All that jazz
Philip Larkin loved trad jazz. John Harris grew up thinking nothing before bebop was worth listening to. So he tried to discover the appeal of Ellington and Basie
Saturday 21 May 2011
I can live a week without poetry," Philip Larkin said in 1965, "but not a day without jazz."
Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke: these were people all but idolised by Larkin. To some members of his generation, he later reflected, what they played "had the same emotional effect as perhaps 100 years ago the great poets had". In his case, the magic lingered on: if you want an image of the poet at his happiest, picture him with an early-evening gin and tonic, and trumpets and saxophones blaring from his record player.
Jazz, then, should be central to our understanding of who Larkin was, a fascinating influence on someone whose attachment to the music of black America can still seem unlikely. But make no mistake: he not only loved jazz, but was fantastically knowledgeable about it, as proved by his writing on the subject, mostly published in the Daily Telegraph and later anthologised in the collection All What Jazz. For the most part, his reviews were elegant, forensic and passionate, qualities that defined his opinions on both the music that he treasured, and the stuff he loathed.
He thought all in jazz had been well until the early 1940s. The music that had first emerged from such cities as New Orleans, Chicago and St Louis had become more exploratory and virtuosic, but retained its essential qualities – infectious rhythm, an accent on melody and an all-pervading sense of joy. But thereafter, the musicians who invented the free-flowing, transcendent music known as bebop had taken jazz into – as he saw it – a deeply ill-advised place, thanks to their embrace of two wider currents: the drive for African-American empowerment, and the iconoclasm and experimentation that Larkin also recognised in art, and maligned as "modernism". His vicious critique of all this is laid out in his infamous introduction to All What Jazz, written in 1968, a lengthy assault on "a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century".
The division between "traditional" and "modern" jazz is a crude distinction, which ignores the fact that all jazz was essentially modern in its impulses, and that one approach grew out of the other. But Larkin's tastes were defined by it. In his estimation, such musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk had begun the rot – and by the time such revered players as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman arrived, he had angrily tuned out.
I came of age in a culture in which the jazz both categorised and demonised as "trad" would not do at all. I have childhood memories that fit the picture – of impatiently flicking through the three TV channels, and alighting on ensembles of men in candy-striped waistcoats, blowing out a racket that seemed dated, even flatly silly. To hear any trad jazz standard was to be reminded of things both remote and irrelevant – flickering cinema screens, flappers dancing the Charleston, hair slicked back with brilliantine – signifiers of a world more distant even than that of the second world war.
Bebop and what had followed cemented a definition of cool that still seemed exciting beyond words: sharp clothes, French cigarettes, dangerous drug habits. I had Larkin's prejudices in complete reverse: my friends and I were passionate about both rock music and jazz, but anything before 1945 was anathema.
Most of that is, of course, a travesty. It confuses the washed-out approximation of early jazz offered by British revivalists with the genuine article – as if, say, Sidney Bechet and Acker Bilk were interchangeable. It pays no heed to that essential aspect of grown-up listening whereby one should often downplay the demands of the immediate moment, and try to understand the importance of context: what the music said in its time, what conventions it overturned, the effect that it had on its first listeners.
With a copy of All What Jazz in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, it was time to avenge all that, and somehow move on. "For the generations that came to adolescence between the wars," Larkin wrote, "jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand." The question was simple: was it possible to divine that same quality at several decades' distance?
In 2010, the Proper record label released a 4 CD-set titled Larkin's Jazz: 81 pieces of music, packaged in a box featuring an affectionate portrait of Larkin by Gerald Scarfe, and put together by Trevor Tolley and John White, the latter a former friend and colleague from the University of Hull. As a guide to Larkin's tastes, it's beyond criticism. As an extensive primer in the music's first few decades, it is almost as superlative – a portrait of jazz developing at speed, and gradually acquiring the confidence that so spectacularly flowered in the 1930s, with the decisive advent of the big bands, authors of the first music to evoke the dazzle and noise of the modern city.
At first, the music can be so frantic as to seem almost insane (listen, for example, to the Washboard Rhythm Kings' crazed "I'm Gonna Play Down by the Ohio", recorded in New Jersey in 1932, which seems to move at 3,000 miles per hour), which can perhaps be traced to a collective amazement that the musicians are not just being allowed to play it, but positively encouraged – and a corresponding suspicion that, at any second, the licence may be revoked. But when they acquire enough self-assurance to cool down and swing – as in the work of Duke Ellington and Count Basie – the musicians soar, and transcend both their era and any sense of being bound by generic constraints.
Over three weeks, I listened to Larkin's Jazz on the train, in the car, at home and in hotels. And as the music played and I scribbled down notes, I forgot about most of the technological limitations, dropped my guard, and found myself drawn in. Age had evidently opened my mind: not entirely surprisingly, even when it came to the music so beloved of the British revivalists, there were qualities I had never thought to divine. An abundance of the "happy, cake-walky syncopation that set feet walking and shoulders jerking" was obvious from the start. The best playing was indeed "relaxed and expansive". It is not one of his most elegant tributes, but the pieces here were endlessly "full of tunes you could whistle".
In defiance not only of the predicament of black America, but the grim events of inter-war history, just about every note on the four discs is suffused with a sense of hard-won happiness, which says a lot about why Larkin loved this music, and its relation to his own melancholia. The blues informed and often defined pre-war jazz, but even when its themes were introspective and sad – the titles on Larkin's Jazz include "I'm Down in the Dumps", "Nobody's Sweetheart" and "That's the Blues, Old Man" – they were usually delivered with a devil-may-care fatalism, so as to come out sounding life-affirming. Most of what he listened to was mood-lifting, which was presumably the whole point. In 1942, he wrote a letter to Kingsley Amis, while listening to Louis Armstrong's "Dear Old Southland", a characteristically ebullient piece in which the brass, piano and charging tempo conspire to evoke a mad night on the tiles. "To me the present is utterly repellent," he wrote, as Armstrong and his accomplices flew on. "I frequently want to lie down and vomit." If that were true, it was often jazz that allowed him a contrasting glimpse of joy – and therefore his own kind of equilibrium.
As the music on Larkin's Jazz played, much bigger themes came to mind. While listening to, say, "The Blues Jumped a Rabbit" by Jimmie Noone and his New Orleans Band, in which the languid atmosphere of Noone's home city is evoked beautifully and a piano player named Gideon Honore plays with amazing subtlety, a thought occurred to me, not for the first time: what a fascinating jumble of influences lay behind this music, and what incredible stories it continues to tell – among other things, of slavery and segregation.
Breathtaking paradigm shifts arrived. In the sax-playing of Coleman Hawkins, for example, one hears the opening-up of the ethereal, unbounded voice that would so dominate the world after bebop. And, inevitably, there were plenty of moments that defied analysis, and simply delivered an inexplicable rush. Of a Sidney Bechet piece released in 1940, Larkin once wrote (to his schoolfriend Jim Sutton): "I rushed out on Monday and brought 'Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning'. Fucking, cunting, bloody good! Bechet is a great artist. As soon as he starts playing, you automatically stop thinking about anything else and listen. Power and glory!" I now know what he means: in wartime Britain, this piece must have sounded like news from another world.
All that said, there are some sounds to which certain people will always be allergic. Aficionados will doubtless balk at this but, to my ears, there is something about the sound of a clarinet parping away while a trumpet hyperactively does much the same that will always seem so free of depth and pathos as to come out sounding trite. The same applies to scat singing: in such songs as "Squeeze Me", when it is done by Larkin's beloved Louis Armstrong, it's hard not to shake off the sense of an era when black musicians always felt the need to send the music up, and thereby sold themselves short. With his customary tact when it came to questions of race relations, Larkin identified one of jazz's watershed points as the moment when "the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man", which may say something about what can irk people about this music: the whiff of yes-sirree minstrelism, and music that eventually acquired real depth being sidetracked into camp, made all the more irritating by where it sits in relation to the colour bar.
And yet, and yet. At certain points, the music collected on Larkin's Jazz flies so high as to make the musicians, in glorious defiance of their time, sound like some of the most liberated people who have ever walked the earth – as happens with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. There are five pieces by the former's orchestra, recorded between 1936 and 1938: "One O' Clock Jump", "Sent for You Yesterday", "Every Tub", "Swingin' the Blues" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside" (plus "Shoe-Shine Boy" by Jones-Smith Incorporated, of which Basie was a member). On all of them, you hear a kind of jazz no longer in thrall to the Dixieland model of a whimsical mini-riot, but newly relaxed, and virtuosic.
Larkin wrote about this music with a fascinating mixture of measured analysis and poetic appreciation, as in his review of the album that took its title from that last piece: "I have never heard a band whoop in the last ride-out as this one, and how striking the accompaniments are – the menacing trombone figure behind [Buck] Clayton [trumpet], the harsh, falling single note behind [Lester] Young [saxophone] repeated like an accusation. 'Every Tub' is the band's most storming 'head', yet even with the excitement of the open trumpet and Basie's logical single-note line there are subtleties, such as the slight change of reed figure between second and third ensemble choruses. What a band it was!"
This suggests something that was also there in the music – a mixture of precise, almost mathematic calculation ("the slight change of reed figure between second and third ensemble choruses"), and a simultaneous sense of the music evoking things that were almost beyond explanation. For what it's worth, given that Basie spent this period of his career based in New York, the band's music is suggestive to me of a rapid, filmic journey past different urban scenes – whether intentionally or not, something evoked by ever-shifting passages, dominated in turn by each member of the band. Moreover, on "Sent For You Yesterday", you hear an underrated sound: saxes played in perfect unison, which somehow conjure up the cool glide of cars, moving uptown. Meanwhile, trumpet swells sound like blaring sirens, and the drums hiss and clatter like overhead trains. If ever music blurred seamlessly out into its surrounding environment, this was it.
In turn, pieces by Basie and Duke Ellington sent me back to one of the few pieces of pre-'45 music that had broken through my teenage closed-mindedness – not on Larkin's Jazz, although it could easily have been included. I first heard Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" – written by Billy Strayhorn in 1938, and first recorded by the Ellington orchestra in 1941 – on an awful 1980s Rolling Stones live album, on which it was used as the band's walk-up music. I have returned to it ever since. On the best versions, there is no messing about: without any preamble, the saxes begin humming the riff that seems to capture all of urban America's high-rise excitement, with trumpets bursting through like bright lights, before the arrangement speeds into passages so varied as to make three or four minutes seem twice as long. It is a work of amazing complexity, which manages to convey a simple kind of joy.
In short, everything in this music goes right, for ever; and one imagines Larkin tuning in – in Oxford, or Wellington or Coventry – with fusty old England closing in, but sounds from the New World exhorting him to muddle through. Power and glory, indeed.
John Harris's book The Beat of Happiness: Music Writing Inspired by Philip Larkin is funded by Arts Council England and commissioned by Hull City Council and Larkin25. Available from Hull City Arts for £3.95 p&p; enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org