The best books about creative music

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a musician and an author. Many of my mentors and collaborators are members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective organization of African American composers and performers founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. Their farthest-reaching innovation, a form known as “creative music,” transformed the fields of jazz and experimental music by breaking down the barriers that—prior to the advent of the AACM—had separated the disciplines of composition and improvisation. My book Sound Experiments and the other books on the list give readers new insights into the members of the AACM and their groundbreaking music.


I wrote...

Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM

By Paul Steinbeck,

Book cover of Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM

What is my book about?

Founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 and still thriving today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is the most influential collective organization in jazz and experimental music. Sound Experiments offers a sonic history of the collective, analyzing AACM artists’ compositions and formal innovations. The compositions examined in Sound Experiments span the entire history of the AACM, from 1960s and 1970s works by Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton to recent pieces by Wadada Leo Smith, Nicole Mitchell, and the Artifacts trio. Sound Experiments shows how the creators of these extraordinary works pioneered new approaches to instrumentation, notation, conducting, and technology while continually renewing the AACM’s commitment to musical experimentation.

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

The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

Paul Steinbeck Why did I love this book?

Written by AACM composer George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself is a collective autobiography of the organization. The book tells the story of the AACM from an insider’s perspective. The AACM began life as a fledgling non-profit on the South Side of Chicago, but its members had ambitions that were global in scope, and before long, the organization and its music were recognized around the world. The AACM’s history is truly remarkable, and A Power Stronger Than Itself is an indispensable resource for musicians and everyone else who appreciates the organization’s many contributions to contemporary culture.

By George E. Lewis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Power Stronger Than Itself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Founded in 1965 and still active today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is an American institution with an international reputation. George E. Lewis, who joined the collective as a teenager in 1971, establishes the full importance and vitality of the AACM with this communal history, written with a symphonic sweep that draws on a cross-generational chorus of voices and a rich collection of rare images. Moving from Chicago to New York to Paris, and from founding member Steve McCall's kitchen table to Carnegie Hall, "A Power Stronger Than Itself" uncovers a vibrant, multicultural universe and brings…


Book cover of New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique

Paul Steinbeck Why did I love this book?

New Musical Figurations is a profile of AACM composer Anthony Braxton. One of the best-known AACM musicians, Braxton is also one of the most influential: while writing hundreds of compositions and touring the world with his many ensembles, he has also found time to teach some of the best composers and improvisers of the twenty-first century, including Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey. Braxton continues to compose and perform today, and New Musical Figurations explores the ideas and philosophies that motivate his creative practices and draw new generations of listeners to his music.

By Ronald M. Radano,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By relating biography to the cultural and musical contours of contemporary American life, Ronald M. Radano observes jazz practice as part of the complex interweaving of postmodern culture - a culture that has eroded conventional categories defining jazz and the jazz musician. Radano accomplishes all this by analyzing the creative life of Anthony Braxton. Born in 1945, Braxton is not only a virtuoso jazz saxophonist but an innovative theoretician and composer of experimental art music. His refusal to conform to the conventions of official musical culture has helped unhinge the very ideologies on which definitions of "jazz", "black music," "popular…


Book cover of The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958

Paul Steinbeck Why did I love this book?

In The Freedom Principle, Chicago music critic John Litweiler examines the AACM’s connections to the experimental styles of jazz that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Figures such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were important early influences on the AACM, and Litweiler shows how their work became the foundation for the even more radical advances of AACM composers and improvisers. The Freedom Principle is also replete with wonderful stories from the AACM’s first two decades, including Henry Threadgill’s account of how he created the hubkaphone, a percussion instrument made from salvaged hubcaps.

By John Litweiler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

}Ornette Coleman's discovery some thirty years ago that his band's music was indeed a "free thing" marked the beginning of a revolution in jazz. From the early free-form experiments, Coleman's dancing blues, and John Coltrane's saxophone cries and sheets of sound, to the brittle, melancholy modes of Miles Davis, vibrant, sophisticated new jazz idioms proliferated. In this critical and historical survey of today's jazz, noted critic John Litweiler traces the evolution of the new music through such artists as Coleman, Coltrane, Davis, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, and others. He also addresses questions such as:…


Book cover of The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now

Paul Steinbeck Why did I love this book?

Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete’s book shares its title with the book described above, but its subject is completely different. Instead of focusing on the AACM’s music, this book centers on visual art related to the AACM, including paintings, sculptures, and installations created by AACM members such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Douglas Ewart, and Roscoe Mitchell. Published in conjunction with a major exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Beckwith and Roelstraete’s book is a visual feast and a tribute to the AACM’s boundless creativity.

By Naomi Beckwith (editor), Dieter Roelstraete,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, African American artists and musicians grappled with new language and forms inspired by the black nationalist turn in the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Principle, which accompanies an exhibition on the topic at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, traces their history and shows how it continues to inform contemporary artists around the world. The book coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a still-flourishing organization of Chicago musicians who challenge jazz's boundaries. Combining archival materials such as brochures, photographs,…


Book cover of The Mandorla Letters: For the Hopeful

Paul Steinbeck Why did I love this book?

AACM member Nicole Mitchell Gantt’s The Mandorla Letters is a companion to her series of Mandorla Awakening compositions, which use music and text to imagine new societies that “embrace dualities” and empower people to live in harmony with one another—and with the natural world. “Part memoir, part manifesto, part Black speculative novella,” The Mandorla Letters is an extraordinary work by the figure who best embodies the AACM’s philosophy of creativity as a way of life.

By Nicole Mitchell Gantt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Afrofuturist memoir on jazz, collaboration, and the search for collective well-being

Part memoir, part manifesto, part Black speculative novella, The Mandorla Letters: for the hopeful blurs boundaries between this world and an imagined future whose overlapping wisdoms make cooperation with our natural environment a central concern for collective thriving. Extending her ongoing musical project Mandorla Awakening, Nicole Mitchell Gantt explores inequity, the musical legacies of jazz, creative music, and intercultural collaboration to guide readers toward an alternative society that disrupts binaries, hierarchies, and western ideas of progress. Paying homage to artists, musicians, and writers who have inspired her, Mitchell Gantt…


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz, Illinois, and jazz musicians?

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

Jazz Explore 129 books about jazz
Illinois Explore 83 books about Illinois
Jazz Musicians Explore 33 books about jazz musicians