swing the band, and I miss his gentle, perceptive view of the world.
I was sorely tempted to shoplift the whole Atlantic piece directly into this blog, but I have some vestiges of respect for intellectual property remaining, so I will try to keep my criminality down to a minimum, and simply say to my readers, “Pssssst! Check out http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98jan/jazz.htm for some irreplaceable reading.”
P. S. I have had trouble with the link above — for whatever reason — so I went back to Google and accessed the piece that way. I never promised my readers a high level of technological finesse, but I apologize in advance!