When I read the literary term ‘magic realism,’ I think of the part of physics which holds that an infinity of universes are doing things at the same time, endlessly splitting off and spawning new universes whenever a decision is made.

In this multiverse, some universes track ours very closely, while others diverge to the point where you would have a hard time seeing any of this world in that.

Magic realism is the sweet spot; it’s not our world with only trivial differences. It’s our world with enough different to astound us when we visit it.

‘The City & The City’ by China Miéville is magic realism. So is William Gibson’s latest trilogy, and in particular ‘Pattern Recognition,’ though I believe Gibson’s two following books tread too close to the world as it is to be magic realism, or for that matter, very good.

And I think magic realism can be found in another small outcropping of writers, one that existed long before the term ‘magic realism’ came into common usage, one that is much more associated with literary journalism.

When my interest in jazz deepened in the 1980s, I found the writings of The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett. His ‘American Musicians’ was my gospel: Balliett wrote with an ease I had never encountered before, whether it’s the part of each profile in which he describes how a musician plays, or his rendering of the musician’s own words.

Examples, culled from flipping open ‘American Musicians’ at random:

– of Art Tatum: “Great talent often has a divine air; it’s there, but no one knows where it comes from.”

– describing the home of the blind piano player George Shearing: “Shearing’s workroom, just off the foyer, contains two side-by-side upright pianos, his Braille word processor, all kinds of sound equipment, and a reclining chair that vibrates, massages your neck and plays tapes of birds singing in a ruined English abbey.”

And Balliett gets better as he goes: like the soloists he wrote about, Balliett would build from sentence to sentence, would feint and turn away and back again, all the time adding little ticks to his lines, like a checklist he alone was privy to.

Here’s his description of Lester Young, at length:

Very little about the tenor saxophonist Lester Young was unoriginal. He had protruding, heavy-lidded eyes, a square, slightly Oriental face, a tiny mustache, and a snaggletoothed smile. His walk was light and pigeon-toed, and his voice was soft. He was something of a dandy. He wore suits, knit ties and collar pins. He wore ankle-length coats, and pork pie hats – on the back of his head when he was young, and pulled down low and evenly when he was older. He kept to himself, often speaking only when spoken to.

I’m not sure I had ever heard Lester Young when I first encountered that description. I’m sure I had never paid attention to him. But reading that, I knew exactly what he sounded like.

Years later, I stumbled into the writing of another New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell. I now know that Mitchell had a profound impact on Balliett, (and it should have been obvious from the start), but back then I just thought they were two writers from the same era of the same magazine, and that similarities were unavoidable.

Mitchell, from his story “Joe Gould’s Secret”:

He took a fistful of cigarette butts from a pocket of his seersucker jacket and put them on the table. As he did so, a shower of tobacco crumbs fell on his lap and on the floor and on the table, and I was afraid that he and the waitress would have some more words with each other. While she watched with disgust, Gould picked through the butts and chose one and fitted it in a long black cigarette holder. Paying no attention to the waitress, he lit it with an arch-elegant, Chaplinlike flourish, and she walked away.

For some people, Balliett’s and Mitchell’s writings are too much, like overdone desserts. I got that way myself, and went away from them for a long time.

Other folks distrust the journalism; they are, after all, supposed to be accurately describing the world, which is impossible to believe when you have paragraph after paragraph of  transcriptions of what their subjects said, captured without tape recorders, often sounding a lot like the authors.

I left for other reasons: when I first encountered them, I thought Balliett and Mitchell described a slice of the real world perfectly, but it was one I could never inhabit, because I did not live in the right place, at the right time and with enough grace.

Returning to them 20 years later, I now believe they were something else entirely. They didn’t dig through the upper layers of the real world to expose another view of things as they are. They weren’t excavators. They were magic realists, spinning stories about a world like ours but not ours. They were builders.

Whitney Balliett’s jazz musicians are related to the real flesh and blood men and women with whom they share names, but they aren’t those people, not at all. They are more poised or sad or wise than real humans can ever be, and always, always more elegant, even if it was the elegance of a man with a horn case under one arm, his other hand in the strap, riding the subway home to Long Island after a gig, reading the Post or Daily News. Balliett’s characters are craftsmen and women who shy away from theory or explaining too much. They let the music – and Balliett – do that part.

It’s no coincidence Balliett and Mitchell worked the same general physical space, New York City. If ever there was a place in America where magic realism could hold sway, NYC was it.

Balliett and Mitchell were great, early magic realists because they could trick you into believing their world was real, and you too could be a part of it if you only lived where they lived, saw what they saw. Working under the guise of journalism helped. (Question: did they ever feel misunderstood? Maybe that’s why Mitchell stopped writing for the last 30 years of his life.) They built pocket worlds out of bars and horns, bums and women in high rises. That they created places and people (and mostly their characters could have walked free from the pages of one author’s article to the other’s) which did not exist is not bad faith or bad journalism. I think of them as making aspirational worlds. At the very least it’s good magic, done – as all good magic is – right before your eyes.


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