The best books about jazz and the story it tells about America

Why am I passionate about this?

I have a sophisticated education, including a Ph.D. in History from the University of Massachusetts. I have had a career, if that’s precisely the word, in the music business as the publicist for the Grateful Dead. I spent ten years researching what became On Highway 61. I have been a close observer of America’s racial politics at least since 1962, when the head of the Hollywood NAACP, James Tolbert, and his family, moved in next door to my family’s home in the white working-class neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Mr. Tolbert instructed me in music among other things, and I’ve been studying ever since.


I wrote...

On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

By Dennis McNally,

Book cover of On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

What is my book about?

61 traces the relationship of African American culture, generally music, from the 1850s to the 1960s. It begins with Henry David Thoreau, whose thinking on government was profoundly influenced by slavery and his role in supporting abolition. Mark Twain grew from a conventional racist to a writer who could write the powerfully liberating satire of Huckleberry Finn, in considerable part due to the influence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Ragtime was an essential element in bringing the modern to mainstream America. Jazz in various forms each influenced white youth, from the Austin High Gang to Jack Kerouac. And Bob Dylan synthesized black form (rock and roll) with literature to make rock and roll high art.

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

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blues People

Dennis McNally Why did I love this book?

I have gone back to Blues People for all three of my books. His insight into the blues, jazz, and the relationship of white people and Black music still resonates, and the book is now 60 years old. Things would get much weirder in his life personally and between the races socially in the years after, but this book is no-bullshit truth.

By Leroi Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A must for all who would more knowledgeably appreciate and better comprehend America's most popular music." — Langston Hughes

"The path the slave took to 'citizenship' is what I want to look at. And I make my analogy through the slave citizen's music—through the music that is most closely associated with him: blues and a later, but parallel development, jazz... [If] the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed by his characteristic music."

So says Amiri Baraka (previously known as LeRoi Jones) in the Introduction to Blues…


Book cover of In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz

Dennis McNally Why did I love this book?

In the 1890s, about thirty years after emancipation, African American culture blossomed and produced three genres that determined much of what has come since in American music – blues (most notably in the Mississippi Delta), Ragtime (in particular, St. Louis), and jazz (in New Orleans). Of course, no one person “invented” jazz. It coalesced around the fact that band instruments were much more available in New Orleans than anywhere else, among other things. But it’s Charles “Buddy” Bolden that the players who came up in the early 1900s all remember. Yet he’s an invisible man, his story full of myth and legend. Marquis did a masterful job of tracing the genuine story – census data, facts. It’s a fantastic piece of scholarship, and a truly remarkable (and ultimately tragic) story.

By Donald M. Marquis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In Search of Buddy Bolden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The beginnings of jazz and the story of Charles ""Buddy"" Bolden (1877- 1931) are inextricably intertwined. Just after the turn of the century, New Orleanians could often hear Bolden's powerful horn from the city's parks and through dance hall windows. Despite his lack of formal training, his unique style- both musical and personal- made him the first ""king"" of New Orleans jazz and the inspiration for such later jazz greats as King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Louis Armstrong.

For years the legend of Buddy Bolden was overshadowed by myths about his music, his reckless lifestyle, and his mental instability. In…


Book cover of Miles

Dennis McNally Why did I love this book?

Miles Davis is one of the two or three ultimate masters of modern music, both as a performer and composer, and although there are excellent books about him (John Szwed’s comes to mind), this is the bedrock source. Troupe got him to look at himself with a wider view than most musicians ever communicate (verbally), and Miles dug deep to get to the stories of his life. And it is without a doubt the greatest example of all the possible grammatical uses of the word “motherfucker” ever written.

By Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Miles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Miles: The Autobiography, like the man himself, holds nothing back. He talks about his battles against drugs and racism, and discusses the many women in his life. But above all, Miles talks about music and musicians, including the legends he has played with over the years: Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Trane, Mingus and many others. The man who has given us the most exciting music of recent times has now given us a fascinating and compelling insight into his extraordinary life. 'An engrossing read ...gives fascinating insights into the cult phenomenon' Miles Copeland, Weekend Telegraph 'Magnificently truthful, action packed, raw and…


Book cover of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Dennis McNally Why did I love this book?

It is not possible to have any serious grasp of America in the 20th century without knowing and understanding Louis Armstrong. His story covers a great deal of the Black experience, from the exodus out of the South to the racism of the North. His life exposes the homogenizing machine that is the entertainment industry. And it shows what happens when a genius refuses to accept tragedy. This is the definitive biography of a great American.

By Terry Teachout,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Louis Armstrong was the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century and a giant of modern American culture. He knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts, wrote the finest of all jazz autobiographies - without a collaborator - and created collages that have been compared to the art of Romare Bearden. The ranks of his admirers included Johnny Cash, Jackson Pollock and Orson Welles. Offstage he was witty, introspective and unexpectedly complex, a beloved colleague with an explosive temper whose larger-than-life personality was tougher and more sharp-edged than his worshipping fans ever knew. "Wall Street Journal" arts columnist…


Book cover of The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

Dennis McNally Why did I love this book?

When I began my book I’d been out of graduate school for 25 years. I read deeply to see what I’d missed and discovered what is now called cultural history. It seems to me that a great deal of it is written to a template rather than directly from the facts as discovered. Even though DeVeaux comes out of the academic world, I get no such sense from Bop. It’s brilliant. Immaculately researched and nicely written, it addresses the extraordinary transition of Black music from entertainment-driven (however artful) to art (however entertaining). It’s an important story, and DeVeaux tells it beautifully.

By Scott DeVeaux,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The richest place in America's musical landscape is that fertile ground occupied by jazz. Scott DeVeaux takes a central chapter in the history of jazz - the birth of bebop - and shows how our contemporary ideas of this uniquely American art form flow from that pivotal moment. At the same time, he provides an extraordinary view of the United States in the decades just prior to the civil rights movement. DeVeaux begins with an examination of the Swing Era, focusing particularly on the position of African American musicians. He highlights the role played by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, a…


You might also like...

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

Book cover of Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

Felice Picano Author Of Six Strange Stories and an Essay on H.P. Lovecraft

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Felice's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood.

Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart.

He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano exits his boyhood sooner than most, but with this sense of self intact and armed with a fuller understanding of the world, he is about to enter.

Controversial when it first came out, Ambidextrous was burned on the docks of London in 1989 by Her Majesty Inland Service and decried by many. This reprint, with a Foreword by the author, discusses its banned book history and how it has become a classic depiction used by professionals involved in modern childhood studies.

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

What is this book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood. Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old, possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart. He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz, jazz musicians, and Louisiana?

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 Louisiana.

Jazz Explore 129 books about jazz
Jazz Musicians Explore 33 books about jazz musicians
Louisiana Explore 110 books about Louisiana