Why I never got to talk jazz with Philip Larkin

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The Independent Online

Philip Larkin reviewed jazz for The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971. I reviewed jazz for The Times for much of the same period, from about 1965 to the late 1970s, so I used to fantasise about bumping into him at a jazz gig, a tall, kindly, balding man with whom I would have learned conversations, or at least a drink. But I never did encounter him. And the reason why I didn't gradually dawned on me. He wasn't there. He never went to jazz gigs. He never got out of the house. All he ever reviewed was jazz records.

His collected reviews were issued years ago under the title All What Jazz by Faber, and featured a painting of Larkin on the cover, holding a pair of drumsticks. What a batty idea. The thought of Larkin actually playing an instrument makes you laugh, and the idea of him playing drums, an instrument reserved for the more loony, hard-drinking and extrovert members of any group, is ridiculous. You might have found him bent over a piano, like Bill Evans, or piping on an alto, like Paul Desmond, but thrashing a drum kit ?

It was 1970 when that first came out, and 1985 when a revised edition appeared. Nearly 20 years ago. I thought that his jazz writing must be long forgotten, but BBC Radio 3 is currently putting out a small series called Larkin's Likes (bit of a clumsy title) that features some commentary on Larkin's reviews, some readings of them by Tom Courtenay in a thin, spinsterish voice, and far too much music from the records he reviewed. Still, it encouraged me to get down the book and have another look at his writing, and try to remember why I risked the wrath of the jazz fraternity by once being nice to him.

This was in 1992, when I was compiling an anthology of jazz writing for HarperCollins, and I put in a small section called "Bits of Larkin" (another clodhopping title, come to think). This wasn't because I thought Larkin said anything very enlightening about jazz. His opinions were either predictable or frightened. He liked almost everything in jazz up to 1940, and hated almost everything after about 1960, the date, he would have said, when ugliness started to take over. If you ask an informed jazz-lover for his view of Larkin's stance, you will get one of the two following responses:

1 Wasn't he the bloke who hated John Coltrane and feared Miles Davis? Stupid fool.

2 Wasn't he the bloke who hated John Coltrane and feared Miles Davis? Bully for him!

Yes, Larkin reviewed on the basis of prejudices that had mostly been formed by the time he left Oxford, and whether you liked his stuff or not depended a lot on whether you shared his bias towards jazz that was played before it all turned nasty. But I was tickled by his firm refusal to kowtow to unthinking modernism, and I also thought that his style was so much more elegant than almost any other jazz reviewer, that I couldn't resist putting a short section of quotable quotes in the anthology.

It didn't win me any friends. Several jazz people said to me, in anger or horror, "What on earth made you quote from Larkin? That bastard set back jazz appreciation hundreds of years!" I was unmoved. One, more knowledgeable than the rest, said, "Why did you waste 10 pages on Philip Larkin when you could have devoted them to Otis Ferguson?", and I was a little moved because he was right, and Otis Ferguson is a great forgotten cultural hero of the 1930s who is still awaiting rediscovery.

But I have also been sent back to look at Larkin's stuff again, and although some of it is odd, and some is purely nostalgic, and all of it smells of a man who never got out to hear any jazz, still, even when Larkin was wrong or unorthodox, he said it better than people who were smugly right.

Witness something he wrote about St John Coltrane:

"His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about 50 of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line, not drawing 50 alternatives."

It's a wonderful image. And every time I tire of a Coltrane solo before Coltrane tires of it, I don't think it's so very far off the mark.