I must admit I was sceptical at first. The book, in fact, was pressed upon me by a friend and writing tutor. I was already a fan of Dyer, having read a book of his essays. I enjoyed his writing, which seemed to display an admirable breadth of subject matter, although I had my reservations (for one thing, he seems a bit too enamoured of a certain kind of obscurantist left-bank Parisian intellectualism that I find anathema). With this book, I couldn’t help wondering if he hadn’t stretched that imagination of his a little too far. In striving to sketch a series of ‘fictionalised’ accounts of a number of famous jazz men, I worried that the results might be a bit “Dream Girls”. After all, what did a pimply white English writer know about how it felt to be a black American jazz musician?
In the end, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated. In fact, it is fair to say that it won me round with the sheer luminescent throb of its words. There’s simply some wonderful writing here, and at times – his evocations of Lester Young and Thelonious Monk are particularly well drawn – the rush of his words comes close to capturing the sense of existential instantaneousness that is at the heart of jazz as a musical form. Although much damage can be done to history by those who would seek to fictionalise it, in the end the best compliment I can pay Dyer here is to say that his little book had a certain air of truthfulness to it.
My only reservation is the book’s unavoidable romanticism. This is a man who sees jazz as stage peopled by doomed and wasted heroes; martyrs to the music who pay a terrible Faustian price (drug addiction, mental illness, early death) for their undeniable talents. There’s a reason why he chooses to write about, say, Chet Baker, rather than, say, Clifford Brown, despite the fact that Brown is by far the musically superior. While the latter died tragically young in a car crash at 25, the former was well known for his chaotic drug addled lifestyle. Indeed, about the only thing most people know about Baker – outside of his music – is the fact that he lost his teeth to his addiction. Brown, on the other hand, was a tea-total workaholic who just played and played (and thus much less romantic). While it’s certainly true that jazz has had its fair share of burn-outs and crack-ups, that is only part of its history, and I worry that Dyer fails to see how partial this (his) view of the music is. For every Bix Biederbecke there are as many who live the (admittedly gruelling) life of a jazz musician with it affecting them so badly. Could anyone describe the long lives and careers of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington as a tragedy?
My only other criticism would be directed at the essay which closes the volume. In it he says, “As everyone knows, jazz came out of the blues.” Well, in a manner of speaking it did. As anyone who had read decent jazz history could tell you, it would be just as accurate to say “jazz come out of ragtime” or “jazz came out of New Orleans brass bands”. He then goes on to state there really isn’t any decent jazz writing; the unspoken implication being “except for mine”. Only someone who had failed to read Gary Giddens,or Alyn Shipton, or Ralph Ellison’s jazz writing could say something so silly.