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BUT BEAUTIFUL

Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels and eight non-fiction books. Dyer has won the Somerset Maugham Prize, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Lannan Literary Award, the International Centre of Photography’s 2006 Infinity Award for writing on photography and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ E.M. Forster Award. In 2009 he was named GQ’s Writer of the Year. He lives in London.

Also by the author

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Working the Room

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

The Ongoing Moment

Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It

Anglo-English Attitudes

Paris Trance

Out of Sheer Rage

The Missing of the Somme

The Search

The Colour of Memory

Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger


This paperback edition published in Great Britain in 2012 by Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

www.canongate.tv

Copyright © Geoff Dyer, 1991, 1996

The moral right of the author has been asserted

First published in the United States in 1996 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

First published in Great Britain in slightly different form in 1991 by Jonathan Cape Ltd

Pages here had their origin in a short script commissioned by Channel 4 on the theme of seduction. A few paragraphs of this book first appeared in very different form in the Guardian and the Independent.

Title-page photograph © 1996 by Milton J. Hinton

Author’s note: This Canongate edition follows the text of the 1996 American edition, which is slightly different from that of the original 1991 English edition.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library

ISBN 978 0 85786 402 4

eISBN 978 0 85786 335 5

Typeset in Goudy Old Style by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

This digital edition first published in 2012 by Canongate Books

For John Berger

PREFACE

When I began writing this book I was unsure of the form it should take. This was a great advantage since it meant I had to improvise and so, from the start, the writing was animated by the defining characteristic of its subject.

Before long I found I had moved away from anything like conventional criticism. The metaphors and similes on which I relied to evoke what I thought was happening in the music came to seem increasingly inadequate. Moreover, since even the briefest simile introduces a hint of the fictive, it wasn’t long before these metaphors were expanding themselves into episodes and scenes. As I invented dialogue and action, so what was emerging came more and more to resemble fiction. At the same time, though, these scenes were still intended as commentary either on a piece of music or on the particular qualities of a musician. What follows, then, is as much imaginative criticism as fiction.

Many scenes have their origin in well-known or even legendary episodes: Chet Baker getting his teeth knocked out, for example. These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – ‘standards’, in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form. Some episodes do not even have their origins in fact: these wholly invented scenes can be seen as original compositions (though they sometimes contain quotations from the musicians concerned). For a time I worried about whether I should indicate where I had someone in this book saying something he actually said in real life. In the end, by appeal to the same principle that guided all other decisions in this book, I decided against it. Jazz musicians frequently quote from each other in their solos: whether you pick up on it or not depends on your knowledge of the music. The same thing applies here. As a rule assume that what’s here has been invented or altered rather than quoted. Throughout, my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me. Naturally, the distance between these two ambitions is often very great. Similarly, even when I appear to be doing so I am not describing musicians at work so much as projecting back onto the moment of the music’s inception the act of my hearing it thirty years later.

The Afterword picks up and expands some of the concerns of the main body of the text in a more formal style of exposition and analysis. It also offers some reflections on developments in recent jazz. Although it provides a context in which the main body of the text might be seen, it is supplementary rather than integral to it.

A NOTE ON PHOTOGRAPHS

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 initially didn’t realize were there. In Milt Hinton’s photograph of Ben Webster, Red Allen, and Pee Wee Russell, for example, I thought 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 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 . . .

Producers of great art are no demigods but fallible human beings, often with neurotic and damaged personalities.

THEODOR ADORNO

We hear only ourselves.

ERNST BLOCH

BUT BEAUTIFUL


‘Not as they were but as they appear to me . . .’

The fields on either side of the road were as dark as the night sky. The land was so flat that if you stood on a barn you could see the lights of a car like stars on the horizon, pulling toward you for an hour before the red taillights ghosted slowly to the east. Except for the steady drone of the car there was no noise. The blackness was so uniform that the driver found himself thinking that no road existed until the headlights scythed a path through the wheat writhing stiffly in the shock of light. The car was like a snowplow, shoving darkness to one side, clearing a path of light . . . Feeling his thoughts slipping away and his eyelids becoming heavy, he blinked hard and rubbed one leg to keep himself awake. He kept to a steady fifty but the landscape was so huge and unchanging that the car hardly seemed to move at all, a spacecraft inching its way to the moon . . . His thoughts drifted dreamily over the fields again, he thought maybe he could risk shutting his eyes for just one lovely second

Abruptly the car was filled with the roar of the road and the chill of the night and he was startled to realize that he had been on the verge of nodding out. Within seconds the car was full of chisel-cold air.

Hey, Duke, close the window, I ain’t sleepy no more, said the driver, glancing at the man in the passenger seat.

Sure you’re OK, Harry?

Yeah, yeah . . .

Duke hated the cold as much as he did and needed only this assurance to wind up the window. As quickly as it had cooled down the car began to warm up again. The dry toasty warmth you got in a car with the windows shut tight, that was his favourite kind of heat in the world. Duke had said many times that the road was his home and if that was true then this car was his hearth. Sitting up front with the heater on high and the cold landscape slipping by – to both of them that was like sitting in armchairs in an old cottage and reading books around an open fire, snow falling outside.

 

How many miles had they travelled together like this? Harry wondered. A million? Put that together with trains and planes and you probably had a distance three or four times the length of the earth. Probably no other people in the world had spent as much time together, or travelled so far, thousands of millions of miles possibly. He’d bought the car in ’49, intending just to hop around New York, but soon he was driving Duke all over the country. Several times he’d had an impulse to keep a notebook record of how far they’d travelled but always he came to thinking how he wished he’d done it right from the start and so, each time he thought of it, he gave up the idea and fell to calculating vaguely cumulative distances, remembering the countries and towns they had passed through. That was it – they didn’t really visit anywhere, they passed through the whole world, sometimes arriving at a gig twenty minutes before it started and hitting the road again half an hour after it ended.

Not keeping that notebook was just about his only regret. He’d joined the band in ’27, April 1927, when he was seventeen and Duke had to persuade his mom to let him go out on the road instead of returning to school, charming her and pressing her hand, smiling and saying, ‘Yes, of course, Mrs Carney’ to everything she said, knowing he would get his own way in the end. Course, if Duke had mentioned that it would mean spending the rest of his life on the road things might not have been as simple. Even so, looking back on it all, there was hardly a moment or a mile he regretted – especially in the years he and Duke had been driving to gigs like this. The whole world loved Duke but hardly anyone really knew him; over the years he’d got to know Duke better than anyone and that would have been payment enough – the money was a bonus practically . . .

How we doing, Harry?

We’re OK, Duke. Hungry?

My stomach’s been growling since Rockford. How about you?

I’m OK. I’ve been saving that fried chicken I picked up yesterday morning.

That’s gonna be real tasty by now, Harry.

Soon be time to stop for breakfast anyhow.

Soon?

About two hundred miles from now.

Duke laughed. They counted time in miles, not hours, and had gotten so used to huge distances that a hundred miles often elapsed between needing a leak and stopping to take one. Two hundred regularly lay between the first pangs of hunger and actually stopping to eat – and even when they came across the only place in fifty miles they often drove on anyway. Stopping was something you looked forward to so much that you could barely bring yourself to do it: a treat that had to be indefinitely postponed.

Wake me up when we get there, said Duke, arranging his hat as a pillow between the edge of the seat and the door.

It was the quiet time of the evening, between the day people heading home from work and the night people arriving at Birdland. From his hotel window he watched Broadway grow dark and greasy with halfhearted rain. He poured a drink, piled a stack of Sinatra records on the turntable . . . touched the unringing phone and drifted back to the window. Soon the view fogged over with his breath. Touching the hazy reflection like it was a painting, his finger traced wet lines around his eyes, mouth, and head until he saw it turning into a drippy skull-shaped thing that he wiped clear with the heel of his hand.

He lay down on the bed, making only a slight dip in the soft mattress, convinced he could feel himself shrinking, fading to nothing. Scattered over the floor were plates of food he had pecked at and left. He’d take a bite of this, a little of that and then head back to the window. He ate almost nothing but he still had his preferences when it came to food: Chinese was his favourite, that was the food he didn’t eat most of. For a long time he’d lived on buttermilk and Cracker Jack but he’d even lost his taste for these. As he ate less he drank more: gin with a sherry chaser, Courvoisier and beer. He drank to dilute himself, to thin himself down even more. A few days ago he’d cut his finger on an edge of paper and was surprised how red and rich his blood was, expecting it to be silver as gin, flecked with red, or pale, pinkish. That same day he’d been fired from a gig in Harlem because he hadn’t had the strength to stand. Now even lifting the horn exhausted him; it felt like it weighed more than him. Even his clothes did probably.

Hawk went the same way eventually. It was Hawk who made the tenor into a jazz instrument, defined the way it had to sound: big-bellied, full-throated, huge. Either you sounded like him or you sounded like nothing – which is exactly how folks thought Lester sounded with his wispy skating-on-air tone. Everybody bullied him to sound like Hawk or swap over to alto but he just tapped his head and said,

—There’s things going on up here, man. Some of you guys are all belly.

When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas in ’34 they played right through the morning, Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours’ playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St Louis for that night’s gig.

Lester’s sound was soft and lazy but there was always an edge in it somewhere. Sounding like he was always about to cut loose, knowing he never would: that was where the tension came from. He played with the sax tilted off to one side and as he got deeper into his solo the horn moved a few degrees further from the vertical until he was playing it horizontally, like a flute. You never got the impression he was lifting it up; it was more like the horn was getting lighter and lighter, floating away from him – and if that was what it wanted to do he wouldn’t try to hold it down.

Soon it was a straight choice: Pres or Hawk, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins – two approaches. They couldn’t have sounded or looked more different but they ended up the same way: swilled out and fading away. Hawk lived on lentils, booze, and Chinese food and wasted away, just like Pres was doing now.

He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left. When he played now cats said he limped along after himself, a pale imitation of those who played like him. At a gig where he’d played badly a guy came up to him and said, ‘You’re not you, I’m you.’ Everywhere he went he heard people sounding like him. He called everyone else Pres because he saw himself everywhere. He’d been thrown out of the Fletcher Henderson band for not sounding enough like Hawk. Now he was being thrown out of his own life for not sounding enough like himself.

Nobody could sing a song or tell a story on the horn the way he could. Except there was only one story he played now and that was the story of how he couldn’t play anymore, how everyone else was telling his story for him, the story of how he’d ended up here in the Alvin, looking out the window at Birdland, wondering when he was going to die. It was a story he didn’t quite understand and one he wasn’t even that motherfuckin interested in anymore except to say it began with the army. Either it began with the army or it began with Basie and ended with the army. Same either way. He’d ignored his draft papers for years, relying on the band’s zigzagging itinerary to keep him five or six steps ahead of the military. Then, as he was walking off the stand one night, an army official with a sharkskin face and aviator shades came up to him like a fan asking for his autograph and handed him his call-up papers.

He’d turned up to his induction board so wasted the walls of the room shivered with fever. He sat opposite three grim military officials, one of whom never raised his eyes from the files in front of him. Knuckle-faced men who each day subjected their jaws to shaving as though they were boots to be polished. Smelling sweetly of cologne, Pres stretched out his long legs, assuming a position as close to horizontal as the hard chair permitted, looking as though he might at any moment rest his dainty shoes on the desk facing him. His answers danced around their questions, nimble and slurred at the same time. He took a pint of gin from an inside pocket of his double-breasted jacket and one of the officers snatched it from him, blaring angrily as Pres, serene and bewildered, waved slowly:

—Hey, lady, take it easy, there’s plenty for everyone.

Tests showed he had syphilis; he was drunk, stoned, so wired on amphetamines his heart was ticking like a watch – and yet somehow he passed the medical. It seemed they were determined to waive everything in order to get him into the army.

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, indistinguishable, 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 remold the body, to make square people. Nothing curved or soft, no colours, 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.

He had a slack, drawling walk and here he was expected to march, to tramp up and down the parade ground in boots heavy as a ball and chain. Marching until his head felt brittle as glass.

—Swing those arms, Young. Swing those arms.

Telling him to swing.

He hated everything hard, even shoes with leather soles. He had eyes for pretty things, flowers and the smell they left in a room, soft cotton and silk next to his skin, shoes that hugged his feet: slippers, moccasins. If he’d been born thirty years later he’d have been camp, thirty years earlier he’d have been an aesthete. In nineteenth-century Paris he could have been an effete fin de siècle character but here he was, landlocked in the middle of a century, forced to be a soldier.

When he woke the room was filled with the green haze of a neon sign outside that had blinked to life while he slept. He slept so lightly it hardly even merited the name of sleep, just a change in the pace of things, everything floating away from everything else. When he was awake he sometimes wondered if he was just dozing, dreaming he was here, dying in a hotel room . . .

His horn lay next to him on the bed. On a bedside cabinet were a picture of his parents, bottles of cologne, and his porkpie hat. He’d seen a photograph of Victorian girls wearing hats like that, ribbons hanging down. Nice, pretty, he thought, and had worn one ever since. Herman Leonard had come to photograph him once but ended up leaving him out of the picture altogether, preferring a still life of the hat, his sax case, and cigarette smoke ascending to heaven. That was years ago but the photo was like a premonition that came closer to being fulfilled with each day that passed as he dissolved into the bits and pieces people remembered him by.

He cracked the seal of a new bottle and walked back to the window, one side of his face dyed green in the neon glow. It had stopped raining, the sky had cleared. A cold moon hung low over the street. Cats were turning up at Birdland, shaking hands and carrying instrument cases. Sometimes they looked up toward his window and he wondered if they saw him there, one hand waving condensation from the pane.

He went over to the wardrobe, empty except for a few suits and shirts and the jangle of hangers. He took off his trousers, hung them up carefully, and lay back on the bed in his shorts, green-tinged walls crawling with the shadow angles of passing cars.

 

—Inspection!

Lieutenant Ryan flung open his locker, peered inside, jabbed with his swagger stick – his wand, Pres always called it – at the picture taped to the inside of the door: a woman’s face smiling out.

—Is this your locker, Young?

—Yes, sir.

—And did you pin this picture up, Young?

—Yes, sir.

—Notice anything about that woman, Young?

—Sir?

—Does anything strike you about that woman, Young?

—She has a flower in her hair, sir, yes.

—Nothing else?

—Sir?

—She looks to me like a white woman, Young, a young white woman, Young. Is that how she looks to you?

—Yes, sir.

—And you think it’s right for a nigger private to have a picture of a white woman in his locker like that?

His eyes touched the floor. Saw Ryan’s boots move even closer to him, touching his toes. A blast of breath in his nostrils again.

—You hear me, Young?

—Sir.

—You married, Young?

—Sir.

—But instead of a picture of your wife you want to have a picture of a white woman so you can think of her when you jerk off at night.

—She is my wife.

He said it as soft as possible, hoping to strip the statement of offence, but the weight of the fact gave it the defiance of contempt.

—She is my wife, sir.

—She is my wife, sir.

—Take it down, Young.

—Sir.

—Now, Young.

Ryan stood where he was. To get to the locker Lester walked around him like a pillar, grasped his wife’s face by the ear, pulled the tape free of the gray metal until the image tore, becoming a paper bridge between his fingers and the locker. Then held it limply in his hand.

—Crumple it up . . . Now throw it in the bin.

—Yes, sir.

Instead of the adrenaline surge of power he normally experienced when humiliating recruits Ryan felt the opposite: that he had humiliated himself in front of the whole company. Young’s face had been so empty of self-respect and pride, devoid of anything except hurt, that Ryan suddenly wondered if even the abject obedience of slaves was a form of protest, of defiance. He felt ugly and for that reason he hated Young more than ever. He felt something similar with women: when they began to cry, that was when the urge to hit was strongest. Earlier, humiliating Young would have satisfied him – now he wanted to destroy him. He’d never encountered a man more lacking in strength, but he made the whole idea of strength and all the things associated with it seem irrelevant, silly. Rebels, ringleaders, and mutineers – they could all be countered: they met the army head-on, played by its rules. However strong you were the army could break you – but weakness, that was something the army was powerless to oppose because it did away with the whole idea of opposition on which force depends. All you could do with the weak was cause them pain – and Young was going to get plenty of that.

He dreamed he was on a beach, a tide of booze advancing toward him, waves of clear alcohol breaking over him, sizzling into the sand.

In the morning he looked out at a sky colourless as a window-pane. A bird fluttered by and he strained his eyes to keep track of its flight before it disappeared over adjacent roofs. He’d once found a bird on a windowsill, wounded in some way he couldn’t establish: something wrong with its wing. Cupping it in his hands, he’d felt the flutter-warmth of its heart and nursed it back to health, keeping it warm and feeding it grains of rice. When it showed no sign of getting its strength back he filled a saucer with bourbon and that must have done the trick – after dipping its beak in the saucer for a few days it flew away. Now whenever he saw a bird he always hoped it would be the one he had taken care of.

How long ago was it that he’d found the bird? Two weeks? Two months? It seemed like he’d been here at the Alvin for ten years or more, ever since he got out of the stockade and out of the army. Everything had happened so gradually that it was difficult to establish the point at which this phase of his life had begun. He’d once said that there were three phases in his playing. First he’d concentrated on the upper range of the horn, what he called alto tenor. Then the middle range – tenor tenor – before moving down to baritone tenor. He remembered saying that but he couldn’t fix in his mind when the various phases had been because the periods of his life they coincided with were also a blur. The baritone phase coincided with his withdrawal from the world, but when had that begun? Gradually he’d stopped hanging out with the guys he played with, had taken to eating food in his room. Then he had stopped eating altogether, seeing practically no one and hardly leaving his room unless he had to. With every word addressed to him he shrank from the world a little further until the isolation went from being circumstantial to something he had internalized – but once that happened he realized it had always been there, the loneliness thing: in his playing it had always been there.

Nineteen fifty-seven, that was when he’d gone to pieces completely and ended up in Kings County Hospital. After that he’d come here to the Alvin and abandoned interest in everything except gazing out of the window and thinking how the world was too dirty, hard, noisy, and harsh for him. And booze, booze at least made the world glisten at the edges a little. He’d been in Bellevue in ’55 for his drinking but he remembered little about either Bellevue or Kings apart from a vague feeling that hospitals were like the army except you didn’t have to do all the work. Even so there was something nice about lying around feeling weak and having no urge to get up. Oh yeah, and one other thing. It was in Kings that a young doctor from Oxford, England, had read him a poem, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, about some cats who roll up at this island and decide to stay there getting high and doing nothing. He’d dug its dreamy cadences, the slow and lazy feel it had, the river drifting like smoke. The guy who wrote it had the same sound that he had. He couldn’t remember his name but if anybody had ever wanted to record it, he’d have dug playing on it, playing solos between the verses. He thought of it a lot, that poem, but couldn’t remember the words, just the feel of it, like someone humming a song without really remembering how it went.

That was in 1957. He remembered the date but that got him nowhere. The problem was remembering how long ago 1957 was. Anyway, it was all very simple really: there was life before the army, which was sweet, then there was the army, a nightmare from which he’d never woken up.

Exercises in the daybreak cold, men shitting in front of each other, food that made his stomach heave before he even tasted it. Two guys fighting at the foot of his bed, one of them pounding the others’ head on the floor until blood spotted his sheets, the rest of the barracks going wild around them. Cleaning out the rust-coloured latrine, the smell of other men’s shit on his hands, retching into the bowl as he cleaned it.

—It’s not clean, Young, lick it clean.

—Yes, sir.

At night he flopped into bed exhausted but unable to sleep. He stared at the ceiling, the aches in his body leaving splotches of purple and red in his eyes. When he slept he dreamed he was back on the parade ground, marching through what remained of the night until the clang of the noncom’s swagger stick against the foot of his bed split his sleep like an axe.

He got loaded as often as he could: homemade alcohol, pills, grass, anything he could get his hands on. If he got high first thing in the morning the day slurred past like some whitewater dream that was over before he knew what had happened. Sometimes he almost wanted to laugh in spite of his fear: grown men acting out the fantasies of little boys, men who hated the fact the war was over and were determined to carry it on any way they could.

—Young!

—Yes, sir.

—You ignorant nigger cocksucker bastard.

—Yes, sir.

Oh, it was so ridiculous. However hard he tried he couldn’t fathom what purpose it was meant to serve, this being shouted at continuously . . .

—Is that a smile, Young?

—No, sir.

—Tell me something, Young. You a nigger or you just bruise easy?

—Sir?

Yelling, orders, commands, insults, and threats – delirium of open mouths and raised voices. Everywhere you looked there was a yelling mouth, a huge pink tongue flexing in it like a python, sparks of saliva flying everywhere. He liked long, tulip-stemmed phrases and in the army it was all short-back-and-sides shouts. Voices approached the condition of a baton rapped against metal. Words bunched themselves into fists, knuckle-vowels thudded into his ears: even speech was a form of bullying. When you were not marching there was the sound of others marching. At night his ears rang with the memory of slammed doors and stamping heels. Everything he heard was like a form of pain. The army was a denial of melody and he found himself thinking what a relief it would be to be deaf, to hear nothing, to be blind, numb. Senseless.