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But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
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on September 24, 2016
This book is a tour-de-force of imagination. The author places his imaginative consciousness into the lives of numerous reknown jazz greats and brings the era and the force of their creativity onto the page. A feat of unusual power. A book to savor for jazz lovers and lovers of lyrical, expressive prose.
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on March 15, 2018
I read this book years ago and purchased it recently to read it again, it sort of haunted me. I'm glad I reread it because there were parts in there that over powered me on my first reading. The lives of the artists were so difficult, violent, and short -- most of them died so young. The elegance of Duke Ellington and the struggles of Monk to bring his genius to fruition jump out, but there are many other facets shown in this lovely, thin book.

Tango, Murder, and Money by the Bay: Rick and Florrie Dance, Bullets Fly
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VINE VOICEon June 15, 2002
This work, along with James Baldwin's short story, "Sonny's Blues," is as good as any I've read about the jazz life, its creators and innovators, and the high cost of such terrible beauty. I had the advantage of being present while Lester was lost on stage in an alcoholic stupor; Monk was dancing around the piano, knocking over cymbals, rather than playing the instrument; Chet Baker, unable to stand, was expending his last breaths on "The Thrill Is Gone"; and Duke was waiting for Harry Carney to swing by with the car to chauffeur him through the wintry night from Kenosha, Wisconsin to Kansas City. But how a young writer like Dyer managed to capture these moments before his time, freezing them unforgettably in a literary living moment, I can't imagine.
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.
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on May 24, 2017
I bought this book (digital) intending to gift it to a friend who is a Jazzman. It is quite a lovely and interesting book for that purpose & I subsequently purchased the book in hard cover for my friend. I think he will enjoy it as well.
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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."
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on June 8, 2015
This is an usual book in that it is written as something best described as journalistic but is explicitly not bound by fact.It aims at the essence of a jazz world and has been applauded by a number of jazz luminaries as giving the clearest account of the jazz life around. Much of this might be explained by its romanticism. Rather like Diane Arbus' photographs it relishes its knowledge of the underworld, the beat, the alcohol, the lonely hotel rooms and this is as much a one-sided view as any. I found myself doubting the credentials of the writer and wondering how much we are being asked to take on trust. It seems to me to be about the hipness of the author as anything.
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on May 3, 2016
A poetic book that is a real document of the condition of jazz musicians. love it.
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on September 8, 2015
as good a book on jazz as has been written, stays close, very close to the facts , although it is a novel. if your a lover of jazz, it is a must read.
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on August 17, 2017
An excellent imagined history of jazz. Dyer's portraits of these musicians are beautifully evocative, capturing the spirit of their music and lives. It's an excellent entry point into the genre.
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on February 6, 2017
A truly great book exquisitely written with such love and passion that it will break your heart and profoundly change how you hear jazz. Dig it! A must read for jazz aficionados.
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