Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Larkin on Jazz

This is everything a certain type of person needs to understand.

Introduction to All What Jazz
Philip Larkin

And yet again, there was something about the books [of jazz criticism] I was now reading that seemed oddly familar. This development, this progress, this new language that was more difficult, more complex, that required you to work hard at appreciating it, that you couldn’t expect to understand first go, that needed technical and professional knowledge to evaluate it at all levels, this revolutionary explosion that spoke for our time while at the same time being traditional in the fullest, the deepest. . . .Of course! This was the language of criticism of modern painting, modern poetry, modern music. Of course! How glibly I had talked of modern jazz, without realizing the force of the adjective: this was modern jazz., and Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter and Pound a modern poet. I hadn’t realized that jazz had gone from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in fifty years, but when I realized it relief came flooding in upon me after nearly two years’ despondency. I went back to my books: “After Parker, you had to be something of a musician to follow the best jazz of the day.” Of course! After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don’t believe about art.

The reader may here have the sense of having strayed into a private argument. All I am saying is that the term “modern”, when applied to art, has a more than chronological meaning: it denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century, known sometimes as modernism, and once I had classified modern jazz under this heading I knew where I was. I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas. He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground. He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machine during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep. He has carved human figures with large holes in them. And parallel to this activity (“every idiom has its idiot,” as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is : Don’t trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They’ll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don’t believe them. You’ve got to work at this after all, you don’t expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I’m giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week, and you’d be more than welcome. The whole thing’s on the rates, you won’t have to pay. After all, think what asses people have made of themselves in the past by not understanding art–you don’t want to be like that, do you? Keep the suckers spending.

The tension between artist and audience in jazz slackened when the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man, and when the audience as a whole, with the end of the Japanese war and the beginning of television didn’t in any case particularly want to be entertained in that way any longer. The jazz band in the night club declined just as my old interest, the dance band, had declined in the restaurant and hotel: jazz moved, ominously, into the culture belt, the concert halls, university recital rooms and summer schools where the kind of criticism I have outlined has freer play. This was bound to make re-establishment of any artist-audience nexus more difficult, for universities have long been the accepted stamping ground for the subsidized acceptance of art rather than the real purchase of it–and so, of course, for this kind of criticism, designed as it is to prevent people using their eyes and ears and understandings to report pleasure and discomfort. In such conditions modernism is bound to flourish.

I don’t know whether it is worth pursuing my identification of modern jazz with other branches of modern art any further: if I say I dislike both in what seems to me the same way I have made my point. …

To say I don’t like modern jazz because it’s modernist art simply raises the question of why I don’t like modernist art: I have a suspicion that many readers will welcome my grouping of Parker with Picasso and Pound as one of the nicest things I could say about him. Well, to do so settles at least one question: as long as it was only Parker I didn’t like, I might believe that my ears had shut about the age of twenty-five and that jazz had left me behind. My dislike of Pound and Picasso, both of whom pre-date me by a considerable margin, can’t be explained in this way. The same can be said of Henry Moore and James Joyce (a textbook case of declension from talent to absurdity). No, 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. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only be being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power. Hence the compulsion on every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity: hence the succession of Parker by Rollins and Coltrane, and of Rollins and Coltrane by Coleman, Ayler and Shepp. In a way, it’s a relief: if jazz records are to be one long screech, if painting is to be a blank canvas, if a play is to be two hours of sexual intercourse performed coram populo, then let’s get it over, the sooner the better, in the hope that human values will then be free to reassert themselves.

Followers