In September 1988, in a low-ceilinged club called the Rolls Touring Company in Troy, N.Y., I went to see Doc Watson sing and play his guitar. He sat in the corner, a few feet from his nearest listeners, and played two sets without a microphone. He wore blue jeans that sagged in the seat and a blue work shirt. I interviewed him between sets in the room behind the bar where they stack the empties.
His answers to my questions were polite but curt. He was 65 and looked tired. Three years earlier, his son and musical partner, Merle Watson, had been killed in a tractor accident on their farm in North Carolina, and I had heard that Doc had never shaken his depression. Things were not going well until I asked about his earliest memory of hearing music. I figured he would mention a church choir, but instead Watson brightened and talked about the tube radio his father bought the family. And who did he listen to?
“Louis Armstrong! He was my favorite. He was the big time! Still is,” Doc said. Two things struck me: A white boy, born in 1923 in Deep Gap, N.C., grew up loving a black singer-horn player, and the memory had the power, half a century later, to reanimate a tired, unhappy man for a few moments. He opened the second set with “St. James Infirmary.”
I thought about Doc Watson while reading Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, a sequel of sorts to All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961- 1971, published in 1985. Most of the earlier book consists of record reviews Larkin wrote for The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971. Larkin was born in England, seven months after Watson. The first jazz he heard was performed by English swing bands, but soon he and friends like Kingsley Amis fell in love with the American originals. Jazz Writings includes Larkin’s earliest known work on jazz, an essay titled “The Art of Jazz,” written in 1940 when he was 17. In it, he’s already lauding Armstrong, Ellington, Beiderbecke, Bechet and Pee Wee Russell. His taste is flawless.
Based on the first book, Larkin earned a reputation as a moldy fig for whom jazz died around 1940, about the time he was writing that essay for his school magazine. He became notorious for dismissing the “Three P’s” of Modernism: Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound and Charlie Parker, but never underestimate the pleasures of baiting the highbrows. Larkin was subversive, a favorite term of encomium for those same highbrows. In Jazz Writings, Larkin’s taste in jazz is broader and more generous than we had expected. He even ranks John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as a Daily Telegraph “Record of the Year” in 1965, and describes it as “a four-part attempt by the sheets-of-sound father of the New Thing to say `Thank You, God’ in his own angular fashion, moving from frenzy to faith in doing so.”
What’s striking about Larkin’s sensibility, however, is the fierceness of his devotion to Armstrong, consistent across more than five decades. Like Watson and millions of their contemporaries, Armstrong represented musical joy. He was the antithesis of humorlessness, one of those rare convergences of genius and popularity.
In his review of two Armstrong books, published in the Guardian in 1971, Larkin wrote:
“…in spite of the world-wide recognition as an international figure, we may still be only on the threshold of understanding his true significance. Of course he was an artist of Flaubertian purity, and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness. But has anyone yet seen him as the Chaucer, say, of the culture of the twenty-first century? While we are wondering whether to integrate with Africa, Armstrong (and Ellington, and Waller, and all the countless others) has done it behind our backs.”
Then Larkin approvingly quotes from a 1966 interview Armstrong gave Life magazine:
“But I always let the other fellow talk about art. ‘Cause when we was doing it, we was just glad to be working up on that stage.”
In his 1984 review for the Observer of John Lincoln Collier’s notorious hatchet job of a biography, Larkin writes:
“It is tempting to say that one could do without any twentieth-century artist sooner than Louis Armstrong, for while the rest were pulling their media to pieces, Armstrong was giving jazz its first definitive voice, one that has changed the character of popular music down to the present day. His life became an allegory of genius transcending the accidents of poverty and race…”
In addition to the two reviews just cited, Larkin refers 26 times to Armstrong in the book, rivaled in frequency only by Duke Ellington. Again, exuberance trumps politics and prejudice.