Sunday, December 14, 2014

Philip Larkin - "All What Jazz"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For many years, Arthur Newman was a bookseller at a semi-annual, four-day Jazz Festival sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute which I regularly attended. He and his lovely wife sat quietly behind a table on which were arrayed a stellar collection of books on Jazz and its makers. They would enjoin browsers to “Let me know if you have any questions.”

Sadly, Mr. Newman is no longer in business having retired. But the good news is that he turns 100 today! [Happy Birthday, Arthur]

Over the years, I bought a number of books from Arthur, among them one with the defiantly provocative title of All What Jazz. by Philip Larkin. The tone and tenor of Mr. Larkin’s writing is as antagonistic as the book title implies. I rarely agree with much of what Mr. Larkin had to say in the reviews that make up his book, But I think the manner in which he writes them is exquisite. Here truly is a man of belles-lettres.

After I read the book, I placed it on a bookshelf and hadn’t thought about if for years until I encountered Joseph Epstein’s review of James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin in the Saturday, November 29, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

At the conclusion of his review Mr. Epstein notes that  “What … [Larkin] was opposed to, as he made perhaps too plain in the introduction to All What Jazz (1970), his collection of writings on Jazz, was modernism in the arts, as represented by such figures as Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Parker. He disliked such arts ‘not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.’"

That remark reminded me of the context of Philip Larkin’s criticism which led me back to revisiting the book.

By way of background, when Philip Larkin, already well known for his poetry, began reviewing jazz for the Daily Telegraph, a leading London newspaper, in 1961, he rapidly built himself a new and considerable reputation. A collection of these writings, which constituted a highly readable diary of the record scene between 1961 and 1968, was first published in 1970 as All What Jazz: A Record Diary. A new edition contains the whole of Larkin's output on the subject from 1961 to 1971, and a discography, revised for an American audience.

The pieces are prefaced by a provocative, semi-autobiographical introduction in which Larkin recounts the difficulties he experienced in reconciling himself to post-World War II Jazz, and how he finally came to see that mode in relation to twentieth-century art in general. He finds in the history of Jazz "a capsule history of all arts — the generation from tribal function, the efflorescence into public and conscious entertainment, and the degeneration into private and subsidized absurdity.” [Larkin was never one to mince words.]

Of his commentaries on a multitude of artists from every period of Jazz history, Larkin writes: "I tried in writing them to be fair and conscientious, and there were many times when I substituted 'challenging’ for 'insolent, 'adventurous' for 'excruciating,’ and 'colourful' for Viciously absurd' in a thoroughly professional manner. Although my critical principle has been Eddie Condon's 'As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?' I've generally remembered that mine was not the only ear in the world. Above all, I hope they suggest I love jazz."

These comments of Larkin's acute and lively volume are on the back of the dust jacket:

"Jazz is Larkin's first love and in the short notices collected in All What Jazz he gives his most unguarded and exultant endorsement of the kind of art he likes, along with his funniest and most irascible excoriation of the kind he doesn't.”
—Clive James, The Observer (London)

"Contains some of the best-written music criticism of its time."
—Robert Craft, The New York Review of Books

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has plans to feature a number of Mr. Larkin’s singular reviews on various Jazz artists and recordings during the next few months. Here is the first installment.

Looking Back at Coltrane

“The obituaries produced by the sudden death of John Coltrane sent me back to some of his records, picked out more or less at random: 'Black Pearls', 'Live at Birdland', 'A Love Supreme', 'Africa/Brass'. For though I do not remembering ever suggesting that his music was anything but a pain between the ears, here were The Times and Melody Maker (...) agreeing that Coltrane stood beside Hawkins, Young and Rollins in the roll of tenor players supreme. Was I wrong?

Well, I still can't imagine how anyone can listen to a Coltrane record for pleasure. That reedy, catarrhal tone, sawing backwards and forwards for ten minutes between a couple of chords and producing 'violent barrages of notes not mathematically related to the underlying rhythmic pulse, and not swinging in the traditional sense of the term' (Encyclopaedia of Jazz in the Sixties); that insolent egotism, leading to forty-five-minute versions of 'My Favourite Things' until, at any rate in Britain, the audience walked out, no doubt wondering why they had ever walked in; that latter-day religiosity, exemplified in turgid suites such as 'A Love Supreme' and 'Ascension' that set up pretension as a way of life; that wilful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration - all this, and more, ensure that, for me at any rate, when Coltrane's records go back on the shelf they will stay there.

Of course, a great deal of this falls into place if one reflects that Coltrane was a 'modern' jazzman. The adjective 'modern', when applied to any branch of art, means 'designed to evoke incomprehension, anger, boredom or laughter', and Coltrane was simply part of the melancholy tendency since 1945 to remove jazz from our pleasures and place it, with all the other 'modern' arts, among our duties. Much of this was doubtless due to the fact that Coltrane was an American Negro. He did not want to entertain his audience: he wanted to lecture them, even to annoy them. His ten-minute solos, in which he lashes himself up to dervish-like heights of hysteria, are the musical equivalent of Mr Stokely Carmichael. It is this side of his work that appeals to the Black-Power boys such as LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp; towards the end of his life, he had become associated with younger players of even wilder and more excruciating exhibitionism than himself, such as Pharaoh Sanders. It is not surprising that pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, for long his associates and admirers, quietly dropped off the wagon.

Virtually the only compliment one can pay Coltrane is one of stature. If he was boring, he was enormously boring. If he was ugly, he was massively ugly. To squeak and gibber for sixteen bars is nothing; Coltrane could do it for sixteen minutes, stunning the listener into a kind of hypnotic state in which he read and re-read the sleeve-note and believed, not of course that he was enjoying himself, but that he was hearing something significant. Perhaps he was. Time will tell. I regret Coltrane's death, as I regret the death of any man, but I can't conceal the fact that it leaves in jazz a vast, a blessed silence.

Coltrane is dead: long live [Ornette] Coleman! For if Coltrane 'progressed from' (i.e. was more horrible than) Parker, who but Ornette Coleman has progressed from Coltrane? Where Coltrane had two chords, Coleman has none at all, no pitch, no rhythm, no nothing. His latest two-disc record, 'Chappaqua Suite' (CBS), has a rib-tickling sleeve-note by some Frenchman which explains that an American film director, Conrad Rooks, commissioned Coleman to 'compose' some music for his film Chappaqua. Thereupon Coleman and his two sidemen, bassist Charles Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, accompanied by Pharaoh Sanders and 'eleven other very fine studio musicians', entered into Ornette Coleman's world and 'served his music with love'.

Unfortunately, when Rooks heard the result, he was stricken with doubts: 'Should he use a music in itself so beautiful? Should not [sic] its strength do harm to the picture instead of serving it?' In a word, he junked it, commissioned another score and presumably cut his losses by selling the tapes to a record company. One can see what he means. Despite the comparatively large personnel (not given on the sleeve), the seeming hours of music resolve into duets or trios between a horn, Coleman or Sanders, the drums, and the rest of the band, the latter sustaining long chords behind a foreground of wailing and twittering and battering and uneven thumps. This is free form. Its drawback is that it all sounds alike. I noticed some sort of spook gutbucket at the beginning of side two, and some presumably satiric swing-era cliches at the end of side one, but in the main the effect is like watching twenty monkeys trying to type the plays of Shakespeare.

Coleman's playing is utterly free from hostility: he is gentle, light-hearted, almost zany, and his alto tone is really rather pleasant. No doubt this could have been film music, and it could well have been a nicer film that Mr Rooks actually made. Something about pond life, with plenty of tadpoles.

August 1967 (unpublished)”

Did I mention that Mr. Larkin doesn’t mince words?

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