Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz is much more than an extended critical essay on a still-evolving, vital musical genre and a great deal more than fictional portrayals of Jazz legends. Here, Dyer focuses his considerable talents on creating a kind of Jazz-in-print, seeking to emulate the frenzied riffing, explosive spontaneity and creative interplay, which has given Jazz music so much more vitality than many other genres' created in the 20th century. Without question, one would have to agree that he has succeeded, totally to the readers' enrichment.
But Beautiful hits the reader on several levels; we are taken on a series of journeys into the lives, thoughts, conversations and seminal events of eight Jazz musicians. Between each chapter is inserted a fictional, road-tripping almost ghostly presence of Duke Ellington, a father figure of modern Jazz who may well have known, recorded and very likely influenced all eight men whom Dyer chose to write/riff about. What's real about the eight musicians are the bare-bones facts known to many Jazz fans; Lester Young court-martialed by the Army because of an inability to cope with a racist Drill Sergeant, Chet Baker's teeth knocked out by an angry drug dealer in a seedy, San Francisco diner, Art Pepper sentenced to five years in prison on a Heroin possession conviction and so on. What's possible, and perhaps no less real to the reader are the details of their lives, their anguish and the self-destructive passions which attend the day to day living of so many creative people. Dyer draws these details in part through listening to the music and inspiration gained by looking at photographs of some of the musicians. 'Not as they were but as they appear to me....' Dyer asks the reader to see the musicians as he sees them, to believe in the memory of what these photos inspired. The men and their lives are portrayed, much like Jazz itself, with a kind of heart-stopping intensity and a poignant, empathetic acknowledgement of lives spent creating and being swallowed whole by the gift that makes creation possible. On Thelonious Monk; "Whatever it was inside him was very delicate, he had to keep it very still, slow himself right down so that nothing affected it." On Ben Webster; "He carried his loneliness around with him like an instrument case. It never left his side."
Very little, insightful criticism or critical essays have been produced regarding Jazz and the people who play it and live it. Dyer has done more than write mere history or criticism in But Beautiful, he has written (and played) a genre-exploding, lyrical meditation on Jazz and on the terrifying, exhilarating possibilities of the music itself and what ought to be recognized as a new form of fictional riffing.