(Afternoon Tea at the Randolph Hotel, Fri 6th April, 2012, part of Oxford Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)
The magnificent Randolph Hotel (where Larkin took tea with friends, and – some people fantasize – Alice in Wonderland could have murdered Inspector Morse) was the perfect setting for ‘Larkin’s Jazz ‘ and afternoon tea.
Some of the musicians even recalled forming their own band in that very room, 24 years ago. Indeed, one of the great things about the Oxford Jazz Festival is that audiences get to see those unfamiliar places which, in this case – why not? – bring back a “reminder of the strength and pain of being young.”
Jazz gave meaning to Philip Larkin’s life and work, and the afternoon was a musical commentary on this: his favourite tunes by Bix Beiderbeke, Count Basie, (Jive at Five, 9.20 Special) Billie Holiday (This Year’s Kisses), Lester Young (Lester Leaps In, You Can Depend on Me), Duke Ellington, (Just Squeeze Me, Mood Indigo) Johnny Hodges and Teddy Wilson, Louis Armstrong, and more from the pre-bebop era.
But the real star of the afternoon was the late poet himself. There were extracts from Larkin’s jazz criticism, interspersed with poems read (by David Thurston) over specially composed jazz themes. Ian Smith‘s fine muted trumpet arpeggios soared over Dave Gelly‘s Lester Young-like tenor sax, Colin Good‘s sparkling stride piano and Alyn Shipton and Euan Stewart‘s swinging bass and drums.
Ian Smith is also an academic and he led us through Larkin’s life from early days in Oxford, keeping the audience entertained with fascinating stories. Lines from Larkin’s poems have entered the mainstream- ‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad..’, ‘..sexual intercourse began in 1963…’ and so on, and his persona is at best grumpy. A different side to Larkin emerged: one that cared deeply and romantically about jazz.
Larkin identified with the self-destructive trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, almost worshipped Sidney Bechet, and discussed his jazz heroes in the same terms as the literary greats . His poems were influenced by lyricists such as Cole Porter . He loved Billie Holiday’s bitter-sweet way with words, and thought all musicians should play as if they knew the lyrics.
Larkin distinguished between the ‘hot jazz’ played through most of the afternoon and ‘the blues’ which was ultimately the only truly satisfying music for him. At one point he even played blues piano in an Oxford pub. The band played Centerpiece and an elegiac slow blues behind a reading of the late poem The Winter Palace , where Larkin lamented his waning faculties.
I think Larkin would’ve loved the afternoon- although he needed gin to get him dancing, he would’ve raised a teacup to toast this wonderful band and the Festival’s imaginative organisers.