Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The hottest exhibition ever curated?

A Guardian report today about a new exhibition of artefacts associated with Philip Larkin suggests all manner of revelations await its visitors.

Each book from his personal library, with its "scribbles, newspaper cuttings, pressed flowers and dedications", is "a casket in its own right", declares exhibition curator Anna Farthing, and a copy of his novel Jill inscribed to Monica Jones thanks her "for helping make it decent, ie literate," hinting at an editorial role in his work.

It's not all literary: "one of the biggest revelations" for Farthing is Larkin's concern with body image, "dreading my next encounter with the scales" - hey, he's practically a new man.

My main interest in the exhibition, however, lies in the possibility that it may finally provide an answer to the question which has been - well, no, not an obsession, but certainly a recurrent irritation over the last thirty two years, namely:

"Whatever happened to The Hottest Jazz Record Ever Made?"

Permit me to explain.

In the first edition of Larkin's book of music criticism All What Jazz he announced that St Louis Blues, as recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Luis Russell Orchestra in 1929, was indeed that molten item, going so far as to claim that after a certain chorus the listener would feel the walls move.

In the digital age, when archive recordings are frequently compromised (don't get me started), it's harder to put that to the test - quite apart from the structural implications for your "pad" - but I certainly remember experiencing such a sensation, or something like it, when I first put a vinyl copy of St Louis Blues to the test in the early 80s after reading the original book.

The clip below is less than stellar quality but may give at least a taste of what Larkin meant, if you turn it up loud enough. St Louis Blues opens as a "raunchy tango" then builds and builds in intensity, with bassist Pops Foster - whose role in the band was likened by Larkin to the engine room of a great ship - going at it ever harder while Armstrong and fellow trumpeter Henry Red Allen trade choruses.

All What Jazz, which collects Larkin's jazz record reviews from the Telegraph, was first published in 1970. But by the time the revised second edition, below, was issued complete with "humorous" cover in 1985 all trace of that estimate of St Louis Blues had been erased. Why?

And if, listening to the recording via the sonic limitations of youtube, the arrangement strikes you as too basic, too unadventurous, Larkin had anticipated that: to those inclined to dismiss the record as no more than "mere rhythmic excitement", he cited Cab Calloway's comparatively leaden recording made around the same time. Sections are clearly modelled on the Armstrong/Russell arrangement, though his eccentric vocal isn't.

Will the exhibition, at the Brynmor Jones Library where Larkin once held sway, provide an answer to this decades-old puzzle? I dunno, though it's good to see that, according to the Guardian article,  jazz music is represented:
Larkin’s love of jazz is widely known and the show has a backing soundtrack of jazz, both in a nod to this passion but also to give a slinky rhythm to the show.

“The thing about libraries is that all sorts of things happen in the stacks,” said Farthing. “So we want people to go into the small corners and the nooks and crannies of this exhibition and have an experience with another human – that sounds suggestive but what I mean is, have a little chat, ask questions. Larkin found all his lovers in libraries.” ... At the end of the show, people are also invited to pen their own letter to Larkin, which will then be pinned on to the wall.
If the exhibition were nearer me, I'd give it a go, if only to be sociable, but I don't fancy schlepping to Hull only to risk disappointment - re Armstrong, I mean.

So if any readers plan to visit, please have a look around for me - or maybe just write the above query on a piece of paper and pin it pointlessly to the wall.

And if you're still not sure what the fuss is about, here is an unissued instrumental take of St Louis Blues from the same session in rather better sound which conveys more of the excitement and dynamism of Russell's band:

Oh, and one more detail I'd forgotten about. Larkin's friend Kingsley Amis also attempted to capture the essence of The Hottest Jazz Record Ever Made..

It's many years since I read it, so I could be wrong, but I believe there's a chapter in Amis's novel The Riverside Villas Murder in which a Chief Inspector, or some similar high-ranking officer, plays a jazz record and tries to explain to the young protagonist why it's so good.

I couldn't swear, at this distance, that the recording is actually mentioned by name, but it's a safe-ish bet that he is talking about the looseness and swing of the Luis Russell Orchestra.

To close, here's the other side of St Louis Blues, which I think I actually prefer: Dallas Blues.

This was also a Larkin favourite, as I recall once switching on the radio during the middle of it, knowing almost immediately a) that it was a good 'un, and b) that it had to be Luis Russell, based on long familiarity with his other recordings. It was then announced as one of the poet's faves, though I can't remember what the programme was.

Armstrong's aggressive-sounding vocal encouraged me to misshear the lyrics in a way which made logical sense:

Got the Dallas Blues and it makes me hard to please,
Got the Dallas Blues and it makes me hard to please,
Buzzin' round my head like a swarm of honey bees.
Actually the words as written are a little more tricksy than that:
Got the Dallas Blues and the Main Street heart disease ...
But you could - or I could - argue that the mondegreen is more Larkinesque.

Will one or other side of this 88 year old disc be ringing through the Brynmor Jones Library, regardless of repeated, increasingly desperate, requests for quiet from the library's regular users?

Oh, I do hope so.

Related post:

Luis, Louis.

Guardian article about the Larkin exhibition

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