In his collection of decade long music writing for the Daily Telegraph, “All What Jazz”, Philip Larkin produced a type of criticism that could be used as a starting point for a lengthy engagement with the current of Blackness and radicalism that was testing the limits of musicality between 1961 and 1971. For the moment I will begin by mapping out some points in an imaginary exchange that occurs around the Black aesthetic between Larkin, Fred Moten and the primary target of Larkin’s ire, John Coltrane.
Written in August 1967, ‘Looking Back At Coltrane’ marked the news of the tenor’s death. I want to repeat the almost satirical rage for order that dominates Larkin’s assessment of Coltrane’s recording career. The selected passages of Larkin’s piece though will be interrupted at vital moments not only by Fred Moten’s turn to the refusal of logic and aesthetics that animates Black art and politics in his “Gestural Critique of Judgment”, but of course the de-instrumental freedom of Coltrane’s playing: a melodramatic excess that was at once both an appeal for rights and simultaneously a refusal of rights.
The intention is to set up the junctures where Larkin’s ability to hear but refusal to follow not only directly faces the sonic specificity of Coltrane’s artistry, but also to indicate how Moten offers a way of thinking about the politico-philosophical implications at work in Larkin’s writing on the arrival of the New Black Thing.
“Well, I still can’t imagine how anyone can listen to a Coltrane record for pleasure. That reedy, catarrhal tone, sawing backwards and forwards for ten minutes between a couple of chords and producing ‘violent barrages of notes not mathematically related to the underlying rhythmic pulse, and not swinging in the traditional sense of the term’ (Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties); that insolent egotism, leading to forty-five minute versions of ‘My Favourite Things’ until, at any rate in Britain, the audience walked out, no doubt wondering why they had ever walked in; that latter day religiosity, exemplified in turgid suites such as ‘A Love Supreme’ and ‘Ascension’ that set up pretension as a way of life; that wilful, hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration.” (Philip Larkin, ‘Looking Back At Coltrane’ in “All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1960-1971")
“Much of this was doubtless due to the fact that Coltrane was an American Negro. He did not want to entertain his audience: he wanted to lecture them, even to annoy them. His ten minute solos, in which he lashes himself up to dervish like heights of hysteria, are the musical equivalent of Mr Stokley Carmichael.” (Larkin)
“Is there a relation between the ‘logic of white supremacy’ and pragmatism as the movement towards a neutral submission to the status quo that attends the disavowal of a kind of fervour that is aligned with (feminised, sentimental) blackness and the critiques (of property, of the proper, of judgment) that it embodies as cause and as a cause?” (Fred Moten, “Gestural Critique of Judgment” in “The Power and Politics of the Aesthetic in American Culture”)
“Virtually the only complement one can pay Coltrane is one of stature. If he was boring, he was enormously boring. If he was ugly, he was massively ugly. To squeal and gibber for sixteen bars is nothing; Coltrane could do it for sixteen minutes, stunning the listener into a kind of hypnotic state in which he read and re-read the sleeve notes and believed, not of course that he was enjoying himself, but that he was hearing something significant. Perhaps he was. Time will tell. I regret Coltrane’s death, as I regret the death of any man, but I can’t conceal the fact that it leaves in jazz a vast, blessed silence.” (Larkin)
“The lawless freedom of melodramatic imagination, its constant irruptive and disruptive escape from the system it engenders, is structurally correspondent to the gestures that conjure it and which it conjures. Therefore, I’m interested in the incalculable gulf – the incalculable relation, the incalculable rhythm – between the beauty of a gesture that conventional aesthetic judgment finds unbeautiful and the morality of a verdict that conventional moral reason finds unreasonable.” (Moten)
Larkin listening to Coltrane
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