Friday, 29 December 2017


I wrote this piece for the Daily Telegraph back in 1999. 'Not Jazzy Phil' their photo caption ran. This morning Kevin Jackson was having a bit of a discussion about the modernists and their reactions to jazz music, so I decided to dig it out and republish it here.  I use the Telegraph's title below:


Philip Larkin may or may not have believed that ‘sex began in 1963’, but he certainly believed jazz had already died long before the Beatles issued their first LP.  In his words it was “as dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing.” This collection seeks to rebut the received view of Larkin as musical arch-conservative, but actually manages to reinforce strongly that judgement, thus suggesting a terrible paradox. How does a man who feels music so deeply and writes about it so well become so tone deaf?

Larkin discovered jazz through dance music, the pop of his youth. It became part of his “private joke of existence”. He relished the escape it provided. “I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz,” he said. He disliked anything that took jazz away from its roots in American folk blues, as if he begrudged jazz musicians their own aspirations to more self-conscious art. There is of course a racial element; but Larkin has been attacked enough for his retroactive affronts to political correctness. Yet while it would be churlish to use these reviews as further ammunition against his prejudice, it’s impossible to see this collection as in any way disproving it.

His complaints about be-bop taking jazz out of the realms of popular music echo those of rock fans who complain the music hasn’t been the same since Buddy Holly died. He never realised that pop music was already moving away from his sort of jazz by the time he became a fan, and it was inevitable that jazz itself would change. One may prefer Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker, Henry Allen to Miles Davis, but would you feel comfortable asserting Hodges and Allen blew the others “out of the room”? When, eventually, he acknowledges Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in his “year’s best” choices, he does it only out of a grudging sense of responsibility to reality. 

Larkin writes precisely, so it’s hard to grant him leeway. He even has the chutzpah to criticize others for “dragging in culture references”, while himself using the adjective “Henchardian". Amusingly, the editors have culled Larkin’s poetic phrases and listed them in the book’s introduction. This has the effect, like a well-produced trailer for a bad movie, of suggesting that’s all there is on offer. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. 

While not revealing a kinder, gentler Jazzy Phil, this is still a valuable collection. Yet it's most revealing when Larkin reviews, not music, but a fellow writer, the New Yorker's jazz critic Whitney Balliett. He admires Balliet, but is also almost haughtily suspicious of his catholic enthusiasms. And there is the crux of the matter. Larkin’s inability to gain pleasure from anything but the music that first gave him that exciting release when he was young is the very definition of a fetishist, and reveals him as someone more intent on recapitulating that pleasure than making a fan's progress through the seasons of jazz.

Balliett once wrote “it is a compliment to jazz that nine-tenths of the writing about it is bad.” Larkin’s writing falls into that precious one-tenth. If only he could have shared one-tenth of Balliett’s eclectic enthusiasm.

REFERENCE BACK: Philip Larkin’s Uncollected Jazz Writings 1940-84

Edited by Richard Palmer and John White

University of Hull Press, 191pp, 19.99

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