The autumn touring schedule has made it impossible for me to attend a single one of the many amazing gigs that comprise the EFG London Jazz Festival, and all that I’ve had to console for missing (yet again) the priceless opportunity of seeing Wayne Shorter is the chance purchase of a copy of Philip Larkin’s All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71, comprising record reviews that he wrote for the Daily Telegraph. Jazz critics, and critics in general, find themselves in an equivocal situation, trying to sustain their careers by gleaning crumbs dropped from the table of actual artists, with such creativity as they can muster entirely employed in assessing the creativity of others. Larkin is an exception – the writer of The Whitsun Weddings, who was offered and refused the post of Poet Laureate, has a claim to artistic stature in his field equal to those of the great musicians of the Golden Age whose seminal albums he reviewed – usually unkindly.
His personal reputation is rather another matter – there was a mixture of consternation, and probably some schadenfreude from vindicated modernists when Larkin’s personal correspondence revealed a morass of unpleasant opinions that were all firmly on the wrong side of what’s currently acceptable in those most fraught of contemporary subjects, racism and misogyny. At the very least, the epistolary light shone upon a man whose views were very typical of someone of his age, class and gender; his shortcomings in these areas were widely shared in the contemporary attitudes upon which so much effort has since been expended in our efforts to build a better society. Larkin’s writings on jazz give us an insight into how that music was received into unexpected areas of British society in the early years, and reveal a window into a very different world.
Larkin started reviewing in 1961, when he was nearly forty. In his youth he had been a passionate jazz fan and an amateur drummer – ‘few things have given me greater pleasure in life than listening to jazz’ declared this man who built his reputation upon an unsparingly incisive dismantling of the supposed joys of material existence. He discovered jazz in the first golden age of the 1930s, when Armstrong was contemporary and Basie, Goodman and Ellington were the avant-garde. The war and the American Federation Of Recording Musicians intervened, and like many of his generation he lost touch with jazz in the 1940s and early 50s; but when he was offered the review column in the Telegraph he approached it as ‘a jazz lover, someone unquestionably on the wavelength of Congo Square…. though I knew jazz had been changing, I didn’t believe it could alter out of all recognition any more that the march or the waltz could’.
Larkin thus came into the era of Coltrane, Coleman, Miles and Cecil Taylor with expectations shaped by the era of Bix Beiderbecke and Muggsy Spanier and was utterly horrified by what he found. It’s standard practice now to present the development of jazz as an apostolic succession, so that echoes of King Oliver can be traced in Freddie Hubbard and Sidney Bechet in John Coltrane, and each new generation of musicians is careful to show due reverence for the past; this attitude was not always so prevalent. Larkin considered what he found as ‘modern jazz’ to be utterly alienated from its roots – claiming that ‘nearly every characteristic of the music had been neatly inverted’ in the progression from the hot, syncopated dance music of the pre-war era to what he saw as the enervated intellectualism of the modernists.
Of course, Larkin had a general dislike of Modernism in all the arts, which he saw as an artificial fixation with experimenting with form at the expense of content. His critique of modern jazz in particular was echoed by many jazz fans of his generation in the UK though, and displays a socio-cultural undertone. What attracted them to jazz was its ‘hot’ character – the vigourously upbeat mood, the simplicity of form, the primacy of rhythm over harmony, the wide, almost-human vibrato and tonal exaggeration of the soloists that set the music firmly apart from the European classical tradition. You could uncharitably describe it as a fetishisation of a supposedly primitive ‘other’ which appealed precisely because it had none of the restraints of ‘high’ culture, and which could be safely appropriated by a dominant elite – such as Oxford-educated Larkin would neatly embody. The haughty intellectualism of Miles, the audible rage of Shepp and the spiritual ambitions of Coltrane were a direct challenge to this attitude. Duncan Heining has described in his excellent Trad Dads and Free Fusioneers how older British fans felt alienated by the way that, as they saw it, the music that they loved had been turned against them. The overt black nationalism of the radical 1960s generation seemed to deliberately exclude them even further. Yet, like Larkin, they genuinely loved jazz as they understood it, and felt a deep connection with the music of their youth; it seems unfair to dismiss them entirely as privileged cultural appropriators. Larkin tried to swallow the modernist pill, and though he’s famous for his hatchet jobs, his reviews also contain many sympathetic and positive insights. He was also perceptive enough to realise that many of the qualities he looked for in jazz had migrated into rock and roll; and any artist today struggling with their grant application, or trying to wrangle a decent fee out of promoters, will surely recognise his prescience when he wrote “the jazz band in the night club declined, and jazz moved, ominously, into the culture belt… concert halls, university recital rooms and summer schools …. this was bound to make the re-establishment of an artist-audience nexus more difficult, for universities have long been recognised as the accepted stamping-ground for the subsidised acceptance of art rather than the real purchase of it”.
The consequences of the cultural schism that opened up when the be-boppers stopped playing to the paying customers and set their sights upon a loftier cultural and artistic status are still not resolved, and Larkin’s writings give an insight into a perspective that is seldom heard today, but still contains a framing of issues that cannot be completely dismissed. Though how many today would agree with his assessment of Monk – “a not-very-successful comic, as his funny hats proclaimed; his faux naif elephant dance piano style, with its gawky intervals and absence of swing made doubly tedious by his limited repertoire” ? Or Coltrane – “metallic and passionless nullity giving way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions on not-especially-attractive themes upon which all possible changes were wrung, extended excursions of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity” ?
The old grouch certainly had a way with words, though I’m not sure I can forgive him for his comments on bass solos – “arid stretches of thirty-two or even sixty-four bars when some fervent bassist, aware that his instrument was ‘set free’ by Jimmy Blanton, demonstrates its half-audible limitations while the rest of the band rest their lips. Why? The bass is not an elephantine guitar – to make it sound like one is to use the foundation stone for the cornice”. Is nothing sacred?