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Born in Manhattan and raised in Glen Cove, Long Island, Balliett attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where he learned to play drums in a band he summed up as "baggy Dixieland"; he played summer gigs at a Center Island yacht club.
He was drafted into the Army in 1946, interrupting his freshman year at Cornell University, to which returned to finish his degree in 1951 and where he was a member of Delta Phi fraternity. He then took a job at The New Yorker, where he was hired by Katherine White, one of the magazine's fiction editors. He went on to write more than 550 signed pieces for The New Yorker, as well as many anonymous pieces.
Acclaimed for his literary writing style, Balliett died on 1 February 2007, aged 80, from cancer, survived by his second wife Nancy Balliett and five children: James Fargo Balliett, Blue Balliett, Will Balliett, Julie Lyon Rose, and Whitney Balliett, Jr.
- The Sound of Surprise: 46 Pieces on Jazz, 1960
- Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz, 1962
- Such Sweet Thunder: 49 Pieces on Jazz, 1966, Bobbs-Merrill Company
- Super-drummer: A Profile of Buddy Rich, 1968
- Ecstasy at the Onion: 31 Pieces on Jazz, 1971
- Alec Wilder and His Friends, 1974, Houghton Mifflin
- New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz, 1972-1975, 1976, Houghton Mifflin
- Improvising: Sixteen Jazz Musicians and Their Art, 1977, Oxford University Press
- American Singers , 1979, Oxford University Press
- Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz 1975-1980, 1981, Oxford University Press
- Jelly Roll, Jabbo, and Fats: 19 Portraits in Jazz, 1983, Oxford University Press
- American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, 1986, Oxford University Press
- American Singers: Twenty-seven Portraits in Song, 1988, Oxford University Press
- Barney, Bradley, and Max: Sixteen Portraits in Jazz, 1989, Oxford University Press
- Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz, 1981-1990, 1991, Oxford University Press
- American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz, 1996, Oxford University Press
- Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, 2000, St. Martin's Press
- New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits, 2006, University Press of Mississippi
- "John Gordon's Folk Art: A Great Flowering of Free Spirits", February 3, 1973
- "Coming Out Again" (on Anita Ellis), July 31, 1978
|No and Yes||Books||60/48||14 January 1985||116-117||Reviews:|
- Ratliff, Ben (February 3, 2007). "Whitney Balliett, New Yorker Jazz Critic, Dies at 80". New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
- Adam Gopnik (2007-02-12). "Whitney Balliett". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2009-02-05.
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