Look at the wider world today, both abroad and at home, and you find yourself inundated with depressing headlines recording a global situation in which chronic divisions are increasingly being exploited and exacerbated by a political realm in which the best seem to lack all conviction, while the worst are unfortunately fuller than ever of an opportunistically passionate intensity. It’s been a relief to set aside the newspaper, log off from Facebook and immerse yourself in the feast of music spread out for us courtesy of the South Coast Jazz Festival as it returned for a third year, bigger and better than ever before. While so many of our political leaders seem intent on building walls and fostering disunity as hard as they can, festival supremos Claire Martin and Julian Nicholas are setting an inspiring counter-example by reaching out to involve and include as many aspects of the local scene as possible. In addition to the twelve events scheduled at the Ropetackle in Shoreham, they took the potentially risky decision to program an additional twelve events at The Verdict in Brighton. Many on the scene were alert to the possibility of the audience being disastrously split between such an array of choice, but happily enthusiasm and commitment won the day, with record crowds and consistent sell-out shows throughout. The open-minded spirit of collaboration that saw SCJF link arms with the New Generation Jazz project to bring the outstanding youngsters Jam Experiment, and with Safe House Collective to bring Rachel Musson’s freewheeling experimentalists, and to sell out both shows, can serve as an inspiring example of how unity can deliver results where narrow partisanship cannot. There was a great representation of oustanding local talent as well, and all kinds of well-attended and inspiring workshops and forums – here’s looking forward to next year.
A couple of months ago this column commended the writings of poet, jazz enthusiast and political and cultural arch-conservative Philip Larkin to your attention. In the interests of balance it seems right to spend a little time this month with the writings of Larkin’s near-contemporary Eric Hobsbawn. Like Larkin, Hobsbawn was renowned in a different area of intellectual attainment, in his case historical analysis – like him, he maintained from his youth a passionate interest in jazz, and like him he indulged this passion by writing reviews which he initially published under the pseudonym of ‘Francis Newton’. Both in their own ways pillars of the British intellectual establishment, the two men couldn’t have been more different in their political convictions. Larkin, writing for The Daily Telegraph, was determinedly provincial, politically reactionary, and his jazz writing was an extension of his rejection of modernism – Hobsbawn was an archetypically cosmopolitan Marxist intellectual, and his reviews were published in that house magazine of the British left wing, The New Statesman. His career as a jazz writer, starting like Larkin’s in that annus mirabilis of 1959, was far longer than Larkin’s, encompassing the revival of the 1980s – you can find an excellent selection of it in the Faber paperback The Jazz Scene.
As you would expect, there are marked contrasts between the two men. Hobsbawn was politically and socially committed to progress as he understood it, just as Larkin was committed to conservatism, and this informs his writing. Hobsbawn was aware of jazz as a cultural phenomenon within a social context, and this led him to examine aspects of the scene that Larkin wasn’t interested in. His breakdown of the economics of jazz business in the 1960s gives an informed opinion of a little-regarded but essential aspect of the underpinnings of the scene; his sociological analysis of typical British jazz fans of the era is equally fascinating and perhaps surprising (the most represented occupations are ‘engineers and electricians’ – what would a similar survey reveal today?). Hobsbawn saw jazz as a music of protest, and the musicians and fans as placed within a framework of class and racial struggle, but he was also a fan and, as a white Englishman and a non-musician, an outsider in the same way that Larkin was. His 1963 history of jazz shares some of the self-conscious earnestness in categorising the music into ‘schools’ and evaluating their relative importance that was typical of his generation, and some of his judgements seem eccentrically at odds with today’s accepted canon – writing in 1960, he classed Miles Davis as ‘a player of surprisingly narrow technical and emotional range… even within that range most of his records are not very good” – though he conceded that ‘some of Kind Of Blue contains genuinely imperishable stuff’. He shared some of Larkin’s distrust of the “excessively long, loud and undisciplined doodling” of the avant-garde – though he was an early supporter of Ornette, he thought Coltrane to be ‘in urgent need of sub-editing’. As befits a major analytical thinker, his work is full of detailed socio-cultural insights that Larkin, the poet, lacks. Yet despite their differences, both men came from the same social and cultural milieu – just as Larkin’s pathway to jazz started at his local Hippodrome, Hobsbawn remains the man who “at the age of sixteen, lost his heart for good to the Ellington band at its most imperial, playing what was called a ‘breakfast dance’ in a suburban London ballroom to an uncomprehending audience” – one of a generation who became entranced by a music that seemed so vital and exciting in the context of pre-war England, but which remained impenetrably ‘other’ – admired, cherished and critically evaluated, but never owned. For an insider’s view of jazz as it progressed through the UK in the later years of the 20th century, we shall have to turn to another major writer, Val Wilmer – but that can wait for another edition. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the listings and keep going to the gigs!