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But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

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4.23  ·  Rating Details ·  1,355 Ratings  ·  142 Reviews

"May be the best book ever written about jazz."David Thomson, Los Angeles Times

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 fad

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Paperback, 205 pages
Published October 27th 1992 by Jonathan Cape (first published 1991)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Ted
Sep 11, 2016 Ted rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ted by: rii Jazz
Shelves: have, reviews-liked, music
If you like this review, credit Geoff Dyer, not the reviewer. The words are his.
And read the book!

All I’ve done is make selections.


Geoff Dyer has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction. This book is a bit of both. His preface refers to an improvisation, and calls it imaginative criticism. As well, it contains invented dialogue and action. (But in his list of references, he does cite source material for much of what could be read as completely invented.) Scenes were intended as “co
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Ian Vinogradus
In a Lonely Tenement

He awoke at 6am, and slid out of the bed in the 20’s studio apartment he’d leased for six months.

It was still dark outside, but he could see a sliver of golden glow in a crack in the curtains.

He went over to it, and drew the curtains slightly apart.

Across the gap in the horseshoe-shaped apartment building, but down one level, he could see the source of the glow.

A woman, in her pyjamas, was prancing around her bedroom, well, between the wardrobe and her bed.

She was trying to
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Sarah
Sep 22, 2007 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: er-body
First, some gushing: Geoff Dyer is my favorite non-fiction writer ever and probably the best and most interesting author that you’ve never heard of. In these desperate days of tell-all memoirs, dry scholarly works, and self-help books, Dyer has forged ahead at full speed, writing self-deprecating, smart and funny genre-bending essays and books. And you can tell how much fun he’s having.

His book Out of Sheer Rage, which is impossible to categorize, forever changed the way I look at writing. The
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Steve
Oct 25, 2011 Steve rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
But Beautiful soars, it flits, it builds with big crescendos, and it breathes in syncopation. It doesn’t always play the notes our melody-trained minds might expect; it plays better ones instead. It’s writing about jazz. It’s writing as jazz. Beyond that, I can’t think of a better way to describe Dyer’s purpose than to lift large chunks of his preface.

When I began writing this book I was unsure of the form it should take. This was a great advantage since it meant I had to improvise and so, from
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Noce
Sep 09, 2011 Noce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Istruzioni per un’adeguata lettura.

- Sciogliete accuratamente le parole di questo libro, in una sera tiepida in cui non avete niente da fare, e immergetevi nella lettura con un sottofondo di musica jazz, a volume medio. Prima di levare lo sguardo dal libro, e ritornare alla solita routine abbiate cura di non strofinare via le emozioni che vi sono cadute addosso. Piuttosto frizionatele e lasciate che vi detergano l’anima.

- Risciacquate bene la malinconica melodia interiore di cui ormai siete pred
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HBalikov
Jun 05, 2016 HBalikov rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a truism about jazz: some like to just hear the song’s melody played straight; others, appreciate the improvisation that uses the melody as a jumping off point. The latter like jazz.

Geoff Dyer states in his title that this is “a book about jazz.” What he doesn’t tell you is that, in looking at some of the great jazz musicians, his prose is going to riff on the words as a musician would riff on the melody. He gives us an ongoing dialogue between Duke Ellington and Harry Carney while they
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Matt
Truly superb- luminous, lyrical, subdued, kind of blue.

As I read it I heard the sound of the music limn the edges of the characters Dyer presents, who happen to be not only some of the lodestars of the jazz world but also certifiably brilliant 20th Century composers, by any standard you care to mention...Lester Young ("Pres" to Lady Day, who named her, and she him), Ben Webster, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker ("the James Dean of Jazz"- a term I don't like all that much except it just s
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Tosh
May 30, 2012 Tosh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great jazz and good writing has been a wonderful combination for many years now. So by even its cover I knew this book is going to of some interest. Geoff Dyer has a real appreciation for the visual imagery of jazz - meaning that his writing is almost a series of snapshots of various legendary jazz figures. He captures each moment that is both touching and 'wow.'

The individual pieces in this book are held together by brief episodes of Duke Ellington and Harry Carney on the road that reads sort
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Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
This wasn't bad, but I couldn't help but wonder what the musicians evoked here would make of it. Like a lot of writers, Dyer sees perhaps too much meaning in music. The great thing about music, especially improvised instrumental music, is that it can be a space that transcends meaning, a space in which self expression and emotion are only a subset of what is going on. Dyer's afterword on the history and evolution of jazz, however, is a good introduction for the newcomer.
Janet
Mar 04, 2009 Janet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Best Jazz book ever. Dyer brings a novelist's skill to this book which describes the lives and music of a dozen greatest jazz musicians America ever produced. We don't find out about Monk, we become Monk, we live his life, feel his tone. Devastating.
Ron
Jan 20, 2015 Ron rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cancer-bookshelf
I guess you’d call this creative nonfiction. A former colleague recommended this book to me after reading some of my own 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,
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Darran Mclaughlin
Wonderful. Everything I have read by Geoff Dyer is a pleasure to read, and each book has been totally different. I'm a big Jazz fan so I was already predisposed to relish this. Dyer writes semi-biographical, semi-fictionalised vignettes about a number of different musicians and ends with a passionate essay on Jazz as an art form. He claims that there is next to no good writing about it, and when I think about it I haven't read much criticism or analysis of Jazz, unlike with other forms of music. ...more
Grace
Mar 26, 2016 Grace rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jazz
Reading this book was an enjoyable experience. I don't know what to call it - it isn't a novel so much as an account, based in reality but definitely reimagined by the author, so I guess I'll just call it a narrative for now. It's important because the in order to understand the narrative I think it is important to read the foreword, in which Dyer explains the liberties he took and his sources and inspiration, while the narrative is something else entirely (the main event, of course), and then t ...more
Dan
Apr 30, 2012 Dan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Dan by: Tobias
Shelves: music
This is a remarkable book. It's one of the best pieces of writing that I have ever read, and it's not just because I love Jazz. The approach of the writing is what I'd call unconventional because it claims to be neither fiction or non-fiction, which is a safe tack for the author to take. Even though, the book is not diminished by the author telling the reader all of this out in the preface; he says, point-blank, that it's what he's doing. He is attempting to tell the stories of a handful of jazz ...more
Arjun Ravichandran
Great book, focusing on the heartbreakingly tragic lives of jazz musicians, who pushed the boundaries of 20th century art, whilst simultaneously battling institutional racism, poverty, and a debilitating drug epidemic.

It's a fantastic story that the author brings about through the brilliant move of looking at the culture through its most memorable, fierce, and enigmatic exponents. Figures covered include the unworldly genius of Thelonious Monk, the alcoholic tenor Lester Young, the piano prodigy
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Christian
Apr 26, 2016 Christian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If anyone were to say to me "I'd like to read a book about jazz" (has anyone ever said that?), But Beautiful would be recommendation #1. This difficult-to-categorize volume is a sort of short story collection about jazz musicians. However, most of the stories are true. However, however, none of the versions are based on eyewitness accounts or any kind of real research. Instead, author Geoff Dyer applies his imagination and prose skill to a series of moments that have been told so many times that ...more
Mark Hiser
Jan 13, 2016 Mark Hiser rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
For much of my life, I usually listened to classical music. A few years ago, however, I attended a concert of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and loved every moment of the experience. Since then, I have been attending more jazz concerts, listening to jazz online, and reading about this American art form. In a few days, I will also be going on the 2016 Jazz Cruise which includes almost non-stop music for a week. In preparation for that trip, I began reading But Beautiful, a book that has gained much ...more
Jim
Jun 20, 2016 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is one long fictionalized riff on a selection of jazz giants: Thelonius Monk, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Lester Young and Bud Powell. Each musician/composer has his own chapter, with the chapters separated by imagined portions of the legendary road trips of Duke Ellington and Harry Carney. Very lyrical and musical prose, great subjects. Dyer says he used photographs, new reports and interviews to conjure his somewhat stream-0f-consciousness takes on the melanc ...more
Goose
Mar 30, 2015 Goose rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gorgeous piece of writing. Dyer's writing style is enjoyable and lyrical, playing with the story of each of the jazz figures discussed in the work. While the people and events are largely factual, Dyer is upfront that it's his interpretation of what happened with these musicians. This can be a dangerous game, but Dyer's honesty and obvious love makes the blurring of nonfiction work more successfully than if he wrote in a more journalistic style. An enjoyable work, even for those who may not cons ...more
Amit
May 27, 2014 Amit rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, geoff-dyer
When it comes to Geoff Dyer, I am probably not objective. So far, whatever I've read of him, I have loved it. That disclaimer out of the way, But Beautiful is a lovely little book about Jazz -- although not in the traditional sense. Dyer takes stories/anecdotes/popular quotes and so on involving many leading figures from the explosive years of Jazz and fictionalizes them, to give us a better sense of the times, and more importantly, the men. This is a small book, a very quick read, but something ...more
Paul
Jan 01, 2012 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So difficult to review this book - the likes of which I've never read before. I shan't attempt to in all honesty. Suffice to say, Geoff Dyer's writing is gripping, heartfelt, and all too believable. Which is pretty much all that matters given the subject matter - imagined portraits of the equally troubled and gifted musicians he portrays - Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper. I finished each chapter with an indelible ...more
Stenwjohnson
Jun 17, 2011 Stenwjohnson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The introduction to Geoff Dyer’s “But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz” raises a few red flags: He excuses his impressionistic series of jazz biographies as an act of “improvisation,” a work of creative license in the spirit of the music that it describes. If you’ve read enough music writing, you’ve heard this one before.

He shouldn’t protest so much. The eight lyrical, semi-fictionalized vignettes on Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus and others are a credible mix
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Iris
May 26, 2011 Iris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
I married a jazz man. Thanks, Geoff Dyer, for bringing me into the fold at last.

While I've been surrounded by the recordings for many years, the clinical nature of jazz appreciation dissuades me from cottoning to the form. This book brings the love: with each chapter, a vibrant evocation of a life and art told in prose. Reading about Art Pepper or Thelonious Monk, or my favorite, tender and brave Lester Young, I heard their music and felt their life forces move through the sounds. Dyer, who mak
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Stewart
"But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz," published in 1996, is described by the author, Geoff Dyer, as “imaginative criticism as fiction.” Although some of the dialogue is invented, many of the scenes are based on well-known episodes in the lives of the early practitioners of American jazz. The book could be described as brief historical fiction or a literary improvisation on real-life themes.
Chapter by chapter, we get glimpses of the lives and music of Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington
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Cailin Deery
Jan 01, 2012 Cailin Deery rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
“Despite all that has been said about jazz, it is anything but a hermetic form. What makes it a vital art form is its astonishing ability to absorb the history of which it is a part.”

This book is truly gorgeous. I hardly know where to start. I appreciate jazz, but my knowledge is in dire, short supply. It’s such a generational and collaborative art form, so it seems important to keep its evolution in context, which has always made me feel like I’ll never grasp it and will always be intimidated.
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Matthew
Sep 16, 2014 Matthew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love Geoff Dyer, but upon finding this classified under "Fiction" (not with the music criticism and essays), I was more than skeptical. The epigram, "Not as they were, but as I imagine them." didn't help - how would this living, white, Englishman "imagine" these mostly black Americans? The first chapter had Lester Young being ordered by a Lieutenant to "throw it in the bin". Oh no!
Then, it turns out, it's great. I know less about jazz than Dyer does about how Americans refer to garbage collect
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Catherine Siemann
Jazz musicians are largely f**ked up on drugs or alcohol.

Um, okay. I think it would have helped to have had a soundtrack -- I knew of the musicians I was reading about, but I didn't always know their work. There's an informative and extended afterward that I actually enjoyed more, because it told me about jazz, not about self-destruction. There's a claim here that most of the great jazz musicians have been addicts -- some have come out the other side, some have not -- that seems to date back to
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Sean
Mar 30, 2013 Sean rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simply, a fantastic and enormously inventive book about Jazz. A must for jazz fans. Others may not relate as it's an imaginative work and not a historical or critical work. For them I say listen to good jazz by the classic creators of the modern form (1940s, 50s and 60s)for a few years and then read this. Classic creators = Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk etc... you've got a lot of pleasure awaiting you if you really connect with this amazing stream of music. But it takes some diggin ...more
David Ranney
Nov 18, 2013 David Ranney rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: top-100-fiction
Listening, the prisoners know that his playing is about something which is not higher but deeper than dignity, self-respect, pride, or love--deeper than the spirit: the simple resilience of the body. Years from now, when his body has become a sustaining reservoir of pain, Art will remember the lesson of this day: if he can stand up he can play, and if he can play he can play beautifully.
A splendid meditation on jazz and the instrumental (haaaah) personalities behind it. The prose is remarkably
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Bill
Mar 16, 2009 Bill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My favorite Dyer yet. Interleaving chapters imagining the jazz greats from the inside out, with Duke Ellington able to triumph over all while so many succumb to the times. Heartbreaking, sad, tragic, painful, ultimately only a brit fan's imaginings and tribue... but beautiful, indeed. Here's the Dyer effect: I had the experience reading this book that it reminded me of this incredible ineffable experience I might have reading this incredible book.. which was the book I was reading. It made me im ...more
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Geoff Dyer was born in Cheltenham, England, in 1958. He was educated at the local Grammar School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is the author of four novels: Paris Trance, The Search, The Colour of Memory, and, most recently, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; a critical study of John Berger, Ways of Telling; five genre-defying titles: But Beautiful (winner of a 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize ...more
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“At some time all cities have this feel: in London it's at five or six on a winer evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city's longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation. Whether the plates have been stacked neatly away or the sink is cluttered with unwashed dishes makes no difference because all these details--the clothes hanging in the closet, the sheets on the bed--tell the same story--a story in which they walk to the window and look out at the rain-lit streets, wondering how many other people are looking out like this, people who look forward to Monday because the weekdays have a purpose which vanishes at the weekend when there is only the laundry and the papers. And knowing also that these thoughts do not represent any kind of revelation because by now they have themselves become part of the same routine of bearable despair, a summing up that is all the time dissolving into everyday. A time in the day when it is possible to regret everything and nothing in the same breath, when the only wish of all bachelors is that there was someone who loved them, who was thinking of them even if she was on the other side of the world. When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, hearing the same tune on the radio, writing these words.” 11 likes
“He [Thelonious Monk] 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.” 8 likes
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