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But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz

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4.25  ·  Rating details ·  1,984 ratings  ·  213 reviews
In this text Geoff Dyer captures the beating heart of jazz. In a series of fictional portraits he examines its pathos and lyricism, urgency and self-destruction.
Paperback, 225 pages
Published June 2012 by Canongate Books (first published 1991)
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4.25  · 
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 ·  1,984 ratings  ·  213 reviews


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Ted
Feb 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ted by: rii Jazz
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
...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
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
...more
HBalikov
May 06, 2016 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
...more
Steve
Oct 25, 2011 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
...more
Bill  Kerwin

Geoff Dyer is a writer of non-fiction, a critic of literature and music and film. But he is a fiction-writer too, and in But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz], he uses his fiction-writer tools to explore the world of jazz, offering a kind of criticism that is more memorable and more resonant than any critical essay could be.

The book consists of a series of fictionalized vignettes which reveal the personalities of a few geniuses of jazz: an aging Lester Young at the Alvin Hotel, Thelonious Monk and h
...more
Sarah
Sep 19, 2007 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
...more
Janet
Mar 04, 2009 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.
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
...more
Bert
Jan 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really rate Dyer, he can write and hits the mark 90% of the time, which is a lot more than most. This was an innovative approach to jazz criticism, kind of a work of imaginative-biography, more Dyer's own take on the lives of the JAZZ GIANTS than actual factual jazztual history. He might stray a little close to tropes and mythological black man territory, but mostly he achieves what most music writing fails at, drawing it back into personal history and reclaiming the heart of jazz as its own n ...more
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.
Tosh
May 30, 2012 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
...more
Grace
Mar 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jazz, race-in-america
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
Ron
Dec 26, 2014 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,
...more
Dan
Apr 23, 2012 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
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
Tristan Louth-Robins
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
Everytime I finish a Geoff Dyer book, I seem to find myself thinking, "That's the best thing I've read since [...]". I wish he'd write about music more. There are so many flashes of sheer brilliance and poetic genius in this remarkable book.
Christian
Apr 26, 2016 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 10, 2016 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
Stenwjohnson
May 22, 2011 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
...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
...more
Makis Dionis
Apr 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: whisky, music-side
And love and dance and rage and jazz and drugs and drunks and laugh and life...
And Chet and Duke and Trane and Lester and Monk and Mingus and Dizzy...
Shashank
Aug 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone keen to learn more on Jazz
Shelves: non-fiction
In powerful vignettes, Dyer covers the forefathers of jazz in spectacular fashion. Till date, I have never come across such a quick ,witty style of writing yet one which creates such elegant imagery -when it comes to non fiction. I mostly associate non fiction with long paras which enunciate the same point 5-6 times before making a conclusion (Which you only understand when you re- read the passage) but Dyer's writing style is amazing.

The 6 greats covered (7 if we include the conversation with D
...more
Cailin Deery
Mar 17, 2011 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.
...more
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
...more
Paul
Jul 28, 2011 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
Amit
Apr 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: geoff-dyer, music
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
Iris
May 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Matthew
Sep 09, 2014 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
...more
David Ranney
Nov 17, 2013 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
...more
Sean
Mar 27, 2013 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
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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
“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.” 12 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.” 7 likes
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