The best books about jazz

Dennis McNally Author Of On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
By Dennis McNally

The Books I Picked & Why

Blues People

By Leroi Jones

Blues People

Why 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.


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In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz

By Donald M. Marquis

In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz

Why 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.


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Miles

By Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe

Miles

Why 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.


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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

By Terry Teachout

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Why 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.


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The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

By Scott DeVeaux

The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

Why this book?

When I began my book 61, 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.


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