Magazine article The Spectator

In the Steps of Larkin

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Steps of Larkin

Article excerpt

Last month, when unveiling my all-time top ten favourite albums, I predicted that the list would probably have changed by the autumn. In fact, it changed within days of filing my copy.

For along came Larkin's Jazz, which I think is the finest, most scholarly and above all wonderfully entertaining and affecting CD collection that has come my way since starting this column nine years ago.

I have already written about it briefly in the Telegraph, after it first landed on my doormat almost a month ago, but further listening, and reading the superbly annotated 56-page booklet that accompanies it, has deepened my admiration for this four-CD set, compiled with manifest love and care by Trevor Tolley and John White, the latter a friend and colleague of Larkin's for many years at Hull University. The fact that this cornucopia of riches from Proper Records is available on Amazon for £9.99 strikes me as little short of miraculous.

Larkin fell in love with jazz as a boy of about 11, rather as those of my generation fell in love with the Beatles and the Stones in the early Sixties. Indeed two of his poems are actually about jazz. In 'For Sidney Bechet', his ode to the great New Orleans soprano sax and clarinet player, he wrote:

'On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous Yes.'

And in 'Reference Back' he describes returning to his family home in adulthood and listening to the old 78s he purchased in his youth, establishing a 'sudden bridge' of contact with his mother, who observes 'that was a pretty one' when he plays King Oliver's 'Riverside Blues'. It's a wonderful poem about age and loss and unsatisfactory family relationships, but the love of jazz - 'the flock of notes those antique negroes blew' - is manifest amid the distinctive Larkinesque gloom.

For a decade, between 1961 and 1971, Larkin was the jazz record reviewer of the Telegraph, and one of the great features of this CD is that his favourite numbers are accompanied in the extensive liner notes by his own words about particular tracks.

As one might expect, Larkin's tastes were conservative. He loathed bebop and almost everything that followed it and, in his introduction to his collected reviews, All What Jazz (Faber, £14.99), he used what had happened to the music he loved as the starting point for a potent attack on the evils of modernism in general, with Pound, Picasso and Charlie Parker comprising an unholy trinity of those he regarded as being among the worst offenders. …

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