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Vol. LXIV, No. 34
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
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Record Review

Born in August: The King of Joy, the High-Flying Bird, and the Poet

Stuart Mitchner

The four-word history of jazz is Louis Armstrong: Charlie Parker.

Philip Larkin

If you agree with Larkin, and it’s hard not to given the four word limit, you could say jazz and August have a special relationship. Besides Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901) and Charlie Parker (August 29, 1920), there’s the great Lester Young (August 27, 1909) and any number of other significant players I haven’t bothered to research. As far as that goes, Larkin himself was born on August 9, 1922, and though he’s better known for his poetry (a 2003 Poetry Book Society survey named him Britain’s “best-loved” poet of the previous 50 years), he also wrote about jazz for the Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971. A collection of his reviews was eventually published in 1985, the year he died, under the title All What Jazz: A Record Diary.

The play on “all that jazz” underscores a dilemma, for by the time Larkin began writing his column, the more traditional music he knew and loved had been drowned out by something for which he had little sympathy. As he puts it in the introduction, “I felt I was in some nightmare where I had confidently gone into an examination hall only to find that I couldn’t make head or tail of the questions.” He found another analogy in painting: “Jazz had gone from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in fifty years.”

Larkin’s unapologetic, full-scale, venomously eloquent antagonism to modern jazz makes him an amusing and instructive devil’s advocate. According to the subtext of his “four-word history of jazz,” Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971, represents the music’s birth and Charlie Parker, who died in 1955, its demise. In a 1982 Paris Review interview, Larkin suggested that “Charlie Parker wrecked jazz by … using the chromatic rather than the diatonic scale, [which] is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously.”

That pungent metaphor is not the work of some nay-saying dilettante. Besides having been a librarian for most of his life (the last 30 years at the University library in Hull), Larkin was a passionate listener who claimed to love jazz more than poetry — as long as it was the music he associated with Louis Armstrong, jazz, that is, pre-Charlie Parker. The idea that it had been “destroyed by a paranoiac drug addict,” as he confessed to the Paris Review interviewer, made him “furious.”

To Larkin, Parker’s “inexhaustible invention” is ultimately inhuman. Referring to “the wild, bubbling freedom that characterizes him,” the poet asks, “Freedom from what? As one listens to Parker spiralling away ‘out of this world,’ as the phrase goes, one can only answer ‘humanity,’ and that is a fatal thing for an artist, or an art, to be separated from.” The human reality Parker spirals inhumanly out of is presumably the traditional, Anglocentric one Larkin never left (he rarely travelled, never visited America), a world he evokes with subtle force in his poetry. That he’s responsive to Parker’s music in spite of himself is obvious. Bird’s solos are “incandescently complex … jetting flurries of perfectly articulated notes,” and in “Confirmation,” he achieves “one of his most warmly beautiful solos, always perfectly in control of the situation, yet always startingly adventurous.”

Warmly, Warmly

“Warmth” comes into play again in a 1965 column on the tenth anniversary of Parker’s death, when Larkin refers to his “warm mellow tone” on “I Remember You,” but apparently only because he finds it “instantly reminiscent” of one of his jazz heroes, clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Larkin had already suggested that Parker’s encounters with Bechet in Paris in 1949 and 1950 explain why “his improvisation has dispensed with frenzy while retaining urgency.”

Bechet’s significance is underscored in Larkin’s Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux/Marvell Press 1989), where he appears as the only public figure mentioned by name in a title. Written in 1954, “For Sidney Bechet” is not one of Larkin’s better poems, not with lines like “Oh, play that thing” and references to “Mute glorious Storyvilles,” but the penultimate stanza does justice to his feeling for the music: “On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City is where/Your speech alone is understood.” Note how he takes poetical possession of the source of the music he loves without ever having been to the U.S.A., let alone New Orleans. It’s all part of the American fantasy that modern jazz spoiled for him.


“Warmly” is once again the word of choice when Larkin speaks of Louis Armstrong, except that Armstrong’s warmth is larger than life, tidal, solar. It’s fitting that Larkin stopped writing about jazz the year Armstrong died. In one of his final columns (“Armstrong’s Last Goodnight”), he doesn’t spare the hyperbole, writing that “Long before his end, Louis had conquered the world, even America,” that “he had been something inexhaustible and unchanging like the sun,” and that “as an artist” he was “the deep river into which flowed all the tributaries of jazz.”

Larkin’s faith in Armstrong isn’t blind, however. He considers the “period of exhibitionism” in the 1930s to be “as tedious as it was astonishing” — which I find hard to fathom after several nights listening in the wee small hours to Armstrong’s singing and playing from the same era. When Louis sings “Indian Cradle Song,” the music does more than recall Larkin’s “enormous Yes.” Instead of merely falling on you “as they say love should,” this big, mellow, loving, life-affirming voice gathers you in, inspiring odd thoughts such as how many suicides might have been prevented had Armstrong’s joyous lullaby been instantly accessible in the right place at the right time, especially since it’s followed by the soul-saving power and glory of the mighty, concluding “golden obbligato” Larkin hails for blasting “the roof off” even as he seems to be chiding Louis for playing “in front of” a band instead of “with” it. According to Terry Teachout’s recent biography, Pops (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009), “Indian Cradle Song” caused Django Reinhardt “to put his head in his hands and cry, ‘My brother! My brother!’”

One thing Larkin can’t countenance is the existence of a link between the virtuoso he loves and the one he abhors. Listen to Armstrong’s most celebrated playing, whether with the Hot Five or with his 1930s band in “Sweethearts on Parade” and “Stardust,” and you hear the all-out improvising that encouraged Charlie Parker to take the “frenzied” flights that Larkin finds so dispiritingly otherworldly. However much he picked up from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Parker had clearly listened to, learned, and lived in the stunning opening cadenza and closing chorus of “West End Blues,” the true source, the epicenter of improvisation, and he signified as much with references to those passages in his solos in “Cheryl” and “Parker’s Mood,” among others.

No Closed Doors

Larkin allows the depth of his devotion to early jazz to cloud his vision. Rather than let the new music in, he shuts the door or, at most, leaves it barely ajar. Similarly, Louis Armstrong could not, or would not fathom or accept the new world heralded by Charlie Parker, complaining in Down Beat that bop “doesn’t come from the heart the way real music should,” that it’s “out-of-the-world music … pipe-dream [think drug addict] music, that whole modern malice.”

Between Charlie Parker and music — and the whole gamut of earthly sounds, for that matter — there were no closed doors. He could find excitement and material in virtually everything. A classic example is the blindfold test Leonard Feather conducted with him in August 1948. These sessions where musicians listen to, comment on, and grade an unidentified selection of music more often than not lead to surprising misnomers, and occasionally vicious put-downs. After listening to music ranging from the ultra modern sounds of Stan Kenton to Dixieland to Stravinsky to Johnny Hodges, Parker found qualities to wholeheartedly admire in all of it, the only real lapse in his enthusiasm coming when Feather played a piece by Jay McShann featuring Parker himself. Afterward, as Feather expressed surprise about the positive feedback, Parker said, “That’s music, Leonard. Music, if it’s presented right, is music, whether it be Dixieland, jazz, swing, or what have you … you can’t classify music in words …. Personally, I just like to call it music, and music is what I like.”


In recalling the highlights of American prose literature from the 1920s, some of the first things that come to mind are the Valley of Ashes passage (if not the whole second chapter) from The Great Gatsby, the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, the first and last pages of The Sound and the Fury. One jazz equivalent from the same period would have to be Armstrong’s amazing performance of the aforementioned “West End Blues,” which is echoed 20 years later in the two-bar, trumpet-styled alto fanfare that prefaces “Parker’s Mood.” In his word-jazz rendition, King Pleasure translates the phrase as “Come with me, if you wanta go to Kansas City.” The “Come with me” says it all. Far from the “out-of-this-world” spiral that Larkin imagines separating Parker from “humanity,” this is a calling forth, as much invitation as challenge. You can also find it in the titles of the standards Parker adapted. “The Song is You” and “All the Things You Are” sing with the sense that Bird is inviting his audience aboard. If Philip Larkin had accepted that invitation, he might have found a place with the two Chinamen “on the mountain and the sky” in W.B. Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” staring down on “the tragic scene,” while the third man, the one carrying “a musical instrument,” begins to play.

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