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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tragic (in kind of a good way), 8 Mar. 2007
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This review is from: All What Jazz: A Record Diary, 1961 - 1971 (Paperback)
Neither of the other two reviewers (so far) have got this book right. Larkin did not 'hate jazz as we know it'; neither does his 'critique of modernism' have unquestionable validity. I'm going to patronise Larkin and call him a Case; the case of Larkin needs to be looked at, because here is a major poet whose greatness is partly about being narrow and resentful and defensive, and that's reflected in his record reviews too.

I first read this book in my teens; a kindly aunt heard that I was interested in jazz (I play guitar) and bought it for me. For years, this was my guide to what was good and what wasn't. I could tell even then that Larkin had strong likes and dislikes, and that a lot of the stuff he clearly hated sounded like I might enjoy it. (Reviewers who go on record about how much they hate the item under review should bear in mind that somebody out there will always think 'Hey, if that idiot hated it that much it must be pretty good.') Nobody reading this book could deny that Larkin had enormous respect for early modernists like Parker and Powell, even if you get the impression that he didn't love their music. This book sent me to that music, and I love it now.

His enthusiasm for early jazz is, it has to be said, informed and precise and infectious, in that it makes you want to listen to the musicians Larkin clearly loved (he basically had a problem with anything made after 1945 or so). His explicit dislike and disapproval of the New Thing is most focused in his hatred for the music of John Coltrane, and yet while I love Coltrane's music and think that Larkin was missing out, Larkin is always most articulate when he's explaining why he doesn't like it. Larkin clearly enjoyed jazz as a respite, as a joyful escape, a happy place. Little wonder that Coltrane's deeply serious and engaged music did nothing for him, and no surprise that he had more time (if not very much more) for the sunnier music of Ornette Coleman.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that Larkin had difficulty taking black people's art seriously if it wasn't four-squarely entertaining; his racist opinions in letters and so on have been documented elsewhere. But he was not just another middle-class white guy; he was extremely intelligent and had many demons. The story told in the chronological ordering of 'All What Jazz' is ultimately a tragic one. It's the story of jazz outgrowing Larkin's patronage of it, to the point where he came to feel that it wasn't speaking to him anymore, and since there were few art forms that he had loved more, it must have come to him as a terrible betrayal. This book is proof that a 'tin ear' doesn't have to come from insensitivity to the beauty of music as such, but can also be acquired, slowly and painfully, when you begin to suspect that the people making the music that you love do not want to make it for you anymore. Larkin wasn't religious and could hardly have been attracted to something as violent and devotional as Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' or 'Ascension'. He wanted to jazz to go on being the music he'd been young to. That it couldn't do that was its glory and our benefit, but his personal tragedy.

In the meantime, the records of Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor and so on are still there, untouched by Larkin's lack of sympathy, always ready to be played. Celebrate them, and read this book anyway, because when Larkin loved a record he wrote better about music than a corporate shill like Stanley Crouch has ever managed.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 5 Dec 2009 17:08:34 GMT
A. Wylde says:
Beautiful review. Thank you. I had not thought of your thesis, but it sounds consistent with my understanding of his reviews. I love this book even though I love much jazz that Larkin did not: there are very few great writers about music, and Larkin is one of them.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Feb 2012 16:16:48 GMT
I downloaded 'Larkin's Jazz' and it's worth every penny. The collection is cherry-picked from Larkin's own record collection, and it's a fascinating mixture of styles. Larkin might have mainly loved pre-fifties jazz, but judging from 'Larkin's Jazz' he had excellent taste. It's an absolute joy to listen to.

Posted on 3 Mar 2012 19:51:38 GMT
Last edited by the author on 3 Mar 2012 19:51:57 GMT
Fabriani says:
Excellent and thoughtful review. I had come to a lot of the same conclusions about Larkin in general and his attitude to jazz in particular, but you've achieved a deeper level of insight and expressed it more eloquently than I could have.

Posted on 1 Dec 2012 13:06:49 GMT
What a really thoughtful and well-informed review. I remeber back in my early days as a jazz-lover how most enthusists had strong likes and dislikes. So Larkin was an enthusiast - why not? Jazz engages the emotions in a serious way, and unengaged criticism is likely to be pretty anaemic - not a fault with PL's reviews.

Read Humphrey Lyttelton's The Best of Jazz alongside this, and you're bound to learn something new and good.
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Location: Edinburgh, Scotland

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