The best books about jazz (and a whole lot more)

Who am I?

I've mostly made my living as a feature writer, covering a broad range of subjects—from 9/11 to the Poker Million tournament, Miles Davis to (a film version of) James Joyce’s Ulysses, British soldiers injured in Afghanistan to the Peace One Day campaign—for numerous UK and Irish newspapers and magazines, including GQ, where I was formerly deputy editor, and Esquire, where I was editor-at-large. I've also written extensively about music, jazz in particular; musicians I've interviewed include Nick Cave, Gil Scott-Heron, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, and Maria Schneider. My first book, a biography of the American guitarist Bill Frisell, was published by Faber in the spring of 2022.


I wrote...

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music

By Philip Watson,

Book cover of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music

What is my book about?

Over a period of forty-five years, Bill Frisell established himself as one of the most innovative and influential musicians at work today. A quietly revolutionary guitar hero for our genre-blurring times, he has synthesised many disparate musical elementsfrom jazz to pop, folk to film music, ambient to avant-garde, country to classicalinto one compellingly singular sound.

Described as “the favourite guitarist of many people who agree on little else in music,” Frisell connects to a diverse range of artists and admirers, including Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Vernon/Bon Iver, all of whom feature in the book. Through unprecedented access to the guitarist and interviews with his close family, friends, and associates, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer tells the legendary guitarist’s story for the first time.

The books I picked & why

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But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz

By Geoff Dyer,

Book cover of But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz

Why this book?

Geoff Dyer is one of the modern masters of post-genre literature. He has written numerous pioneering works of creative non-fiction, four novels, two collections of essays, and a study of English critic and fellow polymath John Berger. But Beautiful is his “book about jazz”, an impressionistic and semi-fictional evocation of the lives and music of seven legendary jazz figures—including Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, and Bud Powell—interspersed with scenes from life on the road with Duke Ellington, and ending with an essay on jazz’s vital forces of “tradition, influence, and innovation”. A kind of extended improvisation on themes of inspiration, creativity, struggle, and self-destruction, and with many poetic turns of phrase, the book is the literary equivalent of much of the music I most like and admire: rooted in jazz, yet not defined by it. But Beautiful is brilliantly beyond category. 


Coming Through Slaughter

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of Coming Through Slaughter

Why this book?

Another work that is wonderfully and winningly hard to pin down, Coming Through Slaughter is an imaginative and fragmentary collage of monologue, memoir, interviews, lyrics, photographs, archival material, hospital files—and white space—that builds a novelistic portrait of the mythical dark life and hard times of cornet player Buddy Bolden, one of the originators of jazz in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. From the little that is known about Bolden and his music, Ondaatje shapes an audacious story that is short, cinematic, dream-like, and devastating, a book that incontrovertibly proved once again to me that there are many, many ways to tell the story of a life. 


Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music: Interviews and Tour Notes, England 1985

By Graham Lock,

Book cover of Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music: Interviews and Tour Notes, England 1985

Why this book?

Don’t let the (original) lengthy subtitle, with its nearly forty-year-old date reference, put you off; this is a deeply original and highly engaging account of the music and philosophy of one of America’s most prolific and consistently creative musicians: composer, improviser, educator and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. With a double narrative that deftly alternates between lofty discussions of subjects such as metaphysics, mysticism, language, and astrology, and the daily grind of a challenging twelve-date tour of England by a Braxton quartet in the winter of 1985, Forces in Motion cleverly captures much of the complexity, intelligence, ambition and humour of its uncompromising subject. At one point Lock describes Braxton as “an alchemist, a man who opens doors you didn’t know existed”; the same can be said of the book itself. A perfect marriage of musician and writer. 


Beneath the Underdog

By Charles Mingus,

Book cover of Beneath the Underdog

Why this book?

You might reasonably expect the notorious yet absorbing autobiography of celebrated jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus to contain a series of names, facts, dates, album titles, compositions, and chronologies. And, indeed, some insight into Mingus’s vibrant music and highly creative process. What you’ll discover, however, is a book that is part visceral, self-mythologising confession memoir and part Dionysian fantasy autofiction. Mingus’s unconventional self-portrait is a spiralling work of impassioned creative writing that, despite its often tiresome literary, personal, and, especially, sexual excesses, somehow manages to say more about the man, his mind, and his times than many a fastidiously detailed and faithful study. Wild, ugly, contradictory, angry, tender, and loving, Beneath the Underdoglike many of my very favourite books—exists entirely on its own terms. 


The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music

By Richard Williams,

Book cover of The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music

Why this book?

A book about the creation and meaning of the one jazz album that every music fan seems to own, Miles Davis’s meditative and miraculous 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blueand how it connects to a whole lot more. Loudly trumpeted on its back cover as the record that “influenced the whole course of late twentieth-century music,” The Blue Moment takes the album as a starting point and expands ever outwards to trace its wider roots, contexts, echoes, correspondences, undercurrents, and legacies. It’s quite a ride: from Bauhaus to Brian Eno; from the existential modernism of Antonioni to the minimalism of La Monte Young; from Picasso’s Blue Period to the aesthetics of esteemed German record label ECM. For me, not all of the links and associations, some of which are tenuous at best, stand up. Yet Williams is one of music writing’s most elegant chroniclers and insightful thinkers, and The Blue Moment is rarely less than illuminating throughout.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz musicians, jazz, and New Orleans?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about jazz musicians, jazz, and New Orleans.

Jazz Musicians Explore 21 books about jazz musicians
Jazz Explore 83 books about jazz
New Orleans Explore 65 books about New Orleans

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Farming of Bones, Ship Fever, and Measuring the World if you like this list.