The best jazz biographies & autobiographies (from a jazz lover)

Donald Clarke Author Of Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon
By Donald Clarke

Who am I?

I started buying records 70 years ago. I worked in a car factory for a decade, then landed a job in publishing, having written a couple of magazine articles, and finally got a chance to do what I was born to do: write about my favorite subject. Music has been the most important thing in the world to me ever since I heard the hits of the 1940s on the radio, playing on the kitchen floor while my mother did the ironing. I believe music is a mystery, more important than we can know, in every way: intellectual, psychological, emotional, philosophical. That is why it is such a big business, even if the business itself is often less than salubrious.


I wrote...

Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

By Donald Clarke,

Book cover of Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

What is my book about?

Mine was the first book to make full use of a treasure trove of interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday from the time she was a kid in Baltimore. Her real name is Eleanora Harris; I discovered her birth certificate. Her doomy, gloomy so-called autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, was written to sell to the movies; there was much more to her than that. (Her ghostwriter, Bill Dufty, described her as the funniest woman he had ever known.)

I wanted to write about her because after listening to her music for decades, I knew she was not a tragic figure, but a feisty girl who made a lot of money, spent it all, and mostly did as she pleased. Helen Oakley Dance, her close friend, wrote about my book that "We shall probably have to wait a long time for another life of Billie Holiday to supersede Donald Clarke's achievement." The book is about her music as well as her life.

The books I picked & why

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Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz

By Terry Gibbs, Cary Ginell,

Book cover of Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz

Why this book?

Terry Gibbs played vibes (vibraphone) with several of the most famous big bands during the Swing Era, than formed his own small groups, then led big bands himself starting in 1956. Steeped in Swing, he also held his own with the modernists. Perhaps his most amazing accomplishment was putting together his Dream Band, which recorded at least 68 selections, arranged by all the best arrangers in the business, in four different clubs in Hollywood, mostly in 1959. It was a 'dream band' because although the big band era was over, all the best musicians on the West Coast wanted to play in this one because the music was so much fun. Gibbs was in his 90s when his book came out; he knew how lucky he had been, and his book is full of joy and love.

Life In E-Flat: The Autobiography of Phil Woods

By Phil Woods, Ted Panken,

Book cover of Life In E-Flat: The Autobiography of Phil Woods

Why this book?

Phil Woods left these acerbic notes behind when he died, his personality in every word, hard on himself as on anybody, also sometimes very funny. He was known for having married Charlie Parker's widow after Parker died, and for possessing Parker's alto sax, but Woods was such a master of the instrument that he became almost as influential as Parker. At a Billy Joel recording session in 1977, he casually tossed off a solo on "Just The Way You Are" that made the record a hit. He also recorded with Steely Dan and Paul Simon, toured the world with Quincy Jones, Russia with Benny Goodman, toured with his European Rhythm Machine, then with his own quintet for 20 years. The book has an elegiac tone because the incredibly rich mainstream jazz scene in New York that Woods had known in the 1950s-60s was gone forever.

Wail: The Life of Bud Powell

By Peter Pullman,

Book cover of Wail: The Life of Bud Powell

Why this book?

By the time he became a producer of reissues for Verve Records, Pullman had been immersed in Bud Powell's life and recordings for decades, and produced the best life we have of one of the most important and prodigiously talented pianists who ever lived, and who was one of the inventors of modern jazz. Powell led a chaotic life, complicated by what we would now call a bipolar personality as well as addictions and mistreatment by the law, but Pullman captures it almost day by day, including the club gigs and recording sessions, without ever bogging down in pathos.

Hear Me Talkin' to Ya

By Nat Shapiro, Nat Hentoff,

Book cover of Hear Me Talkin' to Ya

Why this book?

This classic, first published in 1955, collects the memories and anecdotes of a hundred or so members of the jazz world, talking about themselves and each other, and how they admired and learned from each other. The material was culled from over 20 book publishers, magazines, and record companies in the USA and Europe (where jazz was taken seriously from the beginning), starting with New Orleans and coming all the way up to bebop. One of the best bits, from trumpeter Jimmy McPartland about Bix Beiderbecke: "People used to ask Bix to play a chorus just as he had recorded it. He couldn't do it. 'It's impossible...I don't feel the same way twice. That's one of the things I like about jazz, kid, I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?'"

Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf

By Barry Singer,

Book cover of Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf

Why this book?

Back when jazz was popular and popular music was jazz, Andy Razaf was born in Washington DC, a member of the royal family of Madagascar: one source says his name was Andriamanantena Paul Rezafinkarefo, his father a nephew of Queen Ranavalona III. Andy became one of the most successful lyricists of his era. By the time he and Fats Waller co-wrote the black broadway show Hot Chocolates in 1929, Louis Armstrong singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" from the pit, he was at the top of his game. He and Waller wrote "Honeysuckle Rose", "Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now", "Blue, Turning Grey Over You", "The Joint Is Jumpin'", and more; in the early years, they would sell their lead sheets to as many publishers as they could, knowing that the publishers were cheats too. But Razaf also wrote with Eubie Blake ("You're Lucky To Me", "Memories Of You"), James P. Johnson ("A Porter's Love Song To A Chambermaid"), and many others, about 800 songs altogether, some of them still sung around the world. A gentleman to the end, he never had the personal fame he deserved. The book would be worth reading just for the examination of the craft of songwriting.

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