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For Sidney Bechet

January 2010

Nomination: For Sidney Bechet [15 January 1954. From The Whitsun Weddings]

Larkin’s poems with jazz connections reflect the enormous importance that jazz played in his life and work. In his Introduction to All What Jazz (1970), his scalding attack on modernism in all the arts, he says: ‘Few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to jazz. I don’t claim to be original in this: for the generations that came to adolescence between the wars jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seemed to demand.’ As his letters show, Larkin shared this subversive enthusiasm with Kingsley Amis and they were both insistent about their rigidly traditional tastes. I’ve always felt that the colloquial and ironic aspects of Larkin’s poetic language derive from both the stance and the language of the jazz musician much as the informality of popular song lyrics are reflected in some Auden

Sidney Bechet, who played clarinet and was pre-eminent in soprano saxophone, was born in New Orleans in 1897. He was active in the earliest manifestations of jazz in his home town but moved to Chicago in 1917. He first went to Europe with Will Marion Cook’s band the Southern Syncopators in 1919 and from then on was recognised as one of the most influential figures in jazz. He travelled widely in Europe and the USA, where he worked with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and finally lived in France from 1951 until his death in 1959.

In an article in the Guardian in 1960 Larkin said: ‘There are not many perfect things in jazz, but Bechet playing the blues could be one of them.’ The poem, ‘For Sidney Bechet’, was completed in January 1954 and included ten years later in The Whitsun Weddings. It’s not clear whether Larkin had any specific track in mind but in 1961 he nominated Bechet’s 1944 recording of Blue Horizon as one of his four Daily Telegraph Records of the Year and it was performed at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1985. The poem about Bechet is set in New Orleans, which Larkin visited only in his imagination but he was steeped in all its jazz associations. He starts with ‘That note you hold’. There are quite a few long held notes in Bechet’s recordings which he sustains inimitably. Larkin goes on: ‘narrowing and rising’ – Bechet uses plenty of vibrato too. Then: ‘reflected on the water’ seems to refer to the maritime location of New Orleans (which had such tragic consequences with the flooding following Hurricane Katrina in 2005). The phrase ‘Oh, play that thing!’ was sometimes called out by jazz players and appears on several historic recorded tracks.

Larkin goes on to describe the mixed clientele in the French Quarter where there are expensive ‘Sporting-house girls’ alongside scholars manqués (that is, merely enthusiasts) who are immersed in ‘personnels’, the discographical details that show who played what where and when. The mythical New Orleans is also referred to as Storyville and Crescent City. Everything about it and its music is seen as positive – ‘an enormous yes’ and ‘the natural noise of good’.

Finally – as I have always understood it – Larkin takes a crack at classical music when he says ‘Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity’. He would have known that Bechet, like some early jazz musicians, could not read music. So the ‘long-hairs’ must be the serious musicians and ‘scored’ presumably means notated music as opposed to improvisation, which often makes the difference between the straight and the swung.

Peter Dickinson

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