“Jazz will never be music for a mass audience,” says Geoff Dyer in the book But Beautiful. That’s music to my ears.
The book – A Book About Jazz reads the subtitle – is not a mass product either. It is different, unlike any other music book I have read (I am not the biggest fan of tell-all memoirs and dry scholarly essays). Geoff Dyer writes beautifully in such a way that you can not tell where the reality ends and where the fiction begins. Because he takes real facts, and quotes, and photos (how uniquely he reads jazz photos), and, most importantly, the way he hears the music, and he composes his own images and dialogue of scenes from the lives of the jazz musicians he writes about. They appear not as they were, but as he saw them, as the author himself reveals. That’s the beauty of it. It takes imagination and ardor and improvisation and spontaneity to write like this. “Jazz was about making your own sound, finding a way to be different from everybody else.” Dyer applies the same principle to his creative non-fiction.
The portraits of the musicians he evokes – Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Art Pepper – are alive, intimate, lyrical, heartbreaking, and capture the spirit of jazz better than any academic work ever could. And the story about Duke Ellington and Harry Carney, which is not a separate chapter, but divided in a few parts, each part inserted between the other chapters, could very well stand alone as one of the best road trip short stories.
This is the kind of book that reads well in summer. It is by no means a summer read in the lighthearted sense usually associated with summer books. But it is by all means a book that you feel, that takes hold of you, that is happening, just like jazz, just like summer. If you don’t live it, summer is gone before you even know it. You have to make the most of every moment of summer, just as the jazz musicians are “in a state of constant creative alert”. The book is emotionally heavy, but also brimming with the enthusiasm of those musicians who lived for their art.
The film Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, directed by Sophie Huber, is out in the US now and will be playing at these selected theaters during the summer and the DVD will be released in September. The documentary tells the history of the legendary jazz record label, which also established itself from the very beginning as a symbol in jazz imagery. Huber also directed “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction”.
Related reading: M Train, by Patti Smith / Words of Sound / In His Own Words, by Morrissey