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Cat Out Of Hull

Philip Larkin

by Howard Lawes


Howard Lawes reflects on Philip Larkin's jazz and an exhibition New Eyes Each Year running in Hull until 1st October 2017 :


Philip Larkin


When I went to university in Hull in 1968 the librarian there at the time was Philip Larkin and although I was not much interested in poetry, it was nice to know that we had a celebrity on site.  Because of his status and our student ambitions it wasn't long before Hull students could quote passages from Whitsun Weddings, an anthology of Larkin poetry that had been published in 1964. In 1971 he wrote a poem called This Be The Verse which, like pictures of Che Guevara on your bedroom wall, was a call to arms for every disaffected young person struggling to come to terms with growing up and protesting against the establishment.  

What was less apparent to students who chose to read newspapers other than the Daily Telegraph was that Larkin wrote a monthly column about jazz between 1961 and 1971, many of which were published as a book called All What Jazz in 1970, and a second edition with all of them in 1985.

Larkin did reveal his enthusiasm for jazz in one of the poems in his Whitsun Weddings anthology, For Sidney Bechet begins with the lines:


That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.


(Click here for the full poem)


Philip Larkin New Eyes Each Year



Larkin's taste in jazz was for classic Armstrong, Basie and Ellington and of course Sidney Bechet.  In 2010 a 4CD set titled Larkin's Jazz, commissioned by the Philip Larkin Society, was released, containing 81 tracks, which showcased a broad cross-section of jazz musicians

This year Larkin's life and times are explored in an exhibition called New Eyes Each Year running at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library and presented jointly by Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, The Philip Larkin Society and The University of Hull Archives. It runs until 1st October.  In the exhibition there are many references to jazz music including books, magazines and recordings - admission is free.




Philip Larkin was born in 1922 and started to enjoy jazz music as a teenager, his first record was Tiger Rag by Ray Noble and his Orchestra which was released in 1933.  He also had 78 rpm records by the Washboard Rhythm Kings and Louis Armstrong's 1929 release of Ain't Misbehavin’



Listen to Ray Noble and his Orchestra playing Tiger Rag.





Larkin went to St John's College, Oxford in 1940, his poor eyesight disqualifying him from military service during World War II, and he graduated in 1943 with first class honours in English.  As might be expected, during his time at university Larkin greatly expanded his knowledge of both English literature and jazz music. The names of his favourite bands often included the words ‘hot’, ‘rhythm’ or ‘feetwarmers’ and the music he loved was quality Dixieland jazz, blues and swing.

During and after the war the supply of new, recorded music was severely limited but when normal service was resumed the style of jazz had changed.  Larkin seems to have yearned for the pre-1940 jazz music of his early years, and on the BBC programme Desert Island Discs he described Louis Armstrong as ‘the Chaucer and Shakespeare of jazz music’ and his favourite track as I'm Down in the Dumps by Bessie Smith, released in 1933 (you can download the programme if you click here). 


Here is Bessie Smith singing I'm Down In The Dumps.





By the time he became the jazz critic on the Daily Telegraph, writing a monthly column, the jazz landscape had changed markedly, bebop had held sway since the 1940's and in 1959 (the year that changed jazz) Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman all released important and influential albums.  Larkin said of Brubeck's Take 5: "this modest, tricky-rhythmed piece Philip Larkin All What Jazzseems an odd candidate for mass acclaim" and typically, while recognising the ability of these new jazz musicians, Larkin was disparaging when describing their music.

In some ways Larkin was perhaps an unlikely choice for a contemporary jazz reviewer, but when it came to traditional jazz, anthologies and re-issues from the pre-war era he certainly knew his stuff and even if not everyone agreed with his viewpoint, there was no denying the quality of his writing.  John Coltrane seems to have come in for some particularly venomous criticism such as the July 1965 column when Larkin was reviewing A Love Supreme; in response to another reviewer who expressed the opinion that he didn't think John Coltrane could play Larkin states: "It is of course absurd to suggest that he can't play his instrument: the rapidity of his fingering alone dispels that notion. It would be a juster question whether he knows what to do with it now that he can play it."  

However no jazz writer can survive simply on denigration and Larkin wrote many fine, complimentary pieces demonstrating considerable knowledge of jazz in both America and Britain.  He also wrote about the plight of African-American jazz musicians in America and discussed how discrimination, injustice and maltreatment influenced their style of music. 

Larkin continued writing about jazz in the Telegraph until 1971 when he seems to have decided that new jazz music had moved too far away from his own idea of what it should be and that another writer might find a more receptive audience.  Larkin never stopped caring about the jazz that he loved, but never grew to really love that modern jazz that he lumped together with modern art and modern poetry.  In the introduction to the 1985 edition of All What Jazz Larkin says: "If Charlie Parker sounds a less filthy racket today than he did in 1950 it is only because, as I point out, much filthier rackets succeeded him".

As part of the ongoing feast that is Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, the 25th Anniversary Hull Jazz Festival from 11-18 November includes Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Andy Sheppard, Moon Hooch, Arun Ghosh, Nu Civilisation Orchestra and GoGo Penguin.  One hopes that Philip Larkin will lie still in his grave in nearby Cottingham even though all art forms including jazz, art and poetry continue to evolve.

New Eyes Each Year is at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library until 1st October. In the exhibition there are many references to jazz music including books, magazines and recordings. Entrance is free.


Philip Larkin All What Jazz Exhibition



Here is Philip Larkin reading his poem For Sidney Bechet as Bechet plays Petite Fleur (click 'Watch it on YouTube) .




Click here for the website of the Philip Larkin Society.



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Other pages you might find of interest :

Tracks Unwrapped
Photographic Memories
Misty Eyed With Good Time George
Albert Ayler At The LSE

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