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December 01, 1985|GROVER SALES

ALL WHAT JAZZ: A RECORD DIARY 1961-1971 by Philip Larkin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95). With Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s, jazz, under the misleading frivolous title of bebop, first joined the avant- garde, and like its classical counterpart a generation earlier, split the music world into two hostile camps. Just as there remain devotees of European concert music whose interest stopped with Debussy and Ravel, thousands of jazz enthusiasts like the British poet Philip Larkin never bridged the yawning canyon between "mainstream" swing-era jazz and the radical upheavals of Charlie Parker and Co. In "All What Jazz," a collection of record reviews for the London Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971, Larkin rightly equates the innovations of bebop with the "modernism" of Picasso, Joyce, Pound and Henry Moore, which he despises with equal vigor as the hallmarks of the Decline of the West: "I dislike such things, not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it." "If Charlie Parker seems less a filthy racket today than he did in 1950 it is only because . . . much filthier rackets succeeded him; pretty much the same could be said about Picasso and Pound." Since the consensus of informed opinion regards Parker along with Armstrong and Ellington as the greatest musicians produced by the United States, Larkin's quirkish views spring from a brash courage that energize his impulsive reviews from first to last: "How many people really like what came after Armstrong and Ellington?" "Dizzy Gillespie's eccentric personality--his very 'dizziness'--impairs his powers to move." "Miles Davis is a master of rebarbative boredom." Even in the realm of classic, mainstream jazz, his abiding love, Larkin unleashes some eye-popping jeremiads, confessing his "impatience with Jack Teagarden, who always seemed to be getting in the way of better soloists." Yet even at his most idiosyncratic and perverse, Larkin is great fun to read in a field not strewn with extravagant literary talents. As a stylist among jazz writers, he may rank with the late Otis Ferguson, the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, Gene Lees and not many others. Every page abounds with such delectables as "Fats Waller's voice is an elastic band that can be snapped around any tune." If one can disregard his bizarre assaults on bebop and beyond, there's much delight in browsing through Larkin, who makes it plain that "few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to jazz." The scope of his knowledge of pre-'40s jazz is impressive, and he writes with as youthful passion that burns clean.

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