Sunday, January 15, 2017

`Your Voice Falls As They Say Love Should'

“More than any other major soloist in jazz, he has made a basically unsentimental music come extremely close to the romantic—a magnetic, invariably troubling conversion, which usually draws either slings or hugs.”

The writer is Whitney Balliett and his subject is Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist from New Orleans. He might also be writing about Philip Larkin, author of “For Sidney Bechet” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964). I often think of Larkin as a blues poet, one who never mistakes the blues for mere sadness or self-pity, and whose darkest poems are never less than emotionally powerful.  There’s nothing cold about Larkin.

Balliett in the same essay judges Bechet as “one of the great blues soloists” (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, 2000). Listen to “Blue Horizon” (1944), which Larkin describes in All What Jazz (1970) 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.”

I hear self-projection in Larkin’s celebration of Bechet. Despite conventional wisdom, Larkin is a gifted celebrator (of Barbara Pym, of Louis Armstrong, and so on). Those who dismiss Larkin as a gloomy wet blanket don’t hear his paean to Bechet: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes”). He adds: “the natural noise of good.” Larkin finished writing “For Sidney Bechet” on this date, Jan. 15, in 1954. Then I remembered Van Morrison’s mention of Bechet on his album Hymns to the Silence (1991). In “See Me Through Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee),” Morrison sings or chants:

“Silence and then voice
Music and writing, words
Memories, memories way back
Take me way back
Hyndford Street and Hank Williams

“Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet
On Sunday afternoons in winter
Sidney Bechet, Sunday afternoons in winter
And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless.”

1 comment:

terryteachout said...

The great thing about Larkin's line is that he knows he isn't fully capable of responding to the "enormous yes." Love "should" fall on us that way—but does it fall on him? He knew better.