Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making Your Own Sound: Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I was recently having lunch with Critics at Large colleague John Corcelli and he was telling me about reading this “exhaustive but fascinating” new biography of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. While enthusiastically describing the various ways the book identified Monk as the originator of be-bop jazz, John got me thinking about one of my favourite books about jazz, one that didn’t dispel the myths surrounding those legendary figures, but rather examined the source of their power: Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991).

The way Dyer writes about jazz, the sound of the music burns through the lines on the page like some subliminal jukebox. Dyer’s not so much a soloist improvising on a tune; instead, he evokes the feeling of the music and the sound at the core of the individual who plays it. “Jazz was about making your own sound,” he explains, “finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running.”

Geoff Dyer writes, in eight very succinct and visually evocative vignettes, of some great – and very different – jazz artists: Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Art Pepper. And Dyer weaves quite an impressionistic tapestry. But Beautiful illustrates the different kinds of artistic temperaments responsible for this uniquely American music. For in his view, jazz music was the perfect artistic expression for talented and inspired outsiders who often demonstrated very idiosyncratic behavior. And, in America, most of these outsiders who discovered and created jazz were black. But Beautiful is both illuminating and inventive because Dyer – a novelist who wrote The Colour of Memory (1989) and The Search (1993) – has constructed this biographical journey in the style of a novel. Drawing on anecdotes, scenes from documentary films, photographs and conjecture, Dyer concocts his drama out of snapshot impressions.

Dyer begins with a story of Duke Ellington crossing the country with his driver, Harry Carney, trying to write a piece of music that will take in all of the characters who shaped it. Before long, that opening becomes a thread that holds together the stormy history of the music (racism, drug addiction, loneliness and schizophrenia) like beads. In the case of each performer, Dyer crafts their stories not by listing the pertinent details of their lives, but by dramatizing moments that create a picture of each personality. And he does so with such a poetic precision that he enables us to make the connections between their life and their music. Dyer’s prose is sometimes so lyrical that you can be reading the book and be hearing the music playing in your head like some distant soundtrack.

There are some poignant moments, both imagined and real, caught here. Lester Young fading into oblivion in his hotel room while looking back on events such as his army drill sergeant humiliating him (he was forced to take down the picture of his white wife from his locker), his days in the stockade after his court-martial from the army, or recalling a memorable night out in New York with Billie Holiday. Then, out of all this, Dyer captures something in the music that pulls it together. “Lester’s sound was soft and lazy but there was always an edge in it somewhere,” he writes. “Sounding like he was always about to cut loose, knowing he never would: that was where the tension came from.”

All through But Beautiful the music and the personalities merge. On the imposing figure Charles Mingus, Dyer writes, “He got so heavy that the bass was something he just slung over his shoulder like a duffel bag, hardly noticing the weight. The bigger he got, the smaller the bass became…Mingus played it like he was wrestling, getting at the neck, and plucking strings like guts…Then he’d touch the strings as softly as a bee landing on the pink petals of an African flower growing some place no one had ever been. When he bowed it he made the bass sound like the humming of a thousand-strong congregation in church.”

On pianist Thelonious Monk, Dyer brings music to your ears by poetically examining the meaning behind his playing. “He 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…Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it too.” For me, however, Dyer’s best insights come his comments on singer/trumpeter Chet Baker. In describing the melodic coolness of Baker’s late night romantic sound, Dyer gets to the core of its attraction:

“Chet put nothing of himself into his music and that’s what lent his playing its pathos. The music he played felt abandoned by him…Every time he played a note he waved it goodbye. Some times he didn’t even wave…Chet left a song feeling bereft. When he played it the song needed comforting: it wasn’t his playing that was packed with feeling, it was the song itself, feeling hurt. With Chet, the song did all the work; all Chet had to do was bring out the bruised tenderness that is there in all old songs.”

But Beautiful is a book about jazz, but it’s also a book about what criticism is for, what it is at its best. Dyer demonstrates how the work of a critic needn’t (perhaps shouldn’t) be detached and objective because that method can’t accurately reflect the critic’s experience of the artist’s work. When Dyer gets inside the personalities and the music they created, he’s articulating the complex emotions they evoke in him; that, in turn, touch and evoke our own. You don’t have to “get” jazz, or know all the facts and theories, to love But Beautiful. But in reading it, you certainly fall under the sway of the music and understand what falling in love with jazz is all about.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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