A FRESHMAN ON CHRISTMAS BREAK VISITS JIMMY RYAN’S (December 1942)

Whitney Balliett (1926 – 2007) the jazz critic for The New Yorker, remains one of my heroes. In music, he shaped my tastes; in writing, he was a lovely idiosyncratic risk-embracing role model. And when I met him in person, he was completely gracious. We corresponded in the old-fashioned way; I sent tapes of our mutual hero Sidney Catlett and he wrote on New Yorker stationery with a fountain pen — casual friendly notes, greeting me as an equal.

That’s his whimsical self-portrait above, for sale here.

When I began to write for publication about jazz, I copied his poetic style, where metaphor was the second language — so much that I had to work to find a voice of my own. But his style, his insights, and his presence remain with me today.

But first, a photograph of one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s on Fifty-Second Street, taken by Charles Peterson on November 23, 1941. I can’t identify everyone, but from the left, I see George Wettling, Eddie Condon (half-hidden), Sandy Williams, Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Franz Jackson. The trumpeter standing in the striped suit might be Sidney De Paris. Below and to the right is Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan at the piano, an uncharacteristically exuberant Vic Dickenson, and a positively gleeful Al Hall.

What we would give to have been there. Sadly, PBS did not exist, and the March of Time did not take its cameras there to capture the ecstatic BUGLE CALL RAG that closed the afternoon performance. But a series of small marvelous circumstances, with Whitney Balliett the guiding force, bring us closer.

In preparation for a move, I have been tidying my apartment, digging through years of happy and heedless accumulation, focusing most recently on four tall bookcases. I saved the jazz books for last, and a few days ago was anatomizing a shelf of books when I noticed four loose pages sandwiched between two larger books. One was a letter from Whitney himself, friendly, gossipy, loose. And he sent three pages of what we used to call “photostats,” which made me catch my breath. The evidence, first.

I have omitted a non-jazz postscript, which took off the bottom half of Whitney’s signature:

and a week later:

and the careful young man’s tidy enumeration of those two magical visits to Valhalla:

Before moving onward, I suggest you let your mind, heart, and spiritual ears linger on those pages. Imagine!

And, in the magical way things sometimes happen, my tidying turned up an issue of the Atlantic Monthly, from January 1998, which I’d saved because of Whitney’s memoir about playing drums, “Sitting In.” This paragraph is completely and delightfully relevant.

My erratic noncareer as a drummer began in 1942, when I was going on sixteen. I was a freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had been working blindly toward jazz by way of the jazz-flavored dance bands of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and Harry James. During my first Christmas vacation I was taken to one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, on West Fifty-second Street, in New York. They weren’t really jam sessions except for the closing number, a fast “Bugle Call Rag,” in which all the musicians from the two alternating bands Gabler had hired got up on the tiny bandstand and let go. There might be three or four trumpets, several reeds, a couple of trombones, and a four-man rhythm section; the number, with its many breaks, would become a “cutting” contest, in which the trumpets in particular tried to outshout one another. It was the first head-on live jazz I had heard, and it was shocking and exhilarating. The famous old New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton was hypnotic. He moved his head to the rhythm in peculiar ducking motions, shot his hands at his cymbals as if he were shooting his cuffs, hit stunning rim shots, and made fearsome, inscrutable faces, his eyelids flickering like heat lightning.

It would be arrogance to suggest that Whitney’s spirit, somewhere, is helping me tidy my apartment — I would not lay that burden on anyone — but I send thanks to him for his (I hope) amused presence.

And here’s some music — not from Ryan’s, but from the Eddie Condon Blue Network broadcasts — to summon up that beautiful world of 1942:

and another helping:

Ah, that vanished world where one could go to hear Pete Brown, Vic Dickenson, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon, Elmer James, and Sidney Catlett play the BUGLE CALL RAG. At least we know it happened.

“Dreams of glory don’t ever really die.”

May your happiness increase!

3 responses to “A FRESHMAN ON CHRISTMAS BREAK VISITS JIMMY RYAN’S (December 1942)

  1. Not forgetting his profile on bob Wilbe May 1977 !!!!!Thank you Whitney Balliet

  2. Paige VanVorst

    I always said I’d sell my soul to the devil if I could learn to write like him. Sorry you’ve got to think your collection- my Balliets are still among my older books and I’m not sure I could part with them

  3. Those books are precious to me too: none of them are leaving!

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