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Word jazz

Geoff Dyer's language reaches for the potency of music

by Stephanie Zacharek

BUT BEAUTIFUL, A BOOK ABOUT JAZZ, by Geoff Dyer. North Point Press, 227 pages, $21.

[Geoff Dyer] The people who get turned off by jazz see it as music that shuts them out rather than invites them in. They don't understand that unless you relax into it as if it were a wave in the surf, it can be as impenetrable as a concrete wall, as seemingly entropic as a galaxy of wayward ping-pong balls. Reading about it should be the last way into it. And yet Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful just may be the book that breaks the rule.

But Beautiful is a novel. It's also a guide to listening -- not a guide that lists specific records that must be bought immediately (though it does include a solid discography), but one that burrows straight to the emotional center of the music. It's a novel so hypnotic, so intuitive, that it might be more at home filed with your record collection than with other books.

The book is a series of vignettes about jazz musicians -- Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper -- that weaves things they're known to have said with things they might have said, that fills out the skeleton frames of history and lore with invented details. The liberties Dyer takes seem carefully weighed. They're like educated guesses that resonate not just with an understanding of his subjects' work, but with compassion for them as people. Even the structure of the book reflects the logic of a dexterous solo. Between each pair of vignettes, Dyer tells a story about Duke Ellington and his sax player Harry Carney on the road to their next gig -- Carney in charge of driving, Duke in charge of reading the map, dozing, and scribbling down ideas for compositions on any scrap of paper handy. These short sections are like expansion bridges that both hold the book together and stretch it forward, the bridges that set off the book's choruses, the perfect knots between pearls on a necklace.

Part of what makes But Beautiful so accessible is Dyer's own realization of how intimidating the music can be. He often uses visuals as a way to ease into the sound, describing, for example, William Claxton's dream-smudged portraits of Chet Baker from the '50s, or a snapshot of Red Allen, Ben Webster, and PeeWee Russell -- the three of them just hanging out, awkwardly -- that captures the mundane, endless waiting periods that link bursts of brilliance. Dyer hears the music with his eyes and his fingers as well as his ears, giving it color, shape, heft, and texture.

And he makes us hear it, too, opening up a world of insight into why certain players sound the way they do. He alludes to the way genius can be derailed by drink or drugs, or by a racist cop's baton, but he's mainly interested in the reckless, sometimes inexplicable, resilience these artists share. He describes with biting clarity -- and undisguised rage -- the persecution Lester Young suffered in the Army, and then flashes us forward to a city street where the soused and troubled Young waits for a taxi with his soulmate Billie Holiday: "Pres was the gentlest man she had ever known, his sound was like a stole wrapped around bare shoulders, weighing nothing." Without drifting into cheap psychoanalysis, and, maybe more important, without dissolving the mystery of what is so often impossibly beautiful music, Dyer binds sound with character in a way that makes perfect emotional sense.

And yet he's never afraid to immerse himself in sound for the sheer bliss of it. His description of Monk's playing captures all its loopy wit and busted-jaw, jaywalking beauty: "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 heels. . . . " And he explains, seemingly without trying at all, why Chet Baker's willowy, whispery sound always seems to slip out of the listener's grasp like a smoke ring: "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. He played the old ballads and standards with a long series of caresses that led nowhere and subsided into nothing."

Dyer missteps only at the end, by including a short essay on jazz that's smart and well-informed but breaks the spell of the book. It explicates too stiffly everything he's already described with such freewheeling, offhand acuity in his fiction. But if you set that essay aside for later, But Beautiful ends up being about as perfect a novel about the shape and meaning of music as anyone's come up with. By making black marks on white paper jump up and sing out, Dyer gives the lie to the idea that writing about music is a fruitless, futile, needless task. His book is the best dance about architecture ever written.

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