Various Artists: Larkin's Jazz
The author of the immortal opening couplet, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do," the poet Philip Larkin (1922-85) was in 2008 voted "the greatest British writer" of the last half century by the readers of The Times. No longer the newspaper of record it was in the decades prior to its acquisition by the loathsome Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, who between them have done so much to debase British culture, such a ringing endorsement from the pages of the The Times still counts for something. Accessible and brilliantly observed, like that of his near contemporary John Betjeman, Larkin's poetry has a special place in modern English literature.
The 25th anniversary of Larkin's death is being commemorated, in part, by the release of the 4CD box set Larkin's Jazz, a compilation of 81 of his favorite tracks. For as well as being a poet, Larkin was an obsessive jazz fan. "I can live a week without poetry," he once said, "but not a day without jazz." He championed the music in Britain long before it became unremarkable so to do, and from 1961-71 was jazz critic of the Daily Telegraph, like The Times a voice of Britain's conservative establishment.
That Larkin was able to write regularly about jazz in a paper such as the Telegraph, during the glory days of saxophonist John Coltrane and the musically and socially radical "new thing" movement of which he was the standard bearer, is explained by his tastes, which he wore emblazoned on both sleeves. Like the more or less contemporaneous French critic Hugues Pannassie, Larkin's interest in jazz stopped abruptly with bop, which he hated, along with everything that came after it, with a vengeance.
But when it came to swing and mainstream, Larkin's taste was acute. And if the swing era stars featured on Larkin's Jazz include few surprises, their greatest recordings, as judged by Larkin, are sometimes pleasingly idiosyncratic. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong and bandleaders Duke Ellington and Count Basie are well represented, along with guitarist and revivalist Eddie Condon, but there also choice items by clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and saxophonists Earl Bostic and Coleman Hawkins, along with a few dozen others including singers Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Witherspoon.
The box set includes a 56 page booklet jointly written by Larkin scholar Trevor Tolley and Larkin's friend and academic colleague John White, both of them jazz fans. Between them, Tolley and White provide thumbnail contextualizations to each of the tracks, documenting Larkin's observations, in books or letters to friends, and the recollections of those who remember listening to a particular record in his company.
It is a shame, however, that Tolley and White do not take the opportunity to confront the accusations of racism which some prominent British cultural commentators have levelled at Larkin, for they are well qualified to do so. There's no doubt that Larkin was, in the broadest sense, Eurocentric, but unusually for his times, he also regarded Louis Armstrong as "an enormously important cultural figure in our century, more important than Picasso, in my opinion." And the majority of the music on Larkin's Jazz was recorded by black Americans. It's a contradiction of a sort Larkin may have had in mind when he wrote that parental tribute quoted at the start of this review (see the YouTube clip below).
The truth is, Larkin was no more racist than many English intellectuals of his generation, products as they were of an, albeit waning, imperial age. This is, undoubtedly, an uncomfortable truth, but it's one which shouldn't get in the way of acknowledging Larkin's ability to spot great jazzprovided, of course, that it was recorded between the mid 1930s and the mid 1940sany more than it should get in the way of enjoying his poetry.
CD1: Tiger Rag; I'm Gonna Play Down By The Ohio; Ain't Misbehavin'; The Blues Jumped A Rabbit; Knockin' A Jug; Squeeze Me; I've Found A New Baby; Nobody's Sweetheart; The Blues Pt.1; The Blues Pt.2; Spain; Just A Mood (Blue Mood); On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Body And Soul 15; One O'Clock Jump; Sent For You Yesterday; Every Tub; Swingin' The Blues; Jumpin' At The Woodside; Shoe-Shine Swing; Backwater Blues; Reckless Blues; I'm Down In The Dumps.
CD2: Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down; Way Down Yonder In New Orleans; One Hour; Basin Street Blues; Bugle Call Rag; Oh Peter; Spider Crawl; I Would Do Anything For You; Yellow Dog Blues; The Eel; Home Cooking; Chasing Shadows; I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll; Carnegie Drag; D.A. Blues; Shine; I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate; Boo-Woo; Blues Of Israel; Life Goes To A Party; These Foolish Things; A Sailboat In The Moonlight; The Man I Love; Tea For Two.
CD3: Riverside Blues; Maple Leaf Rag; Old Man Blues; Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Mornin'; Blue Horizon; Savoy Blues; Wild Man Blues; Tight Like This; Dallas Blues; St. Louis Blues; Feelin' Drowsy; Patrol Wagon Blues; Feelin' The Spirit; Serenade To A Wealthy Widow; When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful; Ridin' But Walkin'; I'm Gonna Stomp, Mr. Henry Lee; Deep Creek; Early Mornin' Blues; East St. Louis Toodle-oo; Echoes Of The Jungle; In A Jam; Jack The Bear; That's The Blues, Old Man.
CD4: Flamingo; How Come You Do Me Like You Do; No Rollin' Blues; Hello Little Girl; How High The Moon; Bird Of Prey Blues; Jeep's Blues; One O'Clock Jump; You're The Top; Have You Met Miss Jones?
Personnel: Ray Noble & His Orchestra; The Washboard Rhythm Kings; Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra; Jimmie Noone & His New Orleans Band; The Chicago Rhythm Kings; Artie Shaw & His New Music; Bob Crosby's Bob Cats; Teddy Wilson Quartet; Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra; Count Basie & His Orchestra; Jones-Smith Incorporated; Bessie Smith; Bix Beiderbecke & His Gang; Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra; The Mound City Blueblowers; The Louisiana Rhythm Kings; Billy Banks & His Orchestra; Eddie Condon & His Orchestra; Pee Wee Russell's Hot Four; Louis Prima & His New Orleans Gang; Eddie Condon & His Band; Eddie Condon & His Windy City Seven; Art Hodes' Hot Five; McKenzie and Condon's Chicagoans; Muggsy Spanier & His Ragtime Band; Henry James & His Boogie-Woogie Trio; Gene Krupa & His Chacagoans; Benny Goodman & His Orchestra; Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra; Billy Holiday & Her Orchestra; Jazz At The Philharmonic; First English Public Jam Session; King Oliver's Jazz Band; New Orleans Feetwarmers; Sidney Bechet & His New Orleans Feetwarmers; Johnny Dodds' Black Bottom Stompers; Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five; Luis Russell & His Orchestra; Fats Waller & His Rhythm; Fats Waller & His Buddies; Eddie's Hot Shots; Jelly Roll Morton & His Orchestra; Albert Ammons & His Rhythm Kings; Duke Ellington & His Kentucky Club Orchestra; Duke Ellington & His Orchestra; Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra; Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra; Earl Bostic & His Orchestra; Jimmy Witherspon; Dave Brubeck Quartet; Coleman Hawkins; Louis Armstrong with the Russ Garcia Orchestra; Art Tatum/Ben Webster Quartet.