But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer. Book report #9 (2021)

But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer. Pub 1991 (although my copy is an American updated version from 1996).

I wish I could recall exactly when I got this book, likely more than 10 years ago. I attempted to start it a few time, but never got hooked. This time, I was all in, and what a ride. A set of fictional historical portraits of jazz greats, each chapter tells the mostly sad and beautiful tale of the brilliant and often broken life of one genius after another. A brief check of Wikipedia entries for each each shows that the stories are mostly based in reality, with a healthy addition of creativity and story telling. Dyer writes in the book’s preface that his own “…metaphors and similes…came to seem increasingly inadequate” as he wrote, and he gave up trying to stick to the truth in favour of keeping them true to their subjects – improvisational, lyrical, real but unreachable, human and frail and glorious.

My favourite portraits (for that’s what they are, more than stories) were Bud Powell and Chet Baker. But all of them have lovely pieces of description that evoke the beauty and tragedy of the men and their music. For example:

  • Thelonious Monk, walking around New York: “A famished wind snatched the smoke from his cigarette.”
  • Bud Powell: “It’s late, Bud, the music has come to an end, the candles have drunk themselves to nothing.”
  • Chet Baker: “He had left so many women he sometimes wondered if that wasn’t what attracted them to him: the knowledge that he would leave them. To be complete selfish, untrustworthy, unreliable – and vulnerable – that was the most attractive combination in the world.” What woman in the world doesn’t recognize that attraction, and see it in the early photos of Chet, cradling his trumpet, stoned sorrow just starting to ravage his face.
  • Art Pepper’s playing described by a woman hearing it for the first time, as he dreams of seducing her: “All that hurt and pain…but…but…but…beautiful. Like kissed tears.” “…the song was shaping itself around her and soon it would fit her as perfect as her favourite dress.”

So much of the writing reads like classic song lyrics – like poetry, but needing to be set to music to be free and complete. With each piece, you can almost feel the scrape of the chair on the club floor, the noise of the crowd, the clatter of glasses and drink, and the smoky room and music as it was coming to life as intended – live, raw, and true.

Fate: I anticipate returning to this book again to experience the people and times and the music, so I’ll hang on to my copy for while.

12 – A book I should read
25 – A new author to me
29 – A leftover

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