Thursday, October 30, 2014

`But Not a Day Without Jazz'

“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.” 

Larkin’s lines recall Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and Saul Steinberg’s image of stubborn affirmation defying the ever-looming “BUT.” By the poet’s customary standards, “For Sidney Bechet” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964) is positively ebullient, an unqualified celebration of a fellow artist. In a 1960 piece for the Observer following Bechet’s death (Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, 2004), Larkin judged him “one of the half-dozen leading figures in jazz.” In “Bechet and Bird” (All What Jazz, 1970), Larkin describes “Blue Horizon” (1944) as “six choruses of slow blues in which Bechet climbs without interruption or hurry from lower to upper register, his clarinet tone at first thick and throbbing, then soaring like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice, commanding attention the instant it sounded.”  Earlier this week Terry Teachout shared “Ten moments of pure musical joy.” My list would start with “Blue Horizon.” 

Poets have cranked out libraries of poems about jazz, almost all of it rubbish. Larkin’s poem is the rare exception, in part because it feels like a personal declaration by a man seldom given to such things. The equating of Bechet’s clarinet and soprano-saxophone playing with love is revealing and almost unprecedented in Larkin’s work. Born in Coventry in 1922, when Bechet was performing in London, Larkin grew up listening to what became known as “trad” -- that is, traditional jazz, pre-bop, pre-free, much of it performed by New Orleans musicians, the music of Bechet, Armstrong and Morton. “For the generations that came to adolescence between the wars,” Larkin writes, “jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand.” It’s fashionable to dismiss Larkin as a musical reactionary, but few writers have captured the sheer affirming excitement of jazz and the devotion it inspires in listeners.  In the Observer tribute he writes: “There are not many perfect things in jazz, but Bechet playing the blues could be one of them.” 

In his 1981 profile for The New Yorker, “Le Grand Bechet,” Whitney Balliett called him “the first jazz romantic,” saying Bechet was “probably the most lyrical and dramatic of all American jazz musicians.” Here are links to “Egyptian Fantasy,” "I Can't Believe You're in Love with Me," “September Song” and Bunny Berigan’s signature song “I Can’t Get Started” (with Teddy Buckner). Bechet’s autobiography, Treat It Gentle, was published in 1960, the year after his death. (The poet John Ciardi was one of the people who interviewed Bechet, transcribed his conversations and helped edit them into publishable form.) Near the end of Treat It Gentle, one of the best jazz memoirs, Bechet says: 

“The blues, and the spirituals, and the remembering, and the waiting, and the suffering, and the looking at the sky watching the dark come down—that’s all inside the music. And somehow when the music is played right it does an explaining of all those things. Me, I want to explain myself so bad. I want to have myself understood. And the music, it can do that. The music, it’s my whole story.” 

Larkin, in a 1965 interview, says, “What did Baudelaire say, man can live a week without bread but not a day without poetry. You might say I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz.”

No comments: