Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Favorite Passage

Each year, author Alan Bennett publishes selections from his diaries in the London Review of Books, and they have been included in his omnibus collections Writing Home and Untold Stories.

Below is one of my favorite passages, his memorial of Dudley Moore, who, along with Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, formed the influential comedy troupe Beyond The Fringe. What I love about this passage is how much it accomplishes seemingly effortlessly, with a natural flow of ideas one into another. It memorializes a friend, includes some gossip, challenges (not unkindly) some notions the deceased had, offers insight into how both jazz and comedy work, and ends with an illustration of the simple ways someone long ago can still influence you.

25 May
Thinking about Dudley M. since his death, I'm struck by how little was said at the time of his musical abilities. In particular his talents as a jazz pianist. This would have come as no surprise to him as his success as a comedian and subsequently as a movie star put his musical accomplishment in the shade; jazz became marginal...

...when later in life with that slightly aggrieved air with which he discussed his early career Dudley complained of being unappreciated by his colleagues in Beyond The Fringe, this was partly what it was about. He was a very funny instinctive comedian but he was not a writer and, no good at one sort of language, he found that music, the language he was good at, was largely discounted. And when on chat shows and interviews he gave his always defensive account of himself, complaining of the inferior status he had been accorded, particularly by Peter, music was at the heart of it.

Of course, words and music are not the only languages and at this time, when we were all in our twenties, what ranked him above the rest of us and indeed anyone I've ever come across since, was his sexual success. This, unlike his musical accomplishment, was the subject of constant discussion and enquiry and it was a topic on which, while not boastful, Dudley was always frank, informative and very funny.

That Dudley, given the chance, could talk illuminatingly about music was brought home to me in almost the only conversation I had with him about jazz, when he explained the difference, as he saw it, between a good and an average performance. It had to do with the musical beat, which he told me to think of not as a brief and indivisible moment but as an interval with a discernible length, and a beginning, a middle and an end. The art of playing good jazz, he explained, was to try to hit the beat as near as possible to its ending.

To musicians this may well be a truism but I had never come across the notion before, and it linked, as Dudley then linked it, with comedy timing in the theatre, where the same applies and which I did understand and practiced, though instinctively.

This conversation would have taken pace in New York sometime in 1963 in the apartment which he was then subletting on Washington Square and where he also taught me to add a spoonful of water to the mixture of the scrambled eggs we invariably had for lunch. It was there too that, possibly in order to wean me off Elgar, he played me the long sinuous romantic theme that begins Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Though I always add the water when scrambling eggs, I have never got much further with Bruckner and the opening of the Seventh is still all I know.