This article is copyright 1997 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the Arts Midwest Midwest Jazz, Summer 1997. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.


American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz, by Whitney Balliett.
Oxford University Press, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-19-5098538-3. Hard cover, 523 pp., $35.00.

reviewed by Antonio J. García


Art galleries are not ideal for brisk walks, but you can choose your manner of ingesting the vast cultural stimuli available. Similarly, Balliett's American Musicians II is not for speed-reading: one should savor the nuance of the artfully constructed prose rather than merely assimilate the information. Yet the reader can choose to view the "portraits" chronologically, or in reverse, or sampling each framed work out of its neighboring context.

Whitney Balliett has been jazz critic for The New Yorker for 40 years; his reputation as a gifted writer comes from a wide audience of readers–not just jazz aficionados. His original American Musicians appeared in 1986 to great acclaim, and for this re-release he has added 15 new essays. The book spans a wide range of American jazz history: from King Oliver to Cecil Taylor, from Jelly Roll Morton to Ornette Coleman, focusing on individuals Balliett found "irresistible." Thus he acknowledges that American Musicians provides a "gapped history" not intended to be comprehensive. For instance, some readers will notice only four women are included: Marie Marcus, Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan, and Marian McPartland.

Yet there is so much to absorb from Balliett's offering. Throughout the book are stories of how the jazz masters taught and learned–for example, this from Louie Bellson: "Ellington's arrangements never had drum parts. But not once did he say, 'This is how Sonny Greer did it.' He said, 'Do it your own way.' He made you create. He used to call me for special events in later years. In 1965, I played his 'Golden Broom and the Green Apple' with the New York Philharmonic. There I was with twenty minutes of music to play and a hundred musicians sitting behind me, and all he had told me was that the first part was in waltz time." (pp. 267-268) Or consider this insight into the mind of jazz pianist Earl Hines regarding the conscious and subconscious art: "I don't think I think when I play. I have a photographic memory for chords, and when I'm playing, the right chords appear in my mind like photographs long before I get to them. This gives me a little time to alter them.... But I might find the altering isn't working the way it should, so I stop and clarify myself with an off-beat passage, a broken-rhythm thing. I always challenge myself. I get out in deep water and I always try to get back. But I get hung up. The audience never knows, but that's when I smile the most, when I show the most ivory." (p. 93)

Opportunities abound for inside information jazz followers enjoy, such as a three-page transcription of conversations during an Earl Hines recording session–or this quote from Rex Stewart describing one of Art Tatum's more unique practice techniques: "He constantly manipulated a filbert nut through his fingers, so quickly that if you tried to watch him, the vision blurred. He worked with one nut until it became sleek and shiny from handling. When it came time to replace it, he would go to the market and feel nut after nut–a whole bin full, until he found one just the right size and shape for his exercises." (p.228)

The beauty of Balliett's prose is most evident in his descriptions of various jazz musicians' styles, such as in describing the sound of the beginning of a Charlie Parker solo:

Parker had a unique tone; no other saxophonist has achieved as human a sound. It could be edgy, and even sharp.... It could be smooth and big and sombre. It could be soft and buzzing. Unlike most saxophonists of his time, who took their cue from Coleman Hawkins, he used almost no vibrato; when he did, it was only a flutter, a murmur. The blues lived in every room of his style, and he was one of the most striking and affecting blues improvisers we have had. His slow blues had a preaching, admonitory quality. He would begin a solo with a purposely stuttering four-or-five-note announcement, pause for effect, repeat the phrase, bending its last note into silence, and then turn the phrase around backward and abruptly slip sidewise into double time, zigzag up the scale, circle around quickly at the top, and plummet down, the notes falling somewhere between silence and sound. (pp. 278-279)

...or in examining a Jim Hall guitar solo: "Listening to Hall now is like turning onionskin pages: one lapse of your attention and his solo is rent. Each phrase evolves from its predecessor, his rhythms are balanced, and his harmonic and melodic ideas are full of parentheses and asides. His tone is equally demanding." (p. 425)

General lessons in jazz concepts are available along the way: "The soloist is a narcissist who sets his own boundaries, goals, and speeds, who makes his own weather. The trio is a crowd, a small band. A duet is like a railroad car: it is indivisible and runs on parallel tracks. Its members must be altruists, teachers, friends, and instigators. Each must match but never outmatch the other. A duet should be as seamless as an egg and as intricate as a snowflake." (p. 500) As a critic, his own judgments of quality are inescapable: "The triumph of Mary Lou Williams' style is that she has no style. She is not an eclectic or an anthologist or a copyist; she is a gifted and delicate appreciator who distills what affects her in the work of other pianists into cool, highly individual synopses. The grapes are others', the wine is her own." (p. 103)

And Balliett provides occasional glimpses into how jazz interweaved with American culture: for example, how "in the late thirties or early forties Eudora Welty heard [Fats Waller] and wrote a strange and indelible short story called 'Powerhouse.'" (p. 73) A page of quotes from the book then follows. There are the expected dark stories, such as anecdotes about drummer Dave Tough or pianists Jess Stacy and Art Tatum–but also many doses of humor, such as from lawyer Noel Silverman regarding Paul Desmond: "I asked him if he wanted to establish a scholarship fund for musicians, and he said, no, there were already enough bad saxophone players.... Then I asked him about the rest of his estate, the income from records and from songs like 'Take Five,' and he said, 'Give it to the Red Cross, they're a good outfit.' I don't have the exact figures before me, but I think the Red Cross has received over a million dollars since 1977." (p. 440)

For a "gapped history," Balliett's American Musicians II paints quite a thorough canvas of the jazz artist via the life and musical times of seventy-one musicians–and often their colleagues as well. Those readers who already know they enjoy a thoughtful walk through a jazz "museum" will find great pleasure in this offering. Perhaps more importantly, any younger students of jazz who might have found themselves a bit too obsessed with the techniques of jazz theory will find these portraits of jazz practice a healthy balance of perspective.


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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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