The problem with post-bop jazz. For poet-critic Larkin, jazz lost its way when it forgot audience
All What Jazz, A Record Diary 1961-1971, by Philip Larkin. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 408 pp. $19.95 cloth, $9.95 paper. Philip Larkin is the best-known poet in England. With innumerable awards, the editorship of the epochal ``Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse,'' an international reputation, and an offer -- this is conjecture -- of the poet laureateship, Larkin has no peers. And, oh yes, he was jazz record reviewer for the Daily Telegraph between 1961 and 1971.
Oh yes! And this collection is simply splendid.
As a kid, Larkin tells us, he wanted to be a drummer. It was the rhythm. He drummed. Then he discovered jazz -- the third record (these were the days of 78's) he owned was ``Ain't Misbehavin','' by Louis Armstrong. He has remained true to Armstrong ever since. When the master died he wrote, ``The great oak'' has fallen.
In his introspective and very witty introduction to this book, Larkin explains that for him jazz is the kind of music Armstrong played. It was modern once; now it's called traditional. Whatever it's called, it appeals to the mind through the ear, and the foot taps when you hear it.
Larkin infamously dislikes jazz after Charlie Parker, after bop. But he started reviewing records not knowing that. As time went on and the columns piled up, he began to feel guilty. Jazz was the music invented by Negroes and played by Negroes and some whites who learned it from them. It was dance music. But by the '60s, jazz had became intellectualized and politicized.
Larkin, traditional as a poet, became aware that just as he didn't like the poetry written in admiration of Ezra Pound and the painting painted ``after'' Picasso, so he didn't like the jazz played after Parker. Pound, Picasso, Parker: the modernist triumvirate that changed the world.
Once he had figured that out, Larkin didn't feel guilty. He felt free to let fly. As a reviewer, he still had to cover the new jazz releases, and that he did, with tremendous conviction and great wit. His reviewing is quintessential criticism. It is as deeply considered as his poetry. Larkin's gift of phrase studs these columns with beautifully qualified, even definitive, judgments, as when he reviews a record by John Lewis, the pianist and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and concludes: ``all in all the record has Lewis's virtues of rather miniature sophistication and polish.''
Larkin is as good at blame as he is at praise. Invective is one of his strengths. He opens a column titled ``The Big Fellers'' (Nov. 10, 1965) this way: ``I freely confess that there have been times recently when almost anything -- the shape of a patch on the ceiling, a recipe for rhubarb jam read upside down in the paper -- has seemed to me more interesting than the passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.'' Memorable epithets are strewn generously: ``the vinegary drizzle'' of John Coltrane's t enor sax; ``the terrier-shaking-a-rat school of Archie Shepp (a white rat, of course).''
But his ``old interest,'' Larkin says, was always the dance band. Larkin's nostalgia is passionate. Of the great Basie band (1937-39), he says, ``I have never heard a band whoop in the last ride-out as this one. . . .'' Of a record by Pee-Wee Russell and his band: ``His timing is perfect, his phrasing oratorical without being melodramatic, his tonal distortions involuntary, and all is conceived in that vein of unique, hard-hitting lyricism the Commodore crew made the ir own.''
For Philip Larkin, poet, jazz is a rhetorical art. It involves jazzmen doing ``incandescent versions'' of tunes. It involves the musician, the tune, and the audience. What went wrong after Charlie Parker is that the jazzman forgot the audience, or narrowed it into a sect. Technique became all important. Those who know deserve to hear: Jazz had become a cerebral game, a head trip.
Larkin's viewpoint has been called -- and will be called -- reactionary. But it has the power to explain. Take my case: In the very years Larkin wrote his monthly column for the Daily Telegraph, I was ``into'' jazz: Davis and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman (I wrote a poem patterned after one of his spasmodic solos), and the rest. I read Downbeat and Metronome. To hear jazz radio I had to wait up late until I could pick up ``Jazz With Bowen'' from Salt Lake City. I played the trombone and studied theory.
Then suddenly I threw it all over. I gave away my records and ceased to care about jazz. Now I know why. Jazz had just been part of my adolescent rebellion. The jazz I listened to and read about and tried to play was itself a form of rebellion and experiment more than a form of art.
But I once saw Louis Armstrong. I went out to the dusty, tumbleweed-fenced Bakersfield International Airport to see him get off a plane; he had a gig somewhere in San Joaquin Valley. From the middle of the little crowd that had gathered to welcome the master, I strained to see that great black face crowned with perspiration and almost cried I was so excited.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.