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But Beautiful Format Kindle
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Dmitri Savitski, jazz journalist RL/RFE
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Geoff Dyer's employs his exquisite imagery as a starting point for his "imaginative criticism" of the celebrated and tragic lives of several iconic jazz musicians (including figures such as Chet Baker, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell). While photographs are the inspiration, Dyer's writing is so precise and sensual that he need only describe the photographs (the book has only one small photo). And this is just right for a book about music, his writing is so lyrical that we almost hear the sounds while reading. (In fact. the least effective aspect of the book is the Duke Ellington "road trip" that introduces each chapter, perhaps because the narrative is not connected to any particular Ellington sound.)
Many of the scenes and dialogue (especially the inner dialogue) are necessarily fictions, "assume that what's here has been invented or altered rather than quoted." But Dyer's explains that while his version may veer from the truth, "it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form." He mixes truth and fiction into portraits that illuminate what strictly factual history cannot always convey. (Think of Robert Graves' in his WWI memoir/fiction "Goodbye to All That."). Dyer explains that while a photo depicts only a "split second," its "felt duration" may include the unseen moments before and after that split second. "But Beautiful" invites us to improvise (as Dyer does) into that unseen time, and discover our own subjective relationship to the music.
Listen to this: "Chet put nothing of himself into his music and that's what lent his playing its pathos...Every time he played a note he waved it goodbye. Sometimes he didn't even wave."
The evocative word pictures are unusually perceptive and sensitive. Although personal and often imagined, it's really like an improvised solo that either feels "right" or not. I think "But Beautiful" hits the right notes and rhythms: his words evoke the music, and, after reading it, the music will evoke the words. Not without its flaws, it is still an astonishing feat.
Dyer knows that the foremost responsibility of a music critic is not to critique but to verbalize his non-verbal subject, bringing it to life for the reader. He does so admirably, creating believable, recognizable, fascinating portraits in unlabored, unpretentious prose.
His portraits of the artist ring completely true to the ears of this fellow observer--penetrating glimpses of the creative child trapped in a man's body now reduced to fighting a losing battle against physical and mental entropy. Yet his faith in the living tradition of jazz is refreshing, as is his characterization of the jazz musician's struggle as a valiant contest with the precursor, not unlike that of the strong poet's.
Though there's an elegaic tone throughout the book, it's never ponderous or depressing. In fact, its human portraits are more likely to interest newcomers than the many text books that catalog styles and names.
This is not to say the book is without shortcomings. The author is much better at capturing the musicians for us than their music. And his appreciation and understanding of Duke Ellington's music seems somewhat limited. Too bad he didn't give at least as much attention to the colorful cast of characters on the band bus as to the private conveyance preferred by Duke.
Yet any listener who has the slightest interest in jazz and its makers simply cannot afford to pass this one up. And it goes a long way toward fleshing out some of the caricatures served up on the Ken Burns' television series.
But Beautiful hits the reader on several levels; we are taken on a series of journeys into the lives, thoughts, conversations and seminal events of eight Jazz musicians. Between each chapter is inserted a fictional, road-tripping almost ghostly presence of Duke Ellington, a father figure of modern Jazz who may well have known, recorded and very likely influenced all eight men whom Dyer chose to write/riff about. What's real about the eight musicians are the bare-bones facts known to many Jazz fans; Lester Young court-martialed by the Army because of an inability to cope with a racist Drill Sergeant, Chet Baker's teeth knocked out by an angry drug dealer in a seedy, San Francisco diner, Art Pepper sentenced to five years in prison on a Heroin possession conviction and so on. What's possible, and perhaps no less real to the reader are the details of their lives, their anguish and the self-destructive passions which attend the day to day living of so many creative people. Dyer draws these details in part through listening to the music and inspiration gained by looking at photographs of some of the musicians. 'Not as they were but as they appear to me....' Dyer asks the reader to see the musicians as he sees them, to believe in the memory of what these photos inspired. The men and their lives are portrayed, much like Jazz itself, with a kind of heart-stopping intensity and a poignant, empathetic acknowledgement of lives spent creating and being swallowed whole by the gift that makes creation possible. On Thelonious Monk; "Whatever it was inside him was very delicate, he had to keep it very still, slow himself right down so that nothing affected it." On Ben Webster; "He carried his loneliness around with him like an instrument case. It never left his side."
Very little, insightful criticism or critical essays have been produced regarding Jazz and the people who play it and live it. Dyer has done more than write mere history or criticism in But Beautiful, he has written (and played) a genre-exploding, lyrical meditation on Jazz and on the terrifying, exhilarating possibilities of the music itself and what ought to be recognized as a new form of fictional riffing.
The problem is that much of the prose reads like writing, like he's reaching. 'His voice floated across the courtroom like a child's yacht on a blue lake' for example (p.23), is typical. It takes a beat too long to digest and process the metaphor, since the metaphor is so entirely unrelated to the mitigating circumstances; in other words, the analogy is not irrelevant, but irreverent; and like much of the prose in this book, it's frustrating because it is almost poetic. Almost poetic, but not beautiful.