Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading List

Three thin-but-vital volumes have been on my bedside table in recent weeks. Two are by friends—Mark Miller's biography of pianist/composer Herbie Nichols and Stuart Broomer's examination of the music of Anthony Braxton—so I'm too biased to saying anything beyond, Great work, guys.

The third book is equally welcome: a new Picador softcover edition of Geoff Dyer's brilliant and evocative 1996 book, But Beautiful.

A powerful example of imaginative non-fiction, the book allows readers to peer into moments in the lives of a number of jazz giants. Dyer puts you in the backseat of a car as Duke Ellington and Harry Carney steer toward their next gig; plummets you in to New York City's Alvin Hotel to witness the final hours in the life of saxophonist Lester Young; and puts you on the downward spiral with Ben Webster as he drinks and plays his way across Europe. Dyer can certainly be faulted—as was Clint Eastwood for his portrait of Charlie Parker—for focusing only on the sad loneliness that befalls some musicians who live too long on the periphery of a life tethered to realities like children and home. He may wear his romanticism on his sleeve, but the rich tapestry of his language and his insights into the human condition make that easy to forgive. There are many other places where you can read the facts about Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster and Lester Young; allow Dyer his flights of fantasy about small, meaningful scenes in those lives.

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