Geoff Dyer’s ‘But Beautiful’ is a book about jazz.
About legendary musicians Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Lester Young, Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Ben Webster. It’s not criticism, although Dyer set out to create something along those lines. Instead, Dyer found himself embellishing fact with fiction, weaving known events, the music, the musicians and experience of that music with his own imagination. As one critic said, he’s writing about music, ‘from the inside out’.
Dyer captures the sounds of the music and musicians through language; the form and style of how he tells a story acts as a mirror. Each story is unique, but together they produce a complex, sinuous and fascinating improvisation that becomes a whole. The continuous story thread of Duke Ellington’s car journey is like the anchoring melody that musicians riff off to create something new, but return to again and again.
This book resonates for me as Dyer’s way of writing about music is akin to how I write about art. My approach to writing about art in the ‘Arts Stories’ project is writing from ‘the inside out’. It’s a process of delving into the maze of the artist’s thoughts, feelings and intentions, their words, the work itself, and what other writers, art historians and critics have also said about it. Coming out of that maze, I’m pulling on a thread, or more than one, to create a poem, short or long form piece of fiction expressing an imaginative engagement with the work of art.
The art story hopefully creates a bridge for the viewer/reader to then engage or interpret the artwork. Maybe. Who knows! That’s the beauty of it – it will resonate for some, not everyone. Like art or music.
For anyone into jazz, Dyer’s book is a must, and quite simply, beautiful.