Every so often, one of the dwindling number of bloggers I read daily will offer up a kind of beginner’s guide to jazz: a bucket-and-spade type basics list of so-called “essential” albums. It’s always the same stuff, and always from the 1941-65 period Larkin described as “After Pound! After Picasso!”
Miles, Bird, Coltrane, Shepp: all the potential and waste of a Fulham teamsheet during the Ford Administration, “difficult” music for men, and it’s always men, who are too chippy for classical, too proud for pop.
I can’t join in. “Cool,” both in its jazz sense and its wider meaning, is a repellant, anti-life term. But I did try. Long afternoons over a hot record player with my father’s surprisingly broad collection, hoping to hear what I’d been promised I’d hear..
The jazz I get on with comes from a sort of arrowslit in the curtainwall of time (ouch!): 1926-1932, with the odd thing every so often up until 1941. It’s not an easy period to stand up for. There are no albums, just countless 78s. And those are all burnt out by decades of steel needles. What’s more, recording was new in the days when my jazz was around. No electric microphones, no mixing tables, just three or four nervous and inexperienced takes to try to nail down music that was supposed to be invented afresh each time anyway.
That’s why so many surviving recordings of the time are disappointing. Perhaps one of the Hitler-killing time travellers of the future would care to walk their MP3 player and hidden microphone into a certain New York studio in 1929 and find out for us what this really sounded like:
It was a new song in 1929, assuming that it’s really possible for a song like that not to exist somehow forever. Its composer was a brilliant but frustrated classical pianist, a man who hid his great love, baroque, in which he’d had his formal musical training, in underground “secret” sessions. He would die in the middle of World War Two, younger than I am now, on his way home for Christmas, of pneumonia brought on by overwork and ill-living.
His last recording was of his great song. Here it is, from Stormy Weather, a film that, when watched honestly, makes one realise that the sixties weren’t a revolution, merely a substandard after-echo:
Gie few an thur aw deed.