Friday, January 23, 2015

Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I guess you’d call this creative nonfiction. A former colleague recommended this book to me after reading some of my thoughts on the life-affirming and health-inducing aspects of listening to jazz as I deal with a visitation of brain cancer. The great irony is that the joyous practice of improvisation in smoky clubs of the bebop era was so virulently self-destructive for its musicians.

In Dyer’s evocative and impressionistic character sketches of several of its iconic figures (Lester Young, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus) we witness mostly downward trajectories, as drugs, prison, racism, alcoholism, mental illness, and violence take their toll. Whether or not you think of them as survivors, you come to understand that the music they invented and played was an act of defiance and subversion in the face of demons both internal and external.

 
Ben Webster, 1943
I don’t want this to sound over dramatized. Dyer immerses the reader in an imagined subjective world of each musician, and that world is seldom as harrowing as it appears from outside. Like some, Lester Young floats in the isolation of an alcohol haze, never quite sure if he is living or already dead. Thelonious Monk glories in an ongoing rage against fellow musicians and the instrument he plays. 

Meanwhile, some escape to Europe, where they find an appreciative audience and are granted a reprieve from the vestiges of Jim Crow discrimination. If anyone fares badly in the book, it is Chet Baker, who is portrayed musically as someone whose seductiveness as a performer was always in the form of promises he never kept—a self-absorption that verged on coitus interruptus

Dyer bases his book on biographical and historical accounts, but is more interested in impressions than facts. The end result is a cross between dream and documentary. While representing jazz composition and performance as driven by the effort to capture evanescent and transcendent moods (think of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”), Dyer’s lucidly clear prose is a wonder of poetic expression.

Thelonious Monk, 1947
He closes the book with a stimulating essay on mid-century jazz, with an overview of the wave of high-profile jazz musicians who followed in the decades since (e.g., Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett), while illuminating some of the key issues that have animated the discourse of musicologists who have never lost their love for the genre. There is also a discography and a lengthy bibliography.

But Beautiful is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Magazine adverts, McClure’s (1907)

10 comments:

  1. I'd probably enjoy reading about the personalities of these artists. Some interesting histories, I'm sure.

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  2. Same here. I'm a jazz fan, listen to a lot of it from the 1950 - 1965 period, so this might be right up my alley.

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  3. Appears to be a book right up your alley! Glad it was suggested to you as you find beautiful music to accompany your journey.

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  4. I'm not much of a jazz fan, but the book sounds ineresting.

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  5. "But Beautiful," indeed. Let me recommend my all-time-favorite jazz composition, Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments," from the big-band version on the SWISS SUITE album, recorded live at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival.

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    1. Thanks. I have included a vid of the septet's version of this wonderful song in my next blog post.

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  6. This sounds great...and heart breaking. I went through a rock bio phase about 20 years ago. Started classifying celebrity deaths as accidents, tragedies, slow suicides, etc. Some, like Janice, were all three in one. Complex folks, musicians. Complex folks --all of us.

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    1. Richard, in researching early frontier fiction, I found similar stories about writers.

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    2. Yup. Kingsley Amis never quite realized how good his metaphorical comparison of jazz musicians with sf writers was, particularly as he went on to incorrectly note, Neither form has produced anyone absolutely first-rate...which is part of what helped kill some of them both, the endless condescension, underappreciation, neglect, incomprehension. It's hip, right, kinda way out, y'know, infra dig! No, moron, it's fully realized art. Pay attention. Not just hip at its best.

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