But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz

But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz

by Geoff Dyer

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In eight poetically charged vignettes, Geoff Dyer skillfully evokes the music and the men who shaped modern jazz. Drawing on photos, anecdotes, and, most important, the way he hears the music, Dyer imaginatively reconstructs scenes from the embattled lives of some of the greats: Lester Young fading away in a hotel room; Charles Mingus storming down the streets

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In eight poetically charged vignettes, Geoff Dyer skillfully evokes the music and the men who shaped modern jazz. Drawing on photos, anecdotes, and, most important, the way he hears the music, Dyer imaginatively reconstructs scenes from the embattled lives of some of the greats: Lester Young fading away in a hotel room; Charles Mingus storming down the streets of New York on a too-small bicycle; Thelonius Monk creating his own private language on the piano. However, music is the driving force of But Beautiful, and Dyer brings it to life in luminescent and wildly metaphoric prose that mirrors the quirks, eccentricity, and brilliance of each musician’s style.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dyer (Ways of Telling) here weaves impressionistic fantasies around the lives of eight jazz legends. Though he calls this "imaginative criticism,'' the vignettes, inspired by photos and writings about the artists, have little to do with music. Rather, he muses about the musicians' personalities and certain episodes in their lives-Lester Young's disastrous stint in the army, Thelonious Monk's inability to communicate with anyone but his wife, Bud Powell's mental breakdown, Chet Baker's drug-induced deterioration, Duke Ellington's endless travels. The colorful essays are sometimes excessively fanciful, and they capture the atmosphere of alienation that surrounded these men who, often wasted by drug and alcohol abuse and worn out from days and nights on the road, seemed to function only when making music. The pretentious "afterword'' is irrelevant. Photos not seen by PW. (Jan.)
Library Journal
I was uneasy as I read in Dyer's preface that he invented dialog and action to produce a type of "imaginative criticism." But I soon found myself immersed in a series of atmospheric vignettes populated by several troubled geniuses of the bebop era. The fictive device allows us to experience the pain and loneliness that led many of these artists to drink, drugs, and madness. Whether we are witnessing Lester Young's humiliation by a sadistic agent, seeing Thelonious Monk lose his cabaret card in a bad bust, or watching Chet Baker getting his teeth bashed in by an unpaid drug dealer, we move through each scene in a type of bleary-eyed disorientation that might follow a late night of jazz, booze, and despair. Dyer evokes the rhythm and feeling of the music as his words echo the forlorn, aching sound of a midnight solo. An essential purchase for all jazz collections.-Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, Pa.
Entertainment Weekly Jonathan Lethem
Achingly gorgeous...evokes the lives of working musicians so that you taste the whiskey, smell the stubbed cigarettes, hear the gentle clicking of the valves, the coughs, and shuffling feet between studio takes.
Keith Jarrett
The only book about jazz that I have recommended to my friends. It is a little gem.
San Francisco Chronicle Ted Gioia
A masterful effort, which comes as close to the music's essence as prose can go.
The Washington Post Book World Tom Graves
Dyer turns jazz into poetry and his subjects into a beautiful sad music....Few will be unmoved by his passion and eloquence and the harrowing portraits of jazz's haunted geniuses.
The New Yorker
A gorgeous and lyrical collection of nocturnal jazz reveries.
Bryan Ferry
But Beautiful is just that, a moving and highly original tribute to Black American music.
The New York Times Richard Bernstein
An ingenious and brilliantly written book.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution Matt Schudel
Startlingly vivid...a brilliant work...the written equivalent of a jazz performance...[Dyer] has created an unforgettable melody of his own.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.17(w) x 7.53(h) x 0.66(d)

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But Beautiful

A Book About Jazz

By Geoff Dyer


Copyright © 1996 Geoff Dyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-42947-8


The fields on either side of the road were as dark as the night sky. The land was so flat that if you stood on a barn you could see the lights of a car like stars on the horizon, pulling toward you for an hour before the red taillights ghosted slowly to the east. Except for the steady drone of the car there was no noise. The blackness was so uniform that the driver found himself thinking that no road existed until the headlights scythed a path through the wheat writhing stiffly in the shock of light. The car was like a snowplow, shoving darkness to one side, clearing a path of light ... Feeling his thoughts slipping away and his eyelids becoming heavy, he blinked hard and rubbed one leg to keep himself awake. He kept to a steady fifty but the landscape was so huge and unchanging that the car hardly seemed to move at all, a spacecraft inching its way to the moon ... His thoughts drifted dreamily over the fields again, he thought maybe he could risk shutting his eyes for just one lovely second —

Abruptly the car was filled with the roar of the road and the chill of the night and he was startled to realize that he had been on the verge of nodding out. Within seconds the car was full of chisel-cold air.

Hey, Duke, close the window, I ain't sleepy no more, said the driver, glancing at the man in the passenger seat.

Sure you're OK, Harry?

Yeah, yeah ...

Duke hated the cold as much as he did and needed only this assurance to wind up the window. As quickly as it had cooled down the car began to warm up again. The dry toasty warmth you got in a car with the windows shut tight, that was his favorite kind of heat in the world. Duke had said many times that the road was his home and if that was true then this car was his hearth. Sitting up front with the heater on high and the cold landscape slipping by — to both of them that was like sitting in armchairs in an old cottage and reading books around an open fire, snow falling outside.

How many miles had they traveled together like this? Harry wondered. A million? Put that together with trains and planes and you probably had a distance three or four times the length of the earth. Probably no other people in the world had spent as much time together, or traveled so far, thousands of millions of miles possibly. He'd bought the car in '49, intending just to hop around New York, but soon he was driving Duke all over the country. Several times he'd had an impulse to keep a notebook record of how far they'd traveled but always he came to thinking how he wished he'd done it right from the start and so, each time he thought of it, he gave up the idea and fell to calculating vaguely cumulative distances, remembering the countries and towns they had passed through. That was it — they didn't really visit anywhere, they passed through the whole world, sometimes arriving at a gig twenty minutes before it started and hitting the road again half an hour after it ended.

Not keeping that notebook was just about his only regret. He'd joined the band in '27, April 1927, when he was seventeen and Duke had to persuade his mom to let him go out on the road instead of returning to school, charming her and pressing her hand, smiling and saying, "Yes, of course, Mrs. Carney" to everything she said, knowing he would get his own way in the end. Course, if Duke had mentioned that it would mean spending the rest of his life on the road things might not have been as simple. Even so, looking back on it all, there was hardly a moment or a mile he regretted — especially in the years he and Duke had been driving to gigs like this. The whole world loved Duke but hardly anyone really knew him; over the years he'd got to know Duke better than anyone and that would have been payment enough — the money was a bonus practically ...

How we doing, Harry?

We're OK, Duke. Hungry?

My stomach's been growling since Rockford. How about you?

I'm OK. I've been saving that fried chicken I picked up yesterday morning.

That's gonna be real tasty by now, Harry.

Soon be time to stop for breakfast anyhow.'


About two hundred miles from now.

Duke laughed. They counted time in miles, not hours, and had gotten so used to huge distances that a hundred miles often elapsed between needing a leak and stopping to take one. Two hundred regularly lay between the first pangs of hunger and actually stopping to eat — and even when they came across the only place in fifty miles they often drove on anyway. Stopping was something you looked forward to so much that you could barely bring yourself to do it: a treat that had to be indefinitely postponed.

Wake me up when we get there, said Duke, arranging his hat as a pillow between the edge of the seat and the door.

It was the quiet time of the evening, between the day people heading home from work and the night people arriving at Birdland. From his hotel window he watched Broadway grow dark and greasy with halfhearted rain. He poured a drink, piled a stack of Sinatra records on the turntable ... touched the unringing phone and drifted back to the window. Soon the view fogged over with his breath. Touching the hazy reflection like it was a painting, his finger traced wet lines around his eyes, mouth, and head until he saw it turning into a drippy skull-shaped thing that he wiped clear with the heel of his hand.

He lay down on the bed, making only a slight dip in the soft mattress, convinced he could feel himself shrinking, fading to nothing. Scattered over the floor were plates of food he had pecked at and left. He'd take a bite of this, a little of that and then head back to the window. He ate almost nothing but he still had his preferences when it came to food: Chinese was his favorite, that was the food he didn't eat most of. For a long time he'd lived on buttermilk and Cracker Jack but he'd even lost his taste for these. As he ate less he drank more: gin with a sherry chaser, Courvoisier and beer. He drank to dilute himself, to thin himself down even more. A few days ago he'd cut his finger on an edge of paper and was surprised how red and rich his blood was, expecting it to be silver as gin, flecked with red, or pale, pinkish. That same day he'd been fired from a gig in Harlem because he hadn't had the strength to stand. Now even lifting the horn exhausted him; it felt like it weighed more than him. Even his clothes did probably.

Hawk went the same way eventually. It was Hawk who made the tenor into a jazz instrument, defined the way it had to sound: big-bellied, full-throated, huge. Either you sounded like him or you sounded like nothing — which is exactly how folks thought Lester sounded with his wispy skating-on-air tone. Everybody bullied him to sound like Hawk or swap over to alto but he just tapped his head and said,

— There's things going on up here, man. Some of you guys are all belly.

When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas in '34 they played right through the morning, Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours' playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night's gig.

Lester's sound was soft and lazy but there was always an edge in it somewhere. Sounding like he was always about to cut loose, knowing he never would: that was where the tension came from. He played with the sax tilted off to one side and as he got deeper into his solo the horn moved a few degrees further from the vertical until he was playing it horizontally, like a flute. You never got the impression he was lifting it up; it was more like the horn was getting lighter and lighter, floating away from him — and if that was what it wanted to do he wouldn't try to hold it down.

Soon it was a straight choice: Pres or Hawk, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins — two approaches. They couldn't have sounded or looked more different but they ended up the same way: swilled out and fading away. Hawk lived on lentils, booze, and Chinese food and wasted away, just like Pres was doing now.

* * *

He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left. When he played now cats said he limped along after himself, a pale imitation of those who played like him. At a gig where he'd played badly a guy came up to him and said, "You're not you, I'm you." Everywhere he went he heard people sounding like him. He called everyone else Pres because he saw himself everywhere. He'd been thrown out of the Fletcher Henderson band for not sounding enough like Hawk. Now he was being thrown out of his own life for not sounding enough like himself.

Nobody could sing a song or tell a story on the horn the way he could. Except there was only one story he played now and that was the story of how he couldn't play anymore, how everyone else was telling his story for him, the story of how he'd ended up here in the Alvin, looking out the window at Birdland, wondering when he was going to die. It was a story he didn't quite understand and one he wasn't even that motherfuckin interested in anymore except to say it began with the army. Either it began with the army or it began with Basie and ended with the army. Same either way. He'd ignored his draft papers for years, relying on the band's zigzagging itinerary to keep him five or six steps ahead of the military. Then, as he was walking off the stand one night, an army official with a sharkskin face and aviator shades came up to him like a fan asking for his autograph and handed him his call-up papers.

He'd turned up to his induction board so wasted the walls of the room shivered with fever. He sat opposite three grim military officials, one of whom never raised his eyes from the files in front of him. Knuckle-faced men who each day subjected their jaws to shaving as though they were boots to be polished. Smelling sweetly of cologne, Pres stretched out his long legs, assuming a position as close to horizontal as the hard chair permitted, looking as though he might at any moment rest his dainty shoes on the desk facing him. His answers danced around their questions, nimble and slurred at the same time. He took a pint of gin from an inside pocket of his double-breasted jacket and one of the officers snatched it from him, blaring angrily as Pres, serene and bewildered, waved slowly:

— Hey, lady, take it easy, there's plenty for everyone.

Tests showed he had syphilis; he was drunk, stoned, so wired on amphetamines his heart was ticking like a watch — and yet somehow he passed the medical. It seemed they were determined to waive everything in order to get him into the army.

Jazz was about making your own sound, finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running. The army wanted everyone to be the same, identical, indistinguishable, looking alike, thinking alike, everything remaining the same day after day, nothing changing. Everything had to form right angles and sharp edges. The sheets of his bed were folded hard as the metal angles of his locker. They shaved your head like a carpenter planing a block of wood, trying to make it absolutely square. Even the uniforms were designed to remold the body, to make square people. Nothing curved or soft, no colors, no silence. It seemed almost unbelievable that in the space of a fortnight the same person could suddenly find himself in so totally different a world.

He had a slack, drawling walk and here he was expected to march, to tramp up and down the parade ground in boots heavy as a ball and chain. Marching until his head felt brittle as glass.

— Swing those arms, Young. Swing those arms.

Telling him to swing.

He hated everything hard, even shoes with leather soles. He had eyes for pretty things, flowers and the smell they left in a room, soft cotton and silk next to his skin, shoes that hugged his feet: slippers, moccasins. If he'd been born thirty years later he'd have been camp, thirty years earlier he'd have been an aesthete. In nineteenth-century Paris he could have been an effete fin de siècle character but here he was, landlocked in the middle of a century, forced to be a soldier.

* * *

When he woke the room was filled with the green haze of a neon sign outside that had blinked to life while he slept. He slept so lightly it hardly even merited the name of sleep, just a change in the pace of things, everything floating away from everything else. When he was awake he sometimes wondered if he was just dozing, dreaming he was here, dying in a hotel room ... His horn lay next to him on the bed. On a bedside cabinet were a picture of his parents, bottles of cologne, and his porkpie hat. He'd seen a photograph of Victorian girls wearing hats like that, ribbons hanging down. Nice, pretty, he thought, and had worn one ever since. Herman Leonard had come to photograph him once but ended up leaving him out of the picture altogether, preferring a still life of the hat, his sax case, and cigarette smoke ascending to heaven. That was years ago but the photo was like a premonition that came closer to being fulfilled with each day that passed as he dissolved into the bits and pieces people remembered him by.

He cracked the seal of a new bottle and walked back to the window, one side of his face dyed green in the neon glow. It had stopped raining, the sky had cleared. A cold moon hung low over the street. Cats were turning up at Birdland, shaking hands and carrying instrument cases. Sometimes they looked up toward his window and he wondered if they saw him there, one hand waving condensation from the pane.

He went over to the wardrobe, empty except for a few suits and shirts and the jangle of hangers. He took off his trousers, hung them up carefully, and lay back on the bed in his shorts, green-tinged walls crawling with the shadow angles of passing cars.

* * *

— Inspection!

Lieutenant Ryan flung open his locker, peered inside, jabbed with his swagger stick — his wand, Pres always called it — at the picture taped to the inside of the door: a woman's face smiling out.

— Is this your locker, Young?

— Yes, sir.

— And did you pin this picture up, Young?

— Yes, sir.

— Notice anything about that woman, Young?

— Sir?

— Does anything strike you about that woman, Young?

— She has a flower in her hair, sir, yes.

— Nothing else?

— Sir?

— She looks to me like a white woman, Young, a young white woman, Young. Is that how she looks to you?

— Yes, sir.

— And you think it's right for a nigger private to have a picture of a white woman in his locker like that?

His eyes touched the floor. Saw Ryan's boots move even closer to him, touching his toes. A blast of breath in his nostrils again.

— You hear me, Young?

— Sir.

— You married, Young?

— Sir.

— But instead of a picture of your wife you want to have a picture of a white woman so you can think of her when you jerk off at night.

— She is my wife.

He said it as soft as possible, hoping to strip the statement of offense, but the weight of the fact gave it the defiance of contempt.

— She is my wife, sir.

— She is my wife, sir.

— Take it down, Young.

— Sir.

— Now, Young.

Ryan stood where he was. To get to the locker Lester walked around him like a pillar, grasped his wife's face by the ear, pulled the tape free of the gray metal until the image tore, becoming a paper bridge between his fingers and the locker. Then held it limply in his hand.

— Crumple it up ... Now throw it in the bin.

— Yes, sir.

Instead of the adrenaline surge of power he normally experienced when humiliating recruits Ryan felt the opposite: that he had humiliated himself in front of the whole company. Young's face had been so empty of self-respect and pride, devoid of anything except hurt, that Ryan suddenly wondered if even the abject obedience of slaves was a form of protest, of defiance. He felt ugly and for that reason he hated Young more than ever. He felt something similar with women: when they began to cry, that was when the urge to hit was strongest. Earlier, humiliating Young would have satisfied him — now he wanted to destroy him. He'd never encountered a man more lacking in strength, but he made the whole idea of strength and all the things associated with it seem irrelevant, silly. Rebels, ringleaders, and mutineers — they could all be countered: they met the army head-on, played by its rules. However strong you were the army could break you — but weakness, that was something the army was powerless to oppose because it did away with the whole idea of opposition on which force depends. All you could do with the weak was cause them pain — and Young was going to get plenty of that.


Excerpted from But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 1996 Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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