I suspect that most aficionados of modern jazz will appreciate, even treasure, BUT BEAUTIFUL. It is notoriously difficult (impossible, really) to write satisfactorily about music - whether classical or jazz. But Dyer comes closer than most.
The bulk of the book consists of imaginative profiles of Lester Young, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Thelonious Sphere Monk ("Melodious Thunk" to Nellie, his beloved wife and intermediary with the outside world). "Imaginative" because Dyer admittedly improvised on the historical facts of their lives, much as jazz musicians improvise on a theme. Much is embellishment, where Dyer tells about an historical event (such as Chet Baker getting his teeth knocked out or Lester Young's troubles in the Army) through, in part, invented dialogue and action. Some episodes, however, are completely fictitious. Still, Dyer writes, "these scenes were * * * intended as commentary either on a piece of music or on the particular qualities of a musician. What follows, then, is as much imaginative criticism as fiction."
This blurring of fact and fiction might make some readers feel a little uneasy (as it does me), but at least Dyer is up front about it and I do sense that the picture that emerges approaches a generalized plane of "truth" that is beyond more conventional and rigorous biographical/historical narratives.
Interlaced between the profiles is a series of vignettes of Duke Ellington and Harry Carney on the road, driving to their next job, Duke either sleeping or jotting down ideas for compositions on stray envelopes and paper napkins and then stuffing them in the glovebox. The book ends with a 33-page afterword, entitled "Tradition, Influence, and Innovation". In this essay, which for me was the best part of the book (or at least, the part that I am most likely to re-read), Dyer discusses the history of jazz post-WWII and some of the defining characteristics of jazz and jazz musicians, especially recurrent ones that wove in and out of the profiles.
The writing style is unusual - hip, noir-ish, frenetic, and modern. Usually it is successful, even brilliant, but at times it is overdone, at times it is sentimental, and on occasion it turns plain ugly. But that's jazz. The title comes from a conversation (imagined?) between Art Pepper and a married woman he is trying to talk into bed after having just been released from prison. (Perhaps the title is intentionally semi-ironic?)
The profiled musicians were all misfits, to varying degrees. One of the points Dyer highlights in the afterword is that jazz is notable for "its capacity to raise to the level of genius those who would otherwise have lacked a medium to express themselves." Going hand in hand is the propensity for jazz musicians to destroy themselves through drugs and booze. Why so? For one thing, jazz puts such a premium on individual creativity and a stance of rebellion, or at least flouting tradition and the establishment. In addition, a certain measure of emulation of the great Charlie Parker (or, later, of Coltrane, or Miles Davis, or Art Blakey, or Art Pepper) surely was at work, at least with many. But even making allowances for drugs, alcohol, and the odd hours and typically bohemian lifestyle of a jazz musician, several of these figures were at bottom pathetic and deplorable, even reprehensible, people - especially Mingus, Baker, and Pepper (with regards to Pepper, see the tale of the skewered chihuahua). But beautiful?
I will close with a small sampling of quotes from the book:
"It wasn't that jazz musicians died young, they just got older quicker."
Re Monk: "There were days when he was stranded between things, when the grammar of moving through the day, the syntax holding events together fell apart. Lost between words, between actions, not knowing something as simple as getting through a door, the rooms of the apartment becoming a maze." Also: "You had to see Monk to hear his music properly. The most important instrument in the group--whatever the format--was his body. 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. * * * His body fills in all the gaps in the music; without seeing him it always sounds like something's missing but when you see him even piano solos acquire a sound as full as a quartet's. The eye hears what the ear misses."
"Electronic instruments define themselves in relation to--and partake of the quality of--din. Acoustic instruments define themselves in relation to--and partake of the quality of--silence. For this reason acoustic instruments will always have a greater purity."