City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

‘But Beautiful’ by Geoff Dyer

Written in


Quite simply, But Beautiful is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. An impressionistic, semi-fictionalised series of portraits of early jazz legends — Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus et al — it’s also one of the great books about popular music, period. Dyer’s starting points are first-hand accounts of these great musicians’ lives, memoirs and liner notes, and particularly photographs — his destinations are gloriously creative evocations of a time and a sound, of the immense spirit of these extraordinary players, and the cities with which their lives and music became entwined.

The following paragraph, based around a Milt Hinton photograph of Ben Webster, Red Allen, and Pee Wee Russell, not only hints at this thesis underpinning for the entire book — why not extrapolate, extend and imagine fictions drawn out of documentary material? — but also suggests photography’s power in terms of both extending and fracturing narrative around image (and therefore also its immensely seductive attraction for early 20thC modernists, and heavy influence on other visual art cf. futurism, cubism, collage/montage etc. That jazz is often associated with the abstract expressionists and action painters seems odd given its implicitly collage-based form. Anyway.)

“Photographs sometimes work on you strangely and simply: at first glance you see things you subsequently discover are not there. Or rather, when you look again you notice things you initally didn’t realize were there. In Milt Hinton’s photograph of Ben Webster, Red Allen, and Pee Wee Russell, for example, I though that Allen’s foot was resting on the chair in front of him, that Russell was actually drawing on his cigarette, that …”

“The fact that it is not as you remember it is one of the strengths of Hinton’s photograph (or any other for that matter), for although it depicts only a split second the felt duration of the picture extends several seconds either side of that frozen moment to include — or so it seems — what has just happened or is about to happen: Ben tilting back his hat and blowing his nose, Red reaching over to take a cigarette from Pee Wee … Oil paintings leave even the Battle of Britain or Trafalgar strangely silent. Photography, on the other hand, can be as sensitive to sound as it is to light. Good photographs are there to be listened to as well as to be looked at; the better the photograph, the more there is to hear. The best jazz photographs are those saturated in the sound of their subject. In Carol Reiff’s photo of Chet Baker onstage at Birdland we hear not just the sound of the musicians as they are crowded into the small stage of the frame but the background chat and clinking glasses of the nightclub. Similarly, in Hinton’s photo we hear the sound of Ben turning the pages of the paper, the rustle of cloth as Pee Wee crosses his legs. Had we the means to decipher them, could we not go further still and use photographs like this to hear what was actually being said? Or even, since the best photos seem to extend beyond the moment they depict, what has just been said, what is about to be said …”

But Beautiful takes this idea of imagining what happened next — what is about to be said — and builds an entire book of fictionalised non-fiction, dedicating a chapter to each key musician in the history of jazz up to the sixties. In a nice touch, a story about Duke Ellington on the road provides a form of continuity, linking all the sections with vignettes from a seemingly endless drive through the night. It’s a beautifully balanced structure.

As well as providing a compelling read around exceptional lives, Dyer also offers a richly textured description of a thrilling new music and its challenges to the conditions surrounding it. Here Dyer defines jazz by describing what jazz isn’t, in a section on a conscripted Lester Young’s torrid time as a ‘soldier’.

“Jazz was about making your own sound, finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running. The army wanted everyone to be the same, identical, indisinguishable, looking alike, thinking alike, everything remaining the same day after day, nothing changing. Everything had to form right angles and sharp edges. The sheets of his bed were folded hard as the metal angles of his locker. They shaved your head like a carpenter planing a block of wood, trying to make it absolutely square. Even the uniforms were designed to remould the body, to make square people. Nothing curved or soft, no colors, no silence. It seemed almost unbelievable that in the space of a fortnight the same person could suddenly find himself in so totally different a world.” [p10–11]

“In the hospital after injuring himself during training he was interviewed by the head of neuropsychology: a doctor but a solder too, used to dealing with boys whose brains had been blasted apart by what they’d seen in combat, his sympathy severely curtailed when it came to noncombat problems. He listened curtly to Young’s shambolic, nonsensical answers, convinced he was a homosexual but offering a more complex diagnosis in his report: “Constitutional psychopathic state manifested by drug addiction (marijuana, barbiturates), chronic alcoholism, and nomadism … A purely disciplinary problem.”

As an afterthought, as if in summary, he added: “Jazz.”

Further skirting round a definition of jazz, Dyer drops this fabulous description of Thelonius Monk approaching the piano. If you were to look up ‘idiosyncratic’ in a dictionary, you should really just see a picture of Monk:

“Part of jazz is the illusion of spontaneity and Monk played the piano as though he’d never seen one before. Came at it from all angles, using his elbows, taking chops at it, rippling through the keys like they were a deck of cards, fingers jabbing at them like they were hot to the touch or tottering around them like a woman in hells — playing it all wrong as far as classical piano went. Everything came out crooked, at an angle, not as you expected. If he’d played Beethoven, sticking exactly to the score, just the way he hit the keys, the angle at which his fingers touched the ivory, would have unsteadied it, made it swing and turn around inside itself, made it a Monk tune.”

There’s a nice little line on how Duke Ellington relied on his band’s collective memory to aid his composition and creative process:

“-Lights, he said, groping in his back pocket for something to write on. Harry reached forward and clicked on the interior light, filling the car with a pale glow that made the night and road seem even darker than before. Duke hunted along the dashboard for a pen and jotted a few things in the borders of a curling menu. He had written more hours of music than any other American and most of it began like this: serviettes, envelopes, postcards, cardboard ripped from cereal packets. His sheet music started out like that and that was also how it ended up: original scores wound up in the bin as mayo-and-tomato-smeared sandwich wrappers after a couple of rehearsals, the essentials of music handed over to the safekeeping of the band’s collective memory.”

The section on Bud Powell is utterly shattering — a finger tracing a scar. It’s horrifying, really. Perhaps the most gifted pianist of his generation battered into submission by insanity exacerbated by police brutality. The following passage is chosen to illustrate how Dyer suggests Powell’s instability affected his daily experience, but also the delirious sensory assault of New York City at that point. Dyer’s writing is supreme, somehow conjuring the vitality of the city whilst portraying the effects of massive cultural transformation on these psychologically fragile souls — painting the bleakest of pictures, never shying away from the punishing self-inflicted or state-inflicted degradation, but neither exploitative or salacious:

“Late one afternoon he glanced up and saw the shadow of a flag cast perfectly onto the top stories of a block. He looked around, expecting to see the Stars and Stripes fluttering from a nearby roof but could see nothing, only that black ripple of a shadow dancing on the wall. The next day he noticed a murmur in the texture of things, a shiver in the walls of buildings. Suddenly conscious of edges, he would place a coffee cup right in the center of a table only to see it fall to the floor and smash. Saw a jackhammer pounding the road, a pneumatic drill splitting the street, a demolition ball thumping through the ribs of a building. Startled by a shadow-flock of birds skating the pavement. A few blocks further on he saw construction workers fixing the fire escape of an old block. He watched the blue-white light of the arc welder, knowing it was too bright but continuing to stare. When he looked away his vision swam with bright saucers of light. Kept waiting for these afterimages to fade but the magnesium brightness had scarred his retina, imprinted itself as a blue force, a silver flash in his head.”

“Gales shrieked through the city, tornadoes strafed the streets. In the meat-packing district the air was clogged with the sawdust reek of offal. Split carcasses dangling from hooks, pink and yellow sculptures of frozen meat” […]

“Out in the street again burnt-out buildings reared up like a tidal wave of masonry. Shadows coiled around him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the red and silver lights of a store. Wondering if he were made of glass, he kicked at the window, saw his reflection shiver and frost until there was a slow drizzle of glass and his face lay in pieces on the floor. Rain began to fall and soon a storm was raging silently around him. Hail drilled the noiseless streets. He saw the welcome lights of a liquor store, the yellow rain of taxis gliding down the street, quieter than a silent movie where every frame is filled with the din of chase. New York was probably the noisiest city on earth and he could hear nothing.”

As challenging an insight into a sadly screwed psyche this is, it’s actually nothing compared to the chapter on Art Pepper, which is somewhere between The Naked Lunch and Dawn of the Dead, rather than ‘at home with a jazz musician’. Apparently, Pepper’s autobiography Straight Life is well worth reading too.

The character called ‘New York City’ described above appears throughout, such as in this passage on Charlie Mingus:

“He packed his music so full of life, so full of the noise of the city, that thirty years in the future someone listening to “Pithecanthropus Erectus” or “Hog-Calling Blues” or any of those other wild steamrolling things wouldn’t be sure whether that wail and scream was a horn on the record or the red-and-white siren of a prowl car shrieking past the window. Just listening to the music would be a way of joining in with it, adding to it.”

Dyer closes with a final, fascinating thesis on criticism, the history and future of jazz, and the nature of this music in general (“Afterword: Tradition, Influence and Innovation”), stretching a comment from a George Steiner essay into a theory on jazz’s particular innovation as a creative process. Dyer’s point is that “all art is also criticism. This is most clearly so when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer. All literature, music, and art “embody an expository reflection on, a value judgement of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.” (this latter quotation in italics from Steiner’s Real Presences). Where Steiner eventually concludes that a world without the professional criticism of commentators and journalists, with instead only the criticism in the form of art itself, can only be a fantasy, Dyer suggests that jazz does indeed provide just that — its very fabric is one of studied inheritance and performed criticism.

“Those like Charlie Parker who went to hear Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins in Kansas City in the 1930s got a chance to blow with them at after-hours jam sessions later the next morning. Miles Davis and Max Roach served their apprenticeship first by listening to and then by sitting in with Parker at Minton’s and the Fifty-second Street clubs, learning as they went along. In their turn, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Jackie Maclean, and dozens of others who went on to school many of the leading players of the 1970s and 1980s learned their trade, as McLean put it, “in the university of Miles Davis … Because jazz has continued evolving in this way, it has remained uniquely in touch with the animating force of its origins. From time to time in his solos a saxophonist may quote from other musicians, but every time he picks up his horn he cannot avoid commentating, automatically and implicitly, even if only through his own inadequacy, on the tradition that has laid this music at his feet.”

Dyer notes that the most explicit sense of this living and developing tradition in jazz is in songs written for other musicians — and, in a delicious provocation for any information designers reading, that plotting these connections would provide an unimaginably rich information space:

“Thelonious Monk or Louis Armstrong are especially fruitful places to begin but there are literally hundreds of musicians who have had one or two songs written for them. If we drew lines between all available songs in a kind of flow diagram of homages and tributes the paper would soon become impenetrably black, the meaning of the diagram obscured by the quantity of information it would have to convey.”

Intriguing as this would be, Dyer’s book itself provides a far more evocative, implicit meditation on this music, its creative process and wonderfully rich personal history.

As with complex subjects like cities or architecture, say, an impressionistic, imaginary approach to description has proven once again a powerfully suggestive way of conjuring culture. Dyer is wonderfully open about playing fast and loose with any sense of objectivity, adherence to academic precision, or traditional documentary sources:

“Most of the quotations from musicians are duplicated in any number of books about jazz. I have not mentioned articles from which I used just one quotation or detail in the whole book. Throughout I relied more on photographs than written sources, especially on the work of Carol Reiff, William Claxton, Christer Landergren, Milt Hinton, Herman Leonard, William Gottlieb, Bob Parent, and Charles Stewart.”

But Beautiful is a wonderfully successful execution of this daring idea and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Originally published at on April 3, 2005.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: