The writer Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was born on August 9, 1922, and this essay is part of a commemoration of his centenary. — Ed.
Reading the jazz criticism of the poet Philip Larkin today, the most noticeable feature is how much of the music he did not like. His antipathy towards certain major artists now seems almost incomprehensible. But although the vast majority of contemporary critics, musicians, and fans would be flabbergasted by his various negative judgments, these are often the most fascinating aspects of his work, harkening as they do to a very different world, one in which musical preferences were rooted in ideas about art itself rather than elitist consensus; perhaps even antithetical to it. Jazz was for Larkin a vital artistic force, full of beauty and human warmth, capable of tapping the subconscious in ways other music could not, but it was also a vehicle for the destructive impulses of modernism.
Larkin’s jazz writing is not only interesting as music literature and cultural commentary but as a fascinating documentation of transitional jazz historical phases: the evolution of Dixieland and swing to bebop, bebop to hard bop, and hard bop to free form is charted by Larkin through numerous record reviews and essays. Rather than the dry and matter-of-fact acceptance of it all that one gets in most formal histories and critical literature, we have in Larkin the carefully considered thoughts of an intelligent fan reacting to a changing artistic world with a candor rarely seen at the time — or since. Though it is a challenge to agree with many of his conclusions, as an example of perceptive and witty art criticism from the Right, Larkin’s jazz writing stands out.
By the end of the twentieth century, jazz criticism had been subsumed almost entirely into the morass of carefree equalitarianism that spread virally across white Western cultures in the middle of the century. Divergences of opinion among earlier fans and critics on particular musicians and stylistic trends, which had been both educational and entertaining (e.g., Benny Goodman versus Artie Shaw, Coleman Hawkins versus Lester Young, Buddy Rich versus Gene Krupa) came to be seen as passé and irrelevant. Jazz fans in the early decades of the music’s history often had lists of musicians they did not like as long as the lists of ones they did, but this gradually gave way to the liberal Zeitgeist and a hesitancy to make thoughtful judgments at all. There was no bad genre of jazz, just as there were not really any bad jazz musicians. As with all modern art, those who resisted the self-indulgence and ugliness of the avant-garde were deemed unsophisticated or crudely reactionary. The discordant chaos of free-form jazz was, to critics’ ears, as good and respectable as the orchestral majesty of Stan Kenton or Duke Ellington, the blistering improvisations of Charlie Parker, or the melancholic lyricism of Chet Baker. The “jazz greats” were equally great and equally jazz, with no underlying philosophical differences between them.
What we get from Larkin, however, is that this notion is nonsense: Jazz has specific musical characteristics and a specific spiritual value above and beyond music. As such, not all things considered jazz are actually jazz, nor are all jazz musicians equally capable of great art. Larkin immensely dislikes those who try to expand the scope of jazz, narrow its audience, or excuse that which he perceives as philosophically modern. While curmudgeonly, Larkin’s criticism tends to take the music more seriously than does the bulk of jazz writing in subsequent years: jazz means something beyond mere taste and should serve a beneficial spiritual function for its fans. Even those who would now disagree with many of Larkin’s assessments about particular musicians (or jazz itself) cannot help but feel through his writing a reconnection to the music, a desire to rethink and defend one’s opinions intelligently, and a sense that the art form of jazz really does matter.
The first major musical shift within jazz history occurred during the 1940s, when bebop threw a curveball of frenetic technique at the world of tradition. Referred to contemporaneously as “modern jazz,” the new music was decidedly dissimilar to earlier forms, especially the music which had originated in New Orleans in the first years of the twentieth century and spread north to Chicago and New York, and which had enthralled a generation of young men across America and, eventually, Europe. This early jazz (comprising various styles but often lumped together in popular terminology as Dixieland) was what cast its spell over the European Larkin:
Readers of this column may rest assured that as long as there is any swinging or Dixieland jazz in straight two or four on recent records they will hear about it. The rest will be judged by the degree to which it approximates to the excitement produced by the aforesaid swinging or Dixieland jazz.
His reviews frequently proclaim the greatness of Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon, and other names one would expect, but are also littered with names of musicians who are not at all well-known today. Reading thoughtful discussions of these artists is of value in itself, but it is the tension between the jazz he loved and his deep distaste for bebop (and most of what followed) that gives his writing a unique energy.
For Larkin, the often blindingly fast tempos and virtuosic improvisations of bebop musicians were an affront not only to jazz, but to art itself. There was a direct connection between the music of Charlie Parker and the poetry of the equally detested Ezra Pound: “. . . I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.” Modern jazz was the sound of mystification, violence, and obscenity. It was a novelty, utterly lacking in that which uplifts the soul. From Larkin’s perspective, jazz was deteriorating almost beyond recognition by the 1960s, with only a few stalwarts valiantly defending tradition in a sea of revolutionary dreck. He did everything a critic could to discredit modern jazz and extoll the music and implicit corresponding values of the traditionalists he loved.
What was it about jazz that Larkin, a Rightist with an obvious, if often subtle, race-consciousness, loved enough to devote considerable amounts of time and effort to it? The best place to start is his first unpublished piece on jazz written in 1940 at the age of 18. Though muddled and often pretentious, Larkin in “The Art of Jazz” was clear in his belief that jazz was to be taken seriously: “. . . the unconscious is in a new state, and has a new need, and has produced a new art to satisfy that need, and it is well that we should understand.” Even as a very young man, he recognized the importance of jazz as a shift in man’s relation to the world, a momentous occasion in art. And at the time of writing, jazz had many detractors who saw it is as a savage attack on culture. For Larkin, however, jazz at its best was an expression of previously inarticulable facets of human experience: Its intimate psychological character was apparent in the pronounced vibrato of the clarinets and saxophones, the emotive growling and singing of brass, and the primal “hot” rhythms of the drums (his instrument of choice as a child). These characteristics were entirely unique to jazz, completely unlike classical, “legit” music. Jazz was real-time communication between the souls of the artist and audience, improvised like a conversation, feeding off the back-and-forth energy of the exchange. Jazz was music by and for the common man, and it was good because it made him happy.
“What was so exciting about jazz was the way its unique, simple gaiety instantly communicated itself to such widely differing kinds of human being,” he wrote in response to an author who had suggested that jazz appreciation since bebop required some degree of technical musical knowledge. The post-war retreat of jazz into the world of the mind, inward and away from the audience, from the nightclub to the concert hall, from the street to academia, was, for Larkin, detrimental — perhaps fatal — to the music and helped to render the world from which it sprang to the dustbin. “The effete condition of classical music after 300 years has been reached by jazz itself in under half a century,” he wrote. By the end of the 1950s, modern jazz artists, for whom the audience had become secondary at best and a nuisance at worst (e.g. Miles Davis playing with his back to the crowd or Charles Mingus’ onstage temper tantrums), appeared on the scene, forcing the gradual disappearance of the casual, positive interaction between artist and audience which for Larkin was integral to jazz. The music had stopped being communal, instead becoming academic and elitist.
The insularity and self-indulgence of modernism opened paths for politics to enter the scene and, for jazz, this too often meant that blacks no longer wanted “to entertain the white man.” Long before the recent sacralization of blacks across white cultures, there was in the jazz world a similar phenomenon. Despite overwhelming evidence of a multiracial origin to the music, black jazz musicians were very often given a degree of legitimacy denied to whites. This was largely a result of (often Jewish) critics and historians transposing their racial animus onto the jazz world. For their part, however, fans were generally content to listen to and enjoy the music without much considering the race of the musicians when assessing quality, but the trend of modern jazz was towards racialization and away from earlier (semi-)colorblindness.
Though he had no problem with racial differences per se, which he took as a given and deemed perfectly natural, Larkin did not accept the explicitly hostile racial politicization of modern jazz that had begun creeping into it around 1960. He wrote in 1970: “. . . I still think it’s possible to instance this or that as good white or black jazz, with the implication that the other race could not have done it as well and no offence meant.” From a piece on the blues one year earlier:
I am getting rather tired of the blues boom. Having for thirty years known the blues as a kind of jazz that calls forth a particular sincerity from the player (‘Yeah, he’s all right, but can he play the blues?’), or as a muttering, plangent lingua franca of the southern American Negro, it gives me no pleasure to hear it banged out in unvarying fortissimo by an indistinguishable series of groups and individuals of both races and nations. The blues is tough, resilient, basic, ubiquitous. But it is not indestructible, and if we go on like this the day will come when the whole genre will be as tedious as, say, the Harry Lime theme.
Larkin resists the pollution of the blues by mediocrities with little actual connection to it, even hinting that the white blues musician could be seen as an interloper. Race is seen as a fact of existence which necessarily has an effect on an artist’s soul but does not have to — nor should — drag him into a swamp of politics and messy history. Jazz was supposed to be a refuge from such worldly concerns. And, of course, he was right about the blues. It has devolved into one of the blandest and meaningless of all musical forms. Rightists, as always, have a keen sense of impending destruction.
But mostly Larkin resented the intrusion of anti-whiteness into jazz, perhaps especially so because it was inevitably exhibited by musicians for whom he would have had no respect regardless. Discussing Archie Shepp, for example, Larkin writes of the saxophonist’s “death-to-all-white-men wails”; about John Coltrane, he writes that his late period solos are “the musical equivalent of Stokely Carmichael” and that this music (free form jazz) “appeals to the Black-power boys.” As a jazz fan, he found the music agitating and ugly; as a critic of modernism, it was symptomatic of its inherent ills; and as a white man, he took offense. He writes: “The adjective ‘modern’, when applied to any branch of art, means ‘designed to evoke incomprehension, anger, boredom or laughter’,” and then states that Coltrane and others like him were a part of the transformation of jazz from a pleasure to a duty. Part of the “duty” of jazz had become the inability to avoid burgeoning black race-consciousness. He longed for the old days.
While it is refreshing to read criticism from a man who is generally unafraid to express displeasure with icons in a world in which judgment itself is frowned upon — especially the jazz world, which is often an incestuous love-fest of men starved of discernment — it is very hard for contemporary readers to hear with Larkin’s ears. One can understand and even sympathize with his position on modernism in jazz, but a reader rejecting John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker based on his criticism is even more unlikely now than it was then. By definition, then, he is unconvincing, and indeed antiquated.
Much of the music deemed radical at the time by Larkin now sounds conservative, while his treasured early jazz can sound far more wild to contemporary ears than it did in Larkin’s time. The group improvisations of Dixieland are often jarringly raucous to present-day listeners, while John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or Charlie Parker’s lightning-fast bebop sound perfectly normal. Does this indicate that the slippery slope of modernism is real or merely that tastes change? I believe, in the case of jazz, it is more often than not the latter. This shift was organic, developing simply from musicians playing music in groups and trying out new sounds and new techniques in their constant quest to create better art. It is, I would suggest, rarely more complex than that. A serious commitment to philosophical modernism by jazz fans and musicians would see Peter Brötzmann selling as many records as Miles Davis, and Evan Parker playing to larger crowds than Scott Hamilton. But this does not happen. There is, clearly, a natural limit to what kind of art the common man appreciates. Within that limit, though, are diverse avenues for artistic expression. There is not one form of jazz uniquely capable of expressing beauty: tonality, order, and emotional sanity still reign in jazz, despite many decades of elitist efforts to valorize the avant-garde. Modern jazz fans — those who enjoy jazz styles connected in some way to the bebop shift — still rarely listen to Archie Shepp. In this way, Larkin was quite possibly correct about modernism but wrong about which jazz musicians were, in fact, modernists.
Modern jazz quite clearly better filled the need for the new “unconscious” Larkin spoke of in his youth than did early jazz. Larkin failed to perceive that his taste in jazz was a product of his age and time, perhaps not realizing just how far removed the world of early jazz was — or would become — from contemporary audiences. Though, like all art, the best of it is timeless, the circumstances in which it is created are fleeting. Art is always contextual. A man of similar temperament to Larkin’s who discovers John Coltrane or Charlie Parker before Bix Beiderbecke or Bessie Smith (as most new jazz fans have since the 1960s) will have a vastly different starting point upon which to base his own version of “traditionalism.” Thus, one cannot help but think that Larkin was somewhat of a nostalgic. The pleasurable days of listening to jazz with his university chums became an ideal to which he longed to return, blinding him to examples of modern jazz that possessed the characteristics of art he appreciated but which were in fact merely stylistically different.
Larkin resented what he felt — and some critics argued — was the need for modern jazz fans to understand music theory in order to appreciate it, but this was never required. People fell in love with Charlie Parker’s music because it was exciting and communicated something relatable to them — the same reason Larkin fell in love with Sidney Bechet’s music. Of course, more knowledge leads to deeper understanding, but the vast majority of people who find enjoyment and meaning in modern jazz are not musicians. Larkin often mistakes taste for philosophy: genuine innovation and organic stylistic shifts do not always arise from philosophical trends, nor are they always a willful rejection of tradition.
Regarding race, it was naïve on Larkin’s part to assume that jazz would somehow remain indifferent to or transcend racial politics. As I have written before, jazz is perhaps the only genuinely positive result of multiracialism, but as a civilizational framework riddled with impossible utopian fictions, it was always doomed to devolve as reality reared its head. The jazz world, despite its relative racial tolerance, is not exempt from reality. It is hardly the fault of Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, or any of the “Black-power boys” that black jazz musicians became publicly and explicitly race-conscious. What is far more surprising is that white jazz musicians almost never did. This is a problem that goes far beyond modernism in jazz.
I believe that the notion of jazz degenerating over time, of which Larkin was convinced, has been proven historically false: Despite its radical origins, good jazz, traditional or modern, elevates the soul, enhances the lives of its fans, and its artistically successful practitioners are necessarily intelligent and sensitive. Though jazz fans have indeed become too accepting of mediocrity and outright hucksters, one finds among them a fairly consistent high level of sophistication and discernment — with or without musical training.
Larkin’s fears, grounded though they were in broader issues of real import, were largely unfounded. Reading his opinions on jazz will, however, always be immensely pleasurable. His honesty and willingness to address issues that almost no one will touch today makes his jazz writing a must-read for jazz fans of the Right, who will doubtless seek out mentioned recordings, listen with fresh ears, and thoroughly enjoy the humanity of jazz — just as Larkin, fundamentally, would have wanted.
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 Philip Larkin, “‘I’m Coming! Beware of Me!’” in All What Jazz: A Record Diary (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1985), 198.
 To hear specific examples of what he loved, I highly recommend the compact disc boxed set entitled Larkin’s Jazz, Proper Records, 2010.
 Philip Larkin, All What Jazz, 27.
 Philip Larkin, “The Art of Jazz,” in Larkin’s Jazz: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, Richard Palmer & John White, eds. (New York: Continuum, 2001), 170.
 Philip Larkin, “Should Jazz Be an Art?” in Larkin’s Jazz, 55.
 Philip Larkin, “Jazz as a Way of Life” in All What Jazz, 69.
 Philip Larkin, All What Jazz, 24.
 Philip Larkin, “The Colour of Their Music” in All What Jazz, 251.
 Philip Larkin,”Blues Bash” in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1984), 303.
 Philip Larkin, “The Funny Hat Men” in All What Jazz, 179.
 Philip Larkin, “Looking Back at Coltrane” in All What Jazz, 187.
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