JJ 04/84: Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982

Forty years ago Simon Adams delighted in the literary prowess if not judgement that Philip Larkin applied to modern jazz in the Telegraph. First published in Jazz Journal April 1984


The poet and writer Philip Larkin was jazz critic of the Daily Telegraph throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, a period of enormous change and challenge in jazz music. Yet Larkin remained firmly in love with the jazz of his youth – the music of Armstrong, Bechet and the Washboard Rhythm Kings.

As such he was supremely ill-equipped to approach Davis, Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp, yet was forced to review the latest and wildest recordings from musicians with whom he had no empathy. ‘It wasn’t like listening to a kind of jazz I didn’t care for – Art Tatum shall I say. It wasn’t like listening to jazz at all.’ As far as he was concerned, jazz had died by the 1940s, and what he was listening to was something very different indeed: ‘Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter and Pound a modern poet. I hadn’t realized that jazz had gone from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in fifty years.’

Armed with that realization, stone-age Larkin directed his fury and contempt of modernism in all aspects of the arts against the modern jazz he had to review week by week. What resulted was some of the freshest, most controversial and most per­sonally opinionated reviewing the jazz world has seen. All of it is beautifully written, each sentence a delight to read, yet there can be few who would not vehemently disagree with the vast majority of what he wrote.

Unfortunately the collected reviews, published in 1970 as All What Jazz, are now out of print, but this collection of literary criticism and occasional writings includes almost as a postscript, the intro­duction to the original collection and 10 previously uncollected reviews. It is well worth buying the book just to read again in the introduction who Larkin imagined his readership in the Telegraph to be: “sullen, fleshy, inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sel­lers of goods, living in thirty-year-old detached houses among the golf courses of outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw’s Begin the Beguine; men in whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly to Muggsy Spanier’s Sister Kate, men whose first coronary is coming like Christ­mas. These I have tried to remind of the excitement of jazz, and tell where it may still to be found.” Critic – know your audi­ence!

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, by Philip Larkin. Faber, 1983, paper £4.95