Larkin about with jazz
By Philip Larkin
Apart from being the best Poet Laureate we never had, Philip Larkin was also the jazz reviewer of The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971, and this collection of his jazz pieces first appeared in 1970. Very few people could understand at the time why such a quirky, anti-modernist, opinionated anthology had been published. It seems almost incomprehensible that it should be republished now, full as it is of outmoded attitudes and front-line reports on long-lost battles. All I can say is that I am delighted to see such a fount of common sense and clear thinking available again.
What Larkin was saying, in a nutshell, was that from 1945 onwards the Emperor was wearing no clothes. Charlie Parker appeared scantily clad, Miles Davis followed almost naked, and John Coltrane was universally cheered for being totally nude. Well, every jazz fan has his own cut-ff point and mine is slightly later than Larkin’s; so I do not follow all his strictures on Parker and Davis, but where Coltrane is concerned I am completely with him. More important, I agree with his general thesis that jazz has taken only fifty years to reach an arid intellectual state, or disappear up its own backside, where it took classical music 300 years to achieve the same destination.
By an odd chance, I was reviewing jazz for The Times during the same period, if slightly later (1965-1975), and although I was dealing with live performances while Larkin wrote only about records, I came to the same conclusions as he did. Somewhere along the line jazz lost its joyfulness, its trust in the audience, its ability to rely on instinct, and became just another modern art, home-sick in the wilderness and refusing to own up to it. What Larkin does not mention is that in the last 10 years jazz has, miraculously, spotted its own headlong rush to the cliff-top and reversed the trend towards modernism. It isn’t the first time this has happened; jazz at the end o f the 1950s was less modern than bepop of the 1940s, and all the better for it. I think he would quite enjoy some of the things going on today.
As it is, this is a refreshing commonplace book of Larkin’s thoughts on jazz, at its best when he allows side-tangents to wander in. There are in fact very few writers on jazz I would recommend as writers. Whitney Balliett, Boris Vian, and Micahael Zwerin are the only three I can think of off-hand. Philip Larkin is an automatic fourth, despite the scrappy nature of his comments, his determined amateurism and his prejudices. I don’t mean despite at all, of course: I mean because of.
The Times June 20th 1985