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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
From Richard's list on The best books to understand the culture and community of mid-20th century music and musicians.
I was writing my novel in 2013, but 20 years earlier I’d picked up a book by the jazz drummer Arthur Taylor. I didn’t realize how much it influenced me until I went back to it again and again as I worked to get dialog and cadence and the ‘feel’ of jazz on paper. I prefer memoirs because I want to hear the shorthand, slang, and shortcuts artists take. This book has that and more. Taylor interviews the best of the best — Ornette, Roach, Dizzy, Nina. I like to think had my protagonist been real, he’d have been included in this list. I owe a lot to this book and if you’re looking to learn not just about jazz music, but jazz culture and life, this is a great start.
From David's list on The best books on the social history of jazz.
Christopher Hall made a convincing case that we should think of music not as a thing but as a social activity: musicking. No book does a better job getting inside jazz musicking than Thinking in Jazz. Paul Berliner is a veteran musicologist and trumpet player who spent 15 years embedded in the world of jazz, learning to play jazz and carrying out interviews with dozens of musicians, including the likes of Art Farmer, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Tommy Flanagan, Emily Remler, Barry Harris, Doc Cheatham, Carmen Lundy, and Wynton Marsalis. He analyzes musical examples drawn from the first years of jazz to the present. Most impressively, he takes us into the lightning-fast interplay of muscle memory, spontaneous inspiration, and group dialogue that constitutes jazz at its finest. There is so much going on in the moment of creation and it’s incredible how well Berliner captures it all. Your admiration for the art of improvisation will jump a few notches even if you’re already astonished at what your ears are taking in.
From Dennis's list on The best books about jazz and the story it tells about America.