But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
by Geoff Dyer
North Point Press, 1996
At first glance, Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful appears to be a collection of biographical essays. It's not. In his portraits of jazz luminaries like Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, and Ben Webster, the author plays sufficiently fast and loose with the facts to qualify as a fiction writer, and a brilliant one. It's hard to explain how he does itin fact, the very idea of a young British novelist inflating Thelonious Monk's life with poetic ether was enough to make me shudder. Yet Dyer has pulled it off: these are elegant and moving vignettes that capture the feeling of music with eerie precision. Here he is on Monk's technique: "He didn't play the piano really. His body was his instrument and the piano was just a means of getting the sound out of his body at the rate and in the quantities he wanted." Enough said.