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.
In But Beautiful, Geoff Dyer memorializes such jazz giants as Lester Young, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. These aren't, however, your customary thumbnail sketches. Practicing what he calls "imaginative criticism," Dyer embroiders the historical record with invented dialogue and action, stitching together these materials with his own verbal improvisations. My first reaction was to recoil in horror. Surely the unadorned facts of, say, Duke Ellington's life are significant enough on their own, and don't require a young British novelist to inflate them with poetic ether. As it turns out, Dyer's book does contain a few moments of squishy sentimentality, the worst of them being his up-close-and-personal communion with the ghost of pianist Bud Powell. But for the most part, his writing is evocative, eloquent and, well, beautiful. What's more, his poetic language is always deployed in the service of accuracy. Anybody who has ever listened closely to Monk's music, for example, will recognize Dyer's account of his idiosyncratic style: "He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to." In the end, But Beautiful is a splendid meditation on jazz and the personalities that created it, couched in a prose as lyrical -- and as rigorous -- as the music it describes. -- Salon