I will admit that I am somewhat partial to Philip Larkin, warts and all. He is one of the few poets of the 20th-Century whose work I can read for more than, say, ten minutes and be entertained and edified. I have also enjoyed his literary criticism, as well as a volume of his letters. So I decided to try out his music criticism - jazz, specifically. From 1961 to 1971 Larkin wrote a monthly column for the "Daily Telegraph" in which he reviewed jazz recordings. They are collected, with an after-the-fact introduction, in ALL WHAT JAZZ.
Alas, at this remove, reading the book is a little like panning for gold: one has to sift through a lot of dirt and dross. But at least you know in advance that there will be an acceptable percentage of gold. Larkin's acerbic wit and amiable curmudgeonry (admittedly, an oxymoron of sorts) are in full and frequent display. Together with his opinionated enthusiasm, they elevate the book over any other conceivable collection of jazz record reviews from 40 to 50 years ago.
Not surprisingly, jazz to Larkin is traditional jazz, from before 1945 and bebop. "I can recognize jazz because it makes me tap my foot, grunt affirmative exhortations, or even get up and caper round the room. If it doesn't do this, then however musically interesting or spiritually adventurous or racially praiseworthy it is, it isn't jazz." Along the same lines: "The jazz that conquered the world (and me) was the jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, Bix and the Chicagoans. What Parker, Monk, Miles and the Jazz Misanthropes are playing can be Afro-American music for all I care, but it isn't jazz."
At times Larkin realizes that he is a cultural fossil and that the jazz that won his allegiance was in a death spiral. Among the nuggets of the book are his sporadic attempts at analyzing and explaining its demise. A lot of it, he writes, had to do with changes in the relationship of the American Negro within American society. "The Negro is in a paradoxical position: he is looking for the jazz that isn't jazz. Either he will find it, or - and I say this in all seriousness - jazz will become an extinct form of music as the ballad is an extinct form of literature, because the society that produced it has gone."
Perhaps the most noteworthy passages of the book are when Larkin goes beyond jazz and discusses its transformation in the broader context of cultural modernism. He sees Parker as a practitioner of modernism in jazz, just as Pound and Picasso were in their respective fields (the three chosen for alliterative effect). "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. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power."
Larkin is at his peak in creatively heaping scorn on some of the preeminent figures of what was then "modern" jazz: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and - especially - John Coltrane. "With John Coltrane metallic and passionless nullity gave way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions on not-especially-attractive themes during which all possible changes were rung, extended investigations of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity. It was with Coltrane * * * that jazz started to be ugly on purpose."
I've highlighted Larkin's prejudices. If they are in line with yours, and if you are willing to wade through scads of reviews of now-forgotten records and artists from decades ago, you should find ALL WHAT JAZZ worthwhile. Otherwise, the book is probably of interest only to the Larkin compleatist - a category on whose door I seem to be knocking.