John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for May, 2011

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All that jazz

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Philip Larkin loved trad jazz. John Harris grew up thinking nothing before bebop was worth listening to. So he tried to discover the appeal of Ellington and Basie

“I can live a week without poetry,” Philip Larkin said in 1965, “but not a day without jazz.”

Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke: these were people all but idolised by Larkin. To some members of his generation, he later reflected, what they played “had the same emotional effect as perhaps 100 years ago the great poets had”. In his case, the magic lingered on: if you want an image of the poet at his happiest, picture him with an early-evening gin and tonic, and trumpets and saxophones blaring from his record player.

Jazz, then, should be central to our understanding of who Larkin was, a fascinating influence on someone whose attachment to the music of black America can still seem unlikely. But make no mistake: he not only loved jazz, but was fantastically knowledgeable about it, as proved by his writing on the subject, mostly published in the Daily Telegraph and later anthologised in the collection All What Jazz. For the most part, his reviews were elegant, forensic and passionate, qualities that defined his opinions on both the music that he treasured, and the stuff he loathed.

He thought all in jazz had been well until the early 1940s. The music that had first emerged from such cities as New Orleans, Chicago and St Louis had become more exploratory and virtuosic, but retained its essential qualities – infectious rhythm, an accent on melody and an all-pervading sense of joy. But thereafter, the musicians who invented the free-flowing, transcendent music known as bebop had taken jazz into – as he saw it – a deeply ill-advised place, thanks to their embrace of two wider currents: the drive for African-American empowerment, and the iconoclasm and experimentation that Larkin also recognised in art, and maligned as “modernism”. His vicious critique of all this is laid out in his infamous introduction to All What Jazz, written in 1968, a lengthy assault on “a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century”.

The division between “traditional” and “modern” jazz is a crude distinction, which ignores the fact that all jazz was essentially modern in its impulses, and that one approach grew out of the other. But Larkin’s tastes were defined by it. In his estimation, such musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk had begun the rot – and by the time such revered players as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman arrived, he had angrily tuned out.

I came of age in a culture in which the jazz both categorised and demonised as “trad” would not do at all. I have childhood memories that fit the picture – of impatiently flicking through the three TV channels, and alighting on ensembles of men in candy-striped waistcoats, blowing out a racket that seemed dated, even flatly silly. To hear any trad jazz standard was to be reminded of things both remote and irrelevant – flickering cinema screens, flappers dancing the Charleston, hair slicked back with brilliantine – signifiers of a world more distant even than that of the second world war.

Bebop and what had followed cemented a definition of cool that still seemed exciting beyond words: sharp clothes, French cigarettes, dangerous drug habits. I had Larkin’s prejudices in complete reverse: my friends and I were passionate about both rock music and jazz, but anything before 1945 was anathema.

Most of that is, of course, a travesty. It confuses the washed-out approximation of early jazz offered by British revivalists with the genuine article – as if, say, Sidney Bechet and Acker Bilk were interchangeable. It pays no heed to that essential aspect of grown-up listening whereby one should often downplay the demands of the immediate moment, and try to understand the importance of context: what the music said in its time, what conventions it overturned, the effect that it had on its first listeners.

With a copy of All What Jazz in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, it was time to avenge all that, and somehow move on. “For the generations that came to adolescence between the wars,” Larkin wrote, “jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand.” The question was simple: was it possible to divine that same quality at several decades’ distance?

In 2010, the Proper record label released a 4 CD-set titled Larkin’s Jazz: 81 pieces of music, packaged in a box featuring an affectionate portrait of Larkin by Gerald Scarfe, and put together by Trevor Tolley and John White, the latter a former friend and colleague from the University of Hull. As a guide to Larkin’s tastes, it’s beyond criticism. As an extensive primer in the music’s first few decades, it is almost as superlative – a portrait of jazz developing at speed, and gradually acquiring the confidence that so spectacularly flowered in the 1930s, with the decisive advent of the big bands, authors of the first music to evoke the dazzle and noise of the modern city.

At first, the music can be so frantic as to seem almost insane (listen, for example, to the Washboard Rhythm Kings’ crazed “I’m Gonna Play Down by the Ohio”, recorded in New Jersey in 1932, which seems to move at 3,000 miles per hour), which can perhaps be traced to a collective amazement that the musicians are not just being allowed to play it, but positively encouraged – and a corresponding suspicion that, at any second, the licence may be revoked. But when they acquire enough self-assurance to cool down and swing – as in the work of Duke Ellington and Count Basie – the musicians soar, and transcend both their era and any sense of being bound by generic constraints.

Over three weeks, I listened to Larkin’s Jazz on the train, in the car, at home and in hotels. And as the music played and I scribbled down notes, I forgot about most of the technological limitations, dropped my guard, and found myself drawn in. Age had evidently opened my mind: not entirely surprisingly, even when it came to the music so beloved of the British revivalists, there were qualities I had never thought to divine. An abundance of the “happy, cake-walky syncopation that set feet walking and shoulders jerking” was obvious from the start. The best playing was indeed “relaxed and expansive”. It is not one of his most elegant tributes, but the pieces here were endlessly “full of tunes you could whistle”.

In defiance not only of the predicament of black America, but the grim events of inter-war history, just about every note on the four discs is suffused with a sense of hard-won happiness, which says a lot about why Larkin loved this music, and its relation to his own melancholia. The blues informed and often defined pre-war jazz, but even when its themes were introspective and sad – the titles on Larkin’s Jazz include “I’m Down in the Dumps”, “Nobody’s Sweetheart” and “That’s the Blues, Old Man” – they were usually delivered with a devil-may-care fatalism, so as to come out sounding life-affirming. Most of what he listened to was mood-lifting, which was presumably the whole point. In 1942, he wrote a letter to Kingsley Amis, while listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Dear Old Southland”, a characteristically ebullient piece in which the brass, piano and charging tempo conspire to evoke a mad night on the tiles. “To me the present is utterly repellent,” he wrote, as Armstrong and his accomplices flew on. “I frequently want to lie down and vomit.” If that were true, it was often jazz that allowed him a contrasting glimpse of joy – and therefore his own kind of equilibrium.

As the music on Larkin’s Jazz played, much bigger themes came to mind. While listening to, say, “The Blues Jumped a Rabbit” by Jimmie Noone and his New Orleans Band, in which the languid atmosphere of Noone’s home city is evoked beautifully and a piano player named Gideon Honore plays with amazing subtlety, a thought occurred to me, not for the first time: what a fascinating jumble of influences lay behind this music, and what incredible stories it continues to tell – among other things, of slavery and segregation.

Breathtaking paradigm shifts arrived. In the sax-playing of Coleman Hawkins, for example, one hears the opening-up of the ethereal, unbounded voice that would so dominate the world after bebop. And, inevitably, there were plenty of moments that defied analysis, and simply delivered an inexplicable rush. Of a Sidney Bechet piece released in 1940, Larkin once wrote (to his schoolfriend Jim Sutton): “I rushed out on Monday and brought ‘Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning’. Fucking, cunting, bloody good! Bechet is a great artist. As soon as he starts playing, you automatically stop thinking about anything else and listen. Power and glory!” I now know what he means: in wartime Britain, this piece must have sounded like news from another world.

All that said, there are some sounds to which certain people will always be allergic. Aficionados will doubtless balk at this but, to my ears, there is something about the sound of a clarinet parping away while a trumpet hyperactively does much the same that will always seem so free of depth and pathos as to come out sounding trite. The same applies to scat singing: in such songs as “Squeeze Me”, when it is done by Larkin’s beloved Louis Armstrong, it’s hard not to shake off the sense of an era when black musicians always felt the need to send the music up, and thereby sold themselves short. With his customary tact when it came to questions of race relations, Larkin identified one of jazz’s watershed points as the moment when “the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man”, which may say something about what can irk people about this music: the whiff of yes-sirree minstrelism, and music that eventually acquired real depth being sidetracked into camp, made all the more irritating by where it sits in relation to the colour bar.

And yet, and yet. At certain points, the music collected on Larkin’s Jazz flies so high as to make the musicians, in glorious defiance of their time, sound like some of the most liberated people who have ever walked the earth – as happens with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. There are five pieces by the former’s orchestra, recorded between 1936 and 1938: “One O’ Clock Jump”, “Sent for You Yesterday”, “Every Tub”, “Swingin’ the Blues” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (plus “Shoe-Shine Boy” by Jones-Smith Incorporated, of which Basie was a member). On all of them, you hear a kind of jazz no longer in thrall to the Dixieland model of a whimsical mini-riot, but newly relaxed, and virtuosic.

Larkin wrote about this music with a fascinating mixture of measured analysis and poetic appreciation, as in his review of the album that took its title from that last piece: “I have never heard a band whoop in the last ride-out as this one, and how striking the accompaniments are – the menacing trombone figure behind [Buck] Clayton [trumpet], the harsh, falling single note behind [Lester] Young [saxophone] repeated like an accusation. ‘Every Tub’ is the band’s most storming ‘head’, yet even with the excitement of the open trumpet and Basie’s logical single-note line there are subtleties, such as the slight change of reed figure between second and third ensemble choruses. What a band it was!”

This suggests something that was also there in the music – a mixture of precise, almost mathematic calculation (”the slight change of reed figure between second and third ensemble choruses”), and a simultaneous sense of the music evoking things that were almost beyond explanation. For what it’s worth, given that Basie spent this period of his career based in New York, the band’s music is suggestive to me of a rapid, filmic journey past different urban scenes – whether intentionally or not, something evoked by ever-shifting passages, dominated in turn by each member of the band. Moreover, on “Sent For You Yesterday”, you hear an underrated sound: saxes played in perfect unison, which somehow conjure up the cool glide of cars, moving uptown. Meanwhile, trumpet swells sound like blaring sirens, and the drums hiss and clatter like overhead trains. If ever music blurred seamlessly out into its surrounding environment, this was it.

In turn, pieces by Basie and Duke Ellington sent me back to one of the few pieces of pre-’45 music that had broken through my teenage closed-mindedness – not on Larkin’s Jazz, although it could easily have been included. I first heard Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” – written by Billy Strayhorn in 1938, and first recorded by the Ellington orchestra in 1941 – on an awful 1980s Rolling Stones live album, on which it was used as the band’s walk-up music. I have returned to it ever since. On the best versions, there is no messing about: without any preamble, the saxes begin humming the riff that seems to capture all of urban America’s high-rise excitement, with trumpets bursting through like bright lights, before the arrangement speeds into passages so varied as to make three or four minutes seem twice as long. It is a work of amazing complexity, which manages to convey a simple kind of joy.

In short, everything in this music goes right, for ever; and one imagines Larkin tuning in – in Oxford, or Wellington or Coventry – with fusty old England closing in, but sounds from the New World exhorting him to muddle through. Power and glory, indeed.

John Harris’s book The Beat of Happiness: Music Writing Inspired by Philip Larkin is funded by Arts Council England and commissioned by Hull City Council and Larkin25. Available from Hull City Arts for £3.95 p&p; enquiries to 

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Music Weekly podcast: Bob Dylan special

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

John Harris stands in for Alexis Petridis and Rosie Swash this week, and looks at the music of Bob Dylan as we approach his 70th birthday.

Emmy the Great and the Guardian’s Stephen Moss join John in choosing their favourite tracks. See if you can guess which songs they pick before you hear the podcast.

Plus we hear why it’s worth celebrating Dylan’s 70th with James McGrath, cultural studies lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, and there’s a reading by Michael Gray from his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, now available as an audiobook.

Tell us about your favourite Dylan track and join the debate here. Or let us know your views on this or anything else on Twitter – @MusicWeeklyPod. We’re on Facebook too!

John Harris
Stephen Moss
Scott Cawley

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What are your thoughts on faith groups, society and the state? | John Harris

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Tell us about the role faith groups and organised religion have in your local community

In the week that Stephen Hawking declared the idea of heaven a “fairy story“, the Anywhere but Westminster series has decided to look at some of the more earthly aspects of organised religion. Setting aside the usual debates about whether there’s anyone up there, we want to make a film about the role of faith groups in wider society – campaigning, entangling themselves with politics, stepping into the shoes of the state along the lines advocated by so many politicians, helping the disadvantaged, etc.

Some questions for you:

What is the role of faith groups in your community? Do you play a part in them, and if so how and why? What are the best – and worst – local examples of faith groups making a difference? Do you think a role for religion in the social and political nitty-gritty is a good thing? Can it help the left (witness the religious elements of London Citizens) as well as the right (eg anti-abortion campaigning)?

We’d love your thoughts, ideas and feedback on the thread below – we’ll be regularly contributing to the conversation over the next few days – or do email us at

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Why Dover’s cliffs are now a no-fly zone for speculators | John Harris

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

At Cadbury and Manchester United they’d understand the political significance of the people’s takeover of Dover port

It would take a hard heart to glimpse Dover from the English Channel and not feel at least a gentle burst of emotion. Perhaps the trilling tones of Vera Lynn and the port’s association with the war effort are now securely built into our collective memory, for good and all. Maybe the white cliffs allow a simple pleasure unique to the residents of islands: a thrillingly visual sense of approaching home.

Should you stray much beyond the ferry terminal, however, the enjoyment will not last long. Dover is Europe’s largest ferry port, with annual profits of over £10m, but the place is pinched and shabby. Look into the town’s relationship with its biggest money-spinner, and you quickly detect tension and mistrust: the harbour board is widely seen as a distant, complacent presence – a case study of how supposed public ownership often doesn’t feel very public at all.

Just to make things even more wretched, the Brown government – while making inconclusive noises about selling off the UK’s remaining public-sector ports – eventually supported serious plans to privatise Dover, driven by the prospect of a £350m windfall. Possible buyers were said to include a Canadian pension fund. At one point there were rumours that the port might be taken over by the French regional council of Nord-Pas-de-Calais: on the face of it, another example of that completely bizarre syndrome whereby politicians who blanch at the thought of nationalisation are supremely relaxed about state-owned foreign interests and sovereign wealth funds buying up our train companies, power stations, water companies, and whatever else is put up for sale.

But this week something very interesting has happened. A local organisation called the People’s Port Trust wants Dover to be owned by a “mass membership community trust” that would finally pump the port’s profits into the town – and its plan has the backing of banks, the ferry companies, the trade union Unite, and Dover’s Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke. On Monday the transport secretary, Philip Hammond, served notice that the government was sympathetic, re-opening consultation on the future of nine UK ports and proposing new rules on their sell-off that will insist on “a significant level of community participation”.

Naturally enough, that sounds rather mealy-mouthed, and no one should get too excited quite yet. Hammond’s statement covers not just Dover, but such ports as Milford Haven, Poole and Shoreham, and seems to open up the prospect of privatisation being glossed over using a fuzzy notion of local people’s influence. When I spoke to him this week, even Elphicke was wary of “box ticking”, and merely “bringing a few stakeholders on board”; as he pointed out, “the desire of Dover people is ownership, and this says involvement”.

From hereon in, the whole story should be watched very carefully – but in the case of the white cliffs, Hammond’s move surely puts the people’s port plan (which, let’s not forget, is fully funded) way out in front. In doing so, it may represent one of those occasions when, even if ministers’ hearts aren’t quite in it, they have nonetheless created an opening for something that could have explosive consequences.

The Dover argument zeroes in on a consideration for which the credo of the free market allows no room: that if a big economic interest sits in the midst of a community that sees relatively little benefit from its operations, that represents a self-evident injustice. It also highlights something that the countries of mainland Europe have long understood, but the UK’s embrace of Anglo-Saxon economics has kicked to the sidelines: that there are parts of the economy so central to national prospects and our sense of who we are that they should be placed beyond the reach of overseas interests or short-termist speculators. You could use the dry language of economic policy and call them strategic assets; in many cases, you could think of them as national icons.

This, obviously, was why the government’s plans for the forests struck such a false note. It casts a pall over what the serial privatisations of the last 30 years have meant for so much of our infrastructure. It also explains everything from the unease stirred up when Cadbury was bought out by Kraft to the great wave of anger that greets the sale of big football clubs to such overleveraged outsiders as the Manchester United tycoon Malcolm Glazer.

As far as politics is concerned, alternative thinking bubbles away in the ideas of those Tories on the more exotic edges of David Cameron’s circle, and the stuff Maurice Glasman pitches as Blue Labour, and is gaining ground. Boil it down, and you end up with an argument that questions how much of our economy is at the mercy of distant, impersonal interests; and decries the failure of modern politics to understand the potency of local identity, and nationhood.

To that, dried-up voices on all sides will shout “Protectionism!” – but for whom do they really speak? Speculators, private equity giants, investment banks, take note: polling in Dover suggests that over 90% support the people’s port plan – and if you presented it to people elsewhere, the numbers would surely be little different. To hark back to Harold Macmillan, there remains a firm popular notion of the family silver: when we feel that frisson as the ferry nears the cliffs, it says something not just emotional, but inescapably political.

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Rally Against Debt – unless you’ve something better to do | John Harris

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Hardly anyone turned up at a demo organised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance seeking more cuts in public spending. What a surprise

As I was fixing my daily wake-me-up this morning, my thoughts wandered, and a nagging mystery arrived in my mind, like an itch. What had happened to Saturday’s Rally Against Debt, organised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the good old Freedom Association, which was due to hear from such stars of the rightwing universe as Nigel Farage, and Tory MP Priti Patel? Had Britain witnessed the birth of its very own Tea Party? The last thing I heard was an anti-climactic debate on the Today programme between (for some reason) Alexei Sayle and Simon Heffer, with the latter telling his hosts he considered himself too old to go. And then… nothing, certainly as far as the broadcast media went. Had such domestic stories as the Mancunian league/cup double and Chris Huhne’s ongoing speed points travails somehow pushed such an important story off the bulletins? And if so, why?

It turns out that hardly anyone turned up. According to a report on the BBC news website, the Metropolitan Police put the numbers at 350, though an accompanying video suggests it may have been even less than that. Google News throws forth slim pickings: a blog on the New Statesman puts the turnout at 200 (”I’m being generous,” says the writer), and advises readers thus – “Don’t think protest. Think long queue.” But fair play to the principled zealots responsible: “I think it was a huge success,” says a post on their website, with one caveat, among others: that what with all the fuss over the royal wedding and the AV referendum, for many supporters of the cause “it was too late to book trains buses, get time off of work etc”.

Really? On a Saturday? I don’t suppose rightwing tax-phobes use public transport much, but here’s a Gnostic leftie secret which rather busts that excuse: you can just turn up on the day and travel on a whim, see? Fair play to Toby Young, though: having given the event an endorsement on the Telegraph website (”I’m not in favour of deeper, faster cuts … but I’m still hoping to attend the rally because I don’t believe the British government should participate in any more bailouts”), he at least had a copper-bottomed reason for not quite giving his all: that he was already “committed to attending a family preview of a Pirates exhibition at the Museum of Docklands tomorrow morning with my four children and won’t be able to get to the rally until 1.30pm”. By then, it seems, it was all over: whatever the rightist, law-abiding equivalent of some Fortnums/Ritz argy-bargy is, none materialised.

Anyway, as children’s centres close and the disadvantaged consider a new life of vagrancy and eating grass, I write this piece chiefly to gloat. So, here goes. My teenage mod band used to play to more people than that. When the Orkestra Del Sol played at Frome Cheese And Grain last Thursday they pulled a few more people. On these figures, the Socialist Workers party can now style themselves as a mainstream movement with vast mass appeal. And one very serious point: among other media outlets, the BBC has a habit of giving a remarkable amount of airtime to the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Take note: they are what some people used to call a paper tiger.

Yes, I know: the wheels of power grind on, doing a lot of these people’s bidding and thereby making marching largely unnecessary for all but the most freakish small-staters. But still, the whole pantomimic episode does rather prove what an old communist friend of mine used to say: surely, if we all spit at once, we’ll drown them.

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