The best books about 1920s Chicago jazz musicians

Who am I?

My father, a huge Ella Fitzgerald fan, had a bunch of her records, and took us to hear her live once. So I knew mid-century jazz, but I had yet to discover its early origins. From the first, I knew my trilogy was set in the 1920s and one of the main characters had to be a jazz musician. I began collecting dozens of recordings by early jazz and blues artists, reading books about them, and I developed an enthusiasm for these early musicians. I found that the original “jazz maniacs” had the same passion for their music that I felt about rock and roll in the early 1960s.


I wrote...

Chicago Blues

By Jeff Stookey,

Book cover of Chicago Blues

What is my book about?

Based on extensive period research, Chicago Blues is a work of LGBT historical fiction, a gay love story set in 1923, when Black and White musicians from New Orleans were flocking to Chicago, jazz music was all the rage, illegal liquor was fueling corruption in the Prohibition era, and gang turf battles were triggering violence.

The story follows ambitious young jazz piano player Jimmy Harper, as he and the Diggs Monroe Jazz Orchestra travel to Chicago seeking fame and fortune. Instead, Jimmy descends into the jazz underworld, where he becomes involved in an erotic affair with a black drag performer and entangled in dark dealings with a sinister mob boss.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

Rereading this book, with its rhapsodic descriptions of some of the first jazz recordings, rekindles the excitement I was feeling about the early 1920s when I began writing my trilogy and researching the era. Kennedy chronicles the early Black and White jazz artists from New Orleans, who transplanted to Chicago, and the young Midwesterners who took up the mania for jazz. His enthusiasm for, and his devotion to the early development of jazz is infectious.

By Rick Kennedy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Some of the earliest performances by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Beiderbecke were preserved on recordings produced at Gennett Studios, an independent company operating in Richmond, Indiana, from 1917 to 1932. Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" debuted on Gennett as a dance stomp. The Gennetts made music history by recording young jazz pioneers in the Midwest and folk musicians from the Appalachian hills at a time when major record labels in the East couldn't be bothered.Gennett featured such country music stars as Gene Autry, Chubby Parker, and Bradley Kincaid and…


Book cover of We Called It Music: A Generation of Jazz

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

I highly value Condon’s ability to describe the daily anxiety and desperation of the poor jazz musicians, who constantly struggled to find work and pay the rent. He does so with great good humor. He tells a good story and he’s got a million of them, including a few about gangsters, but mostly about the many great jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, whom he worked with and knew well. His many terse stories prove that brevity is the soul of wit. His dialogue is worthy of Ben Hecht—he’s good at wisecracks. I was sorry when the book came to an end.

By Eddie Condon, Thomas Joseph Sugrue,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Called It Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eddie Condon (1905-1973) pioneered a kind of jazz popularly known as Chicago-Dixieland, though musicians refer to it simply as Condon style. Played by small ensembles with driving beat, it was and is an informal, exciting music, slightly disjointed and often mischievous. The same could be said of Condon's autobiography, We Called It Music, a book widely celebrated for capturing the camaraderie of early jazz. Condon's wit was as legendary as the music he boosted. Here is Condon on modern jazz: "The boopers flat their fifths. We consume ours." On Bix Beiderbecke: "The sound came out like a girl saying yes."…


Book cover of Remembering Bix: A Memoir Of The Jazz Age

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

I have so many reasons why this is one of my all-time favorite books. Berton’s descriptions of music, specifically jazz or music in general, are superb. Ralph Berton describes himself as a precocious 13-year-old (an understatement!), when in 1924 he meets Bix Beiderbecke, seven years his senior, and idolizes him. This relationship is a great part of the book’s charm. The Berton family—with its vaudeville background, two famous musical brothers (besides the child genius Ralph), and a Jewish mother—is another part of the appeal. But the heart of the book is his affectionate, penetrating portrait of Bix, derived from personal experience. He examines the myths and legends, sometimes debunking and sometimes reinforcing them. A magical, bittersweet book that often brought me to tears. Exceptional writing.

By Ralph Berton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Remembering Bix as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As Nat Hentoff says, "Hearing Bix for the first time was like waking up to the first day of spring." Bix has always inspired such acclaim, for he was an unmatched master of the cornet. Ralph Berton was privileged enough to have been a fan,and younger brother of Bix's drummer,just as Beiderbecke's genius was flowering, before he died in 1931 at age twenty-eight. Listening from behind the piano, tagging along to honky-tonks and jam sessions, Berton heard some of the most extraordinary music of the century, and he brings Bix and his era alive with a remarkable combination of the…


Book cover of Really the Blues

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

This jive-tongued jazz cat really knows how to use language! His use of slang is evidenced by the ten-page glossary at the end of the book. Raw and gritty, Mezzrow’s memoir describes how he learned to play jazz and blues in a juvenile reformatory, where he developed his love for the Black “race” and its culture. He often riffs on race. In 1920s Chicago he rubbed elbows with Black and White jazz luminaries, plus gangsters, prostitutes, and drug dealers. During a side trip to Paris, France, he spread the gospel of jazz to Europe. In the 30s he lived in New York City’s Harlem, inhabiting a milieu similar to that in Chicago, peddling marijuana to jazz greats and others. His extraordinary writing inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat writers.

By Mezz Mezzrow, Bernard Wolfe,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Really the Blues as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Really the Blues (90) by Mezzrow, Mezz - Wolfe, Bernard [Paperback (2001)]


Book cover of The Stardust Road

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

This book helped me understand the lives of young male jazz musicians in the early 20th century. A wacky, ecstatic, fragmented, kaleidoscopic, memoir—nostalgic always for Bloomington, Indiana, and his college days in the early 1920s. There Carmichael met his pals Monk and Bix, both of whom died too young. He dedicates the book to them and remembers them fondly. Monk, a surrealistic poet, and Bix, a great musical genius, they understood each other immediately. Bix responded to one of Monk’s poems saying, “I am not a swan.” There is a Dadaist flavor to Monk’s writing, as well as some of Hoagy’s: “The years had pants.” Intertwined with these memories is the slow, jerky progress of Carmichael’s journey from a would-be composer to a famous songwriter.

By Hoagy Carmichael,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stardust Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The swing composer relates personal experiences in his musical career includi his association with such personalities as Bix Beiderbecks and William Moenkhaus.


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz, jazz musicians, and Chicago?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about jazz, jazz musicians, and Chicago.

Jazz Explore 121 books about jazz
Jazz Musicians Explore 30 books about jazz musicians
Chicago Explore 363 books about Chicago