Last month, when unveiling my all-time top ten favourite albums, I predicted that the list would probably have changed by the autumn. In fact, it changed within days of filing my copy.
For along came Larkin’s Jazz, which I think is the finest, most scholarly and above all wonderfully entertaining and affecting CD collection that has come my way since starting this column nine years ago.
I have already written about it briefly in the Telegraph, after it first landed on my doormat almost a month ago, but further listening, and reading the superbly annotated 56-page booklet that accompanies it, has deepened my admiration for this four-CD set, compiled with manifest love and care by Trevor Tolley and John White, the latter a friend and colleague of Larkin’s for many years at Hull University. The fact that this cornucopia of riches from Proper Records is available on Amazon for £9.99 strikes me as little short of miraculous.
Larkin fell in love with jazz as a boy of about 11, rather as those of my generation fell in love with the Beatles and the Stones in the early Sixties. Indeed two of his poems are actually about jazz. In ‘For Sidney Bechet’, his ode to the great New Orleans soprano sax and clarinet player, he wrote: ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should,/ Like an enormous Yes.’
And in ‘Reference Back’ he describes returning to his family home in adulthood and listening to the old 78s he purchased in his youth, establishing a ‘sudden bridge’ of contact with his mother, who observes ‘that was a pretty one’ when he plays King Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’. It’s a wonderful poem about age and loss and unsatisfactory family relationships, but the love of jazz — ‘the flock of notes those antique negroes blew’ — is manifest amid the distinctive Larkinesque gloom.
For a decade, between 1961 and 1971, Larkin was the jazz record reviewer of the Telegraph, and one of the great features of this CD is that his favourite numbers are accompanied in the extensive liner notes by his own words about particular tracks.
As one might expect, Larkin’s tastes were conservative. He loathed bebop and almost everything that followed it and, in his introduction to his collected reviews, All What Jazz (Faber, £14.99), he used what had happened to the music he loved as the starting point for a potent attack on the evils of modernism in general, with Pound, Picasso and Charlie Parker comprising an unholy trinity of those he regarded as being among the worst offenders. To him, they exemplified the type of art that ‘requires special knowledge to appreciate it…and which helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.’
He could be wonderfully withering. John Coltrane, he said, was ‘the master of the thinly disagreeable, who sounds as if he is playing for an audience of cobras’. Thelonious Monk, meanwhile, was ‘the elephant on the keyboard’.
All this will simply confirm the view of Larkin held by many bien-pensants that the poet was a curmudgeonly reactionary, which I suppose in many ways he was, though the best of his poems, with their sharp perceptions and ache of melancholy, tell a much richer story.
And so, too, do the jazz recordings included here. As well as being a great hater, Larkin was a superbly eloquent enthusiast when describing the jazz that really did the trick for him.
‘A.E. Housman said he could recognise poetry because it made his throat tighten and his eyes water,’ Larkin wrote in All What Jazz. ‘I can recognise jazz because it makes me tap my foot, grunt affirmative exhortations, or even get up and caper round the room.’ The music he loved ranged from early New Orleans Jazz, through the Chicago style and its revival by Eddie Condon and his associates, as well as such great artists as Armstrong (the ‘combined Chaucer and Shakespeare of jazz’ for Larkin), Ellington, Basie and Lester Young.
All of these and many more — a real discovery for me was Billy Banks and the Rhythmakers, great favourites of Larkin who blow up an absolute storm — are generously featured in the collection. So, too, are such talents as Fats Waller, the singers Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Jimmy Rushing, and even a few more modern jazzers such as Dave Brubeck and Earl Bostic. Indeed the latter’s big hit, ‘Flamingo’, once inspired Larkin into one of his famous capers round the room, hilariously described here by one of his friends.
Larkin said he could ‘live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz’, and believed it was best enjoyed with ‘a pint of gin and tonic — the best remedy for a day’s work I know’. With or without the gin, this great box set will be a terrific tonic for anyone who loves jazz, Larkin’s poetry and preferably both.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.