Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb
The words ‘jazz poetry’ are enough to make any sane person reach for their Revolver.
The mental image is the old stereotype of a turtlenecked beatnik, rambling at a dozen pals in a basement coffeehouse, as his roommate attempts to accompany him with some beginners’ clarinet.
But poetry about jazz is a different proposition, and something that’s likely more palatable. This occurred to me recently when Sidney Bechet’s recording of ‘All Of Me’ shuffled onto my speakers, showcasing the New Orleans native’s soprano sax lines, loud and clear.
The same sound prompted the British poet Philip Larkin, a jazz record reviewer in his spare time, to pen an ode to Bechet, and the New Orleans sound and scene that he emerged from.
‘For Sidney Bechet’ is not unlike one of jazzman’s own solos – compact, emotive, perfectly poised. It pays homage to the front (and back) rooms of The Big Easy, and recognizes the voice that Bechet and his contemporaries gave to its community a century ago.
What’s more, Larkin also provides the single best description of jazz in words – a sound which falls “like an enormous yes”. Play that thing!
‘For Sidney Bechet’
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—
Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced
Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,
And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.