The best books about jazz through the stories of jazz musicians

James Kaplan Author Of Sinatra: The Chairman
By James Kaplan

Who am I?

Now it can be said: three decades ago, when Vanity Fair assigned me to write a profile of Miles Davis to accompany an excerpt of his about-to-be-published memoir, I presented myself as a jazz expert — when in fact my enthusiasm for the music far outweighed my knowledge. But in the years since I’ve learned a lot about America’s great art form, in part through researching my Frank Sinatra biography — Sinatra worked with many important jazz musicians — and now in working on my latest book, about Miles and two of the geniuses who collaborated with him on his historic album Kind of Blue, the saxophonist John Coltrane and the pianist Bill Evans.

I wrote...

Sinatra: The Chairman

By James Kaplan,

Book cover of Sinatra: The Chairman

What is my book about?

James Kaplan goes behind the legend to give us the man in full, in his many guises and aspects: peerless singer, (sometimes) powerful actor, business mogul, tireless lover, and associate of the powerful and infamous.

The story of 'Ol' Blue Eyes" continues the day after Frank claimed his Academy Award in 1954 and was beginning to reestablish himself as the top recording artist in music. Frank's life post-Oscar was incredibly dense: in between recording albums and singles, he often shot four or five movies a year; did TV show and nightclub appearances; started his own label, Reprise; and juggled his considerable commercial ventures (movie production, the restaurant business, even prizefighter management) alongside his famous and sometimes notorious social activities and commitments.

The books I picked & why

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By Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe,

Book cover of Miles

Why this book?

Scabrous, scathing, hilarious, penetrating — all adjectives that can be applied to Miles (1926- 1991) himself, and also to his American Book Award-winning 1990 memoir, which is marked not only by Davis’s profound wisdom about the music he helped revolutionize in the mid 20th Century and his strong opinions about the multitude of jazz figures he encountered in every era from the 1940s to the 80s, but also by the repeated use (sometimes several times per page) of a certain lively, all-purpose twelve-letter expletive. The book’s detractors claim the book is more Quincy Troupe than Miles, but I can attest, having interviewed the great trumpeter at some length in the late 1980s, that Troupe did a masterly job at bringing out the voice and personality of one of jazz’s true immortals.

To Be, or Not... to Bop

By Dizzy Gillespie, Al Fraser,

Book cover of To Be, or Not... to Bop

Why this book?

Gillespie (1917-1993), who was Miles Davis’s idol, was another revolutionary figure in jazz. In the early 1940s, the great trumpeter and the tragic saxophone genius Charlie Parker co-created the new music called bebop — a genre that displaced swing, introducing complex new harmonies and lightning-fast rhythms, controversially changing jazz from the music you danced to, to the music you sat and listened to. Gillespie was a playful and genial spirit who could play his horn higher and faster than anyone, and his memoir, in the form of testimony by numerous musicians who knew and played with him, interspersed with his commentary, is suffused with the Diz’s generous and acute understanding of America’s greatest artform.

What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist (Studies in Jazz)

By Dave Liebman,

Book cover of What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist (Studies in Jazz)

Why this book?

Saxophonist, flutist, and jazz educator Dave Liebman (born in 1946) was the son of two Jewish Brooklyn schoolteachers, who envisioned the same life for him — all the more so after he contracted polio at age nine. Much to their dismay, Liebman had different ideas. Because he couldn’t play sports, he nourished a passionate interest in music, first taking piano lessons, then moving on to his real interest, the saxophone. A strong student with an interest in history, he might have followed his parents’ wishes and become a teacher — until the night, at age 16, he took a date to the New York jazz club Birdland and heard the saxophone giant John Coltrane for the first time, and realized the one and only thing he wanted to do with his life.

Written in the form of a dialogue with the jazz writer and musician Lewis Porter, What It Is is not only the story of Liebman’s successful career but a constantly enlightening analysis of the music itself. Lest this sound dry, Liebman tells it all straight from the shoulder, Brooklyn-style, with deep psychological insight about the many players he’s known along the way and an infectious love for jazz.

Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes

By Hampton Hawes, Don Asher,

Book cover of Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes

Why this book?

I’d pair this painfully honest book by an important jazz artist who, like far too many of his peers, happened to be a heroin addict — and also like far too many, died too early — with a similar work, Straight Life, by the saxophonist Art Pepper and his wife, Laurie Pepper; both men did prison time for drug-related offences. Like Miles, Hawes comes alive on the page — but in a kinder and more philosophical way. His addiction is only part of who he is: “Everything you do is important and connected with everything else whether you’re playing piano, harp at St. Peter’s gate, or checkers in the park. The way you get up in the morning, smell the leaves… scratch a dog’s head and say hello to some kids, drive your car, go to the can, feel the sun — that’s where imagination and soul come from.” But with Pepper, everything is colored by his constant wrestle with the Devil: “I was given a gift of being able to endure things, to accept certain things, to be able to accept punishment for things that I did wrong against society…. And I was able to go to prison. I never informed on anyone. As for music, anything I’ve done has been something that I’ve done ‘off the top.’ I’ve never studied, never practiced. I’m one of those people, I knew it was there. All I had to do was reach for it, just do it.” He reached for it, and found it — and then lost it, too soon.

Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz

By Stanley Crouch,

Book cover of Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz

Why this book?

Crouch (1945-2020) was many things: jazz drummer, poet, philosopher, novelist, biographer, critic. In that last role he was, as the publisher’s notes to this indispensable book of essays on jazz and related matters puts it, “the perennial bull in the china shop of African-American intelligentsia.” Crouch relished controversy — he hated fusion, the popular blend of jazz and rock that came along in the 1970s; he abhorred rap; he even had unkind words to say about Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He was passionately contrarian on racial matters, refusing to hew to any politically correct line. He detested simplistic thinking in any form. Calling Bird, Clint Eastwood’s widely praised 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker “very bad,” Crouch wrote of the “stack of glowing reviews… that reveal the extent to which many who would be sympathetic to Negroes are prone to an unintentional, liberal racism. That racism reduces the complexities of the Afro-American world to a dark, rainy pit in which Negroes sweat, suffer, dance a little, mock each other, make music, and drop-dead, releasing, at last, a burden of torment held at bay only by drugs.” I was privileged to know Crouch a little bit, and can report that talking with him — he listened as well as he spoke — always made me feel smarter. Reading this book will make you feel the same way.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz musicians, jazz, and Charlie Parker (jazz musician)?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Notes and Tones: Musician-To-Musician Interviews, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, and Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong if you like this list.