Just when it’s all getting festive, here’s another gentle, disparaging put-down of jazz. I should get over it/ get a life/ get into the spirit of Christmas now, I know, I know. But, somehow, it feels necessary to capture this fleeting moment in British cultural life, as perceived from en haut, and to preserve it here:
Actor Colin Firth was waxing lyrical yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, talking about Coming Through Slaughter the early fictional biographical sketch of Buddy Bolden by novelist Michael Ondaatje. The full programme is available here.
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The discussion gets going around 8:20 in the recording…
Frostrup asks him: “You make it sound like music ..is there a relationship between words and music?”
He starts to warm to the subject:
This was the one in which I discovered experimentation.. a huge revelation to me….writing as jazz..working with a literary equivalent of jazz .. His literary protagonist Buddy Bolden …about whom we know very little.. an imaginative experience of his music… battle between a hymn and the devil’s music… .
Mr Darcy is now going at it hammer and tongs:
…..the writing is incredibly vital ..it delivers in fragments ….feels a bit like looking at old photographs ..experiencing ghosts of the turn of the century in New Orleans …it delivers itself with a high level of impact all the time ..intensely sexual moments..refelective ..compassionate…
Oh yes. And then, at 10:26, the put-down, swiftly cut off by Frostrup, who needs to move on.
“It’s the kind of jazz I’m always looking for, actually and I never get that experience from real jazz”
A bit of pots and kettles here – Given Firth's activism on behalf of asylum seekers, his support for assorted international good causes, his multiple academy and Bafta awards, and a successful career on the stage – he might feel that photo to be a lazy generalisation too.
Sure, that's a fair cop, anonymous. I was in fact taking my cue from the BBC's blurb about the programme, as follows:
“..an actor whose abiding image in most women's eyes remains his emergence from a Regency Lake, wet shirt plastered to his torso and features furrowed in a classic Mr Darcy frown…”
And he was actually on the show to talk about his new book on such subjects.
But surely jazz IS capable – frequently, deeply – of being overwhelming, in precisely the way he wants it to be. This wilful myopia, typical of the British intelligentsia just bugs me, that's all.
I think you're being just a little hard on him. He describes that wonderful book as violent, reflective, compassionate. Jazz at its best — any kind of music — can be those things, but it isn't always. Sometimes the technical wizardry (again of ANY music) can override the emotional impact of it. Can't it?
In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje pulls off this great trick of giving us a novel that IS jazz, as well as being ABOUT jazz. He gives us all the emotional intensity we could ever want, at the same time as giving us a technically brilliant piece of writing. Rare – in any art form. And beautiful.