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But Beautiful

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But Beautiful
Geoff Dyer
Softcover; 240 pages
ISBN 9780312429478
Picador
2009 (1991)

There is nothing beautiful about the stories in Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful. Dyer has fashioned portraits of several key jazz players, all of whose stories show how pursuing the jazz muse can isolate and alienate. Many of the musicians have trouble finding kindred spirits who can understand their passion and drive, and thus spend lonely days and nights in hotel rooms and on the road. Many of them give into the demons of drugs and alcohol; none of them seem to find the ultimate level of expression they so long for.

The writing, on the other hand, is beautiful. Dyer's elegant prose perfectly captures the aura and mystique that surrounds familiar names like bassist Charles Mingus, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Chet Baker and and pianist Duke Ellington. The method in which the book was written is unusual in that it is what many would call "creative non-fiction." Dyer's narratives are not accurate representations of events and people, but rather interpretations of people based on real events and accounts. Nothing transpired exactly this way, but Dyer's approach is much like that of a jazz musician. He offers his own riffs over the changes, quotes from other things, all the while being respectful of the original source material.

This would not be much of an accomplishment—after all, anyone can pretend to be somone else—if it wasn't for Dyer's understanding of and empathy with the music. The love of jazz fills every page. Everything feels right, as if somehow Dyer actually knew these people. This is also attributable in part to Dyer's skill at creating characters and scenes, and he is truly the master of the telling detail.

There has surely never been a better description of pianist Thelonious Monk's style than this one, for instance: "He played each note as though astonished by the previous one...sometimes the song seemed to have turned itself inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes." Or this description of tenor saxophonist Ben Webster: "His playing gaining in intensity the slower it became, fading into a butterfly vibrato and then enveloping the carriage into big sobs of sound." Or perhaps one of the best statements about what a jazz musician does: "Those old songs, they were used to being loved and wanted by the people who played them; musicians hugged them and made them feel brand-new, fresh." But Beautiful is filled with delicious prose like this.

To say that this is one of the best books about jazz ever written is not to claim that it is a good place to look for factual information. It presents the world of jazz more evocatively than that. Instead of getting a factual account of the events of the day, Dyer has recreated the world for his readers and allows them to inhabit it. This is a book that jazz fans will return to again and again.


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