As jazz critic for The New Yorker magazine since 1957, and the author of fifteen books, Whitney Balliett has spent a lifetime listening to and writing about jazz. "All first-rate criticism," he once wrote in a review of someone else's work, "first defines what we are confronting." He could as easily have been describing his own work. For nearly half a century, Balliett has been telling us, in pitch-perfect prose, what we confront when we listen to America's greatest, and perhaps only truly original, musical form. Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 is a monumental achievement, capturing the full range and register of the jazz scene, from the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 to recent performances by a rising generation of musicians. Here are definitive portraits of such major figures as: Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Django Reinhardt, Martha Raye, Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Art Tatum, Bessie Smith, and Earl Hines-a list that barely scratches the surface. Generations of readers have learned to listen to the music with Balliett's graceful guidance. For five decades he has captured the moments when jazz history was being made. Balliett's knowledge is encyclopedic treasure and yet he has always written as if he were listening for the first time. Since its beginnings in New Orleans at the turn of the century, jazz has been restlessly and relentlessly evolving, improvising, experimenting, shapeshifting, a constant work in progress of sounds and tonal shades, from swing and dixieland, through boogie-woogie, bebop, and hard bop, to the new thing, free jazz, abstract jazz, and atonal jazz. Yet in all its forms, the music is sustained by what Balliett calls a "secret emotional center," an "aural elixir" that "reveals itself when an improvised phrase or an entire solo or even a complete number catches you by surprise." Whitney Balliett performs the miracle of capturing the essence of jazz-the "sound of surprise."
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