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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
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on 3 August 2017
Fabulous book thank you
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on 3 August 2017
Great jazz book
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VINE VOICEon 23 September 2009
Every now and again along comes a book which inexplicably gets overlooked by the great populace but which nevertheless has lasting influence and affection. Such a book is But Beautiful, Geoff Dyer's clever intertwining of fact with a deep passion for his subject, jazz. First published an incredible eighteen years ago Dyer's book seems ageless when reread - it is, in fact that rarity, a novel which improves with experience. Eight stories are told here, each focussing on one of the greats of American jazz: Lester Young, Thelonius Monk,Charlie Mingus, Art Pepper, Chet Baker. Every story, every page sings with an individual voice, the taste of cheap bourbon, the smell of cigarette smoke and the entanglement of emotions thrust together by the relentless, drug fuelled and prison toughened lives they led. At times the narrative is as fragile as a fleeting thought, at others it races and spreads like a Charlie Parker solo.
Dyer's obvious love for jazz combines with a reverence and exceptional knowledge to make this certainly the most impactive of books I have read on the subject but also, like an original Blue Note vinyl album, a treasure to return to time and time again and to remember the greatness of the music.
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on 16 February 2016
I am out of step here. This is probably 'good literature'. However all the vignettes are made up and most are very depressing. It told me nothing about jazz or jazz players, except that they drink/drunk heavily and used drugs. I actually knew that.
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on 28 September 2006
This may well be the best book ever written about jazz. If you're not a jazz lover, But Beautiful is the book to make you one.

Each chapter is an episode from the lives of the genre's greats and explores the psyche of jazz musicians in exquisite form. The reader is taken, with great sensitivity, into the darker side of these peoples' personalities and the toll the jazz lifestyle sadly takes on them: Lester Young's struggle against racism, the psychotic tendencies of Charlie Mingus, Art Pepper's appetite for self-destruction and the drug addiction of other greats are just a few examples of such themes.

My favourite line in the whole book would have to be the following part of the author's description of Ben Webster:

"Watching him heave the saxophone case down from the rack like he was going to show you photos of his loved ones -which is exactly what he was going to do-..."

There's simply not a bad line in this book. Read it, you won't be disappointed.
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on 17 July 2000
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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 December 2014
This book was written more than twenty years ago; I discovered it by chance many years ago and have read it at least three times. It takes a quite unique approach and is what it says it is "a book about jazz". It is written in two sections; the first part a series of essays; short pieces of fiction based on fact in the style of a prose narrative. The second part an extended essay on the state of jazz "today" (1991).

For the first part we have a series of scenes: firstly detailing the close relationship between Duke Ellington and Harry Carney. Then there are chapters on aspects in the lives of some great musicians e.g. Chet Baker, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Pepper. I have read tens of books on jazz and this approach is absolutely unique. O.K. Some of the "factual" events may be imagined but Geoff Dyer captures absolutely the misery of Lester Young's ordeal during his conscription into the Army, and other ordeals encountered by the other musicians named above. The writing is beautiful but the subject matter isn't. It shows in full detail the squalid, lonely, unhappy lives of so many of our heroes.
The second section is an observation of the outcome of the rapid evolution of jazz in less than 100 years. An interesting conclusion that I am in sympathy with.
Thoroughly recommended and of such quality that it improves on second and subsequent readings. Certainly a MUST for any follower of the music and an insight into the lives of musicians, especially jazz musicians who find themselves improvising in public new music every night; no other art form makes such demands.no wonder so many had such short lives and resulted to the abuse of stimulants.
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on 7 July 1999
Geoff Dyer completes the seemingly impossible - to get inside the drug-addled minds of various jazz greats - with ease. His pen portraits of a life in a day of a handful of the greats, all held together by a recurring short story on a Duke Ellington drive from gig to gig, are all breathtakingly superb. The short on how Chet Baker came to lose his looks courtesy of his dealer and a tomato ketchup bottle is simply painful to read, as is Art Pepper in prison. For once, there isn't a bad story in the collection. You don't have to be a jazz afficianado to like this, although it will probably help to know a little about the men in question, just a fan of good literature.
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on 5 December 2003
This book describes perfectly the culture surrounding Jazz in the 1950s, just as the style became synonymous with alcohol, drugs, and rebellion against the mainstream. Dyer takes an approach to the characters he describes that merges the factual and the fictitious in such a way that it becomes unimportant just how much is true and how much is literary improvisation. What counts is the overall impression given, and this is done very sensitively. There are some beautiful images and lines, and the intensely sad is balanced with a beautiful touch of tenderness. I would recommend this book to anyone who appreciates Jazz, and can promise you will never listen to all that 'old stuff' in the same way again. I would also recommend it to anyone who loves top quality writing, because this is a fine example.
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on 15 October 2013
After the carefully considered reviews that have already been posted, mine must begin with a dreadful cliché. If you can forgive me, But Beautiful has changed my life ... or a big part of it. I discovered it pretty well by chance. I had no interest at all in Geoff Dyer and, I am ashamed to say, very little interest in jazz. Twenty years ago, I found a copy of the 1991 Cape edition in a box of remaindered books. I bought it because it was dedicated (more prominently in that than in more recent editions) to John Berger ... and in those days I read everything by or about Berger. As far as the music went, I had 'tried' jazz. Part of me wanted to like it, but I thought of it as 'difficult', 'clever' music that needed to be worked at rather than simply enjoyed. Everything that I had read about jazz before But Beautiful tended to reinforce the view that jazz was 'serious' music that offered a cerebral pleasure.
But when I first read Dyer's book, I wept. What I read was totally unexpected. It had nothing at all to do with cleverness or understanding. Instead Dyer says 'look at these people ... see how this one breaks down in front of an audience ... how this genius has the personality of a child ... how this man is abused at the side of the road ... and how this man is devoted to his very ordinary wife. But Beautiful achieves the almost impossible: rather than argue, it says simply 'look and listen' and yet, in my case at least, it convinced me that I was completely wrong. Worry too much about Monk and his music is complex and clever; read But Beautiful, listen again and it is almost childlike in its joy and simplicity.
Twenty years on, I get a HUGE amount of pleasure listening to jazz of all kinds. To friends that find the music impossible, I don't say 'listen to this' or 'listen to that'; instead I suggest 'read a bit of this' - But Beautiful - and then tell me what music you want to borrow.
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